Derelict houses, walls partially demolished, lie scattered with old family photos, stuffed animals and heaps of torn, well-worn furniture. Some have been razed to the ground. One street away, the grand Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall looms in stark contrast to the nearly deserted neighborhood where few households remain standing, inhabited only by those who cannot afford to move elsewhere and are now mired in debt.
Having lost her job during the 2008 economic crisis, 50-year-old Cheng Wei-hui (鄭偉慧) is burdened with fines of NT$1 million for living in the house she was born and raised in. Her neighbor surnamed Chiu (邱), who is now in his 70s, owes more than NT$4 million. Chiu’s family has lived in Huaguang for five generations, decades before the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime’s 1949 retreat to Taiwan.
On the other side of the community, 88-year-old Lee I-ching (李義清) ekes out a living by selling odds and ends salvaged from other people’s garbage. Like countless boys and young men, the-then teenage Lee was forced from his rural home in Fujian Province by the KMT that desperately needed soldiers to fight its doomed battles against the Communists during the Chinese Civil War. He eventually ended up in Taiwan in 1948. He now lives with his daughter, who works odd jobs from dawn until late at night and is stuck with a fine of NT$900,000.
For decades, the 12-hectare Huaguang Community (華光社區), which is located in the heart of Taipei, was home to the poor, the elderly and the disadvantaged — until, that is, it became prime real estate. The area will soon be flattened to make way for a glitzy, upmarket neighborhood inspired by Tokyo’s Roppongi district. The process of forced evictions by the central government began a few years ago, and there was no relocation plan for the residents. To facilitate evictions, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), which owns the land, filed lawsuits against residents for “illegally” occupying state properties, resulting in fines to residents that range from a few hundred thousand New Taiwan dollars to several million. Most inhabitants have been forced to leave. Others have died while fighting for their right to stay.
“I was taught to love my country, but I didn’t know the country I loved was like this,” Cheng Wei-hui says. “It gives money to big corporations and condemns us people to death.”
From prison to palace
Surrounded by present-day Jinhua Street (金華街), Hangzhou South Road (杭州南路) and Jinshan South Road (金山南路), Huaguang used to be known as the Prison Gate (監獄口). Open in 1904 under the Japanese colonial government, it was one of the country’s first modern penitentiaries and was outfitted with on-site dormitories for prison staff. The KMT government took over the facility upon its arrival and continued to use it as a prison and detention center. Prison personnel, courthouses and judicial institutes took over the dormitories, while a large number of low-ranking public servants, unable to obtain living quarters, were allowed to build houses in the area.
Wang Yu-chi’s (王禹奇) father came to Taiwan in 1949 and served as a bodyguard for Cheng Yan-fen (鄭彥棻), a politician who later became a minister of justice.
“Back then, civil servants and military personnel were taught to believe that the relocation to Taiwan was only temporary and that buying houses would mean they didn’t want to return to China…. When my father married my mother in 1961 and wanted to start a family here, all the available dormitories had been filled. So the minister [Cheng Yan-fen] said to him: ‘the land is ours [the ministry’s], so don’t worry, just build your house here. If you need building materials, take some from the ministry,’” the 51-year-old Wang says.