Wed, Jul 03, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Refugees “squatting” on a gold mine

In the first of a two-part series, the ‘Taipei Times’ examines the history of Huaguang Community and the controversial demolition of the neighborhood from the viewpoint of residents

By Ho Yi  /  Staff reporter

The long struggle

Having paid taxes and been provided with electricity, running water and official residency registration, or hukou (戶口), for all their lives, the residents suddenly found themselves considered to be illegal squatters and defendants in court. Except for a few households that reached settlements with the ministry, all the others lost their cases and had to compensate the ministry for “illegally profiting” from their occupation of the land. To make things worse for the economically disadvantaged residents, the government froze their bank accounts and seized one-third of their salaries to make sure that compensation is paid.

To 55-year-old Brother Lee, who ran a breakfast stall that was set up by his father next to their home more than 50 years ago, the forced eviction and fine of NT$700,000 have been devastating.

“They took everything. They sold and cashed my stocks, took the last NT$1,050 in my bank account,” he says. Evicted from his childhood home and with his small business uprooted, the unemployed Brother Lee now lives with a friend.

Cheng Wei-hui faces a similarly daunting situation. The government seized her bank account earlier this year. She now works odd jobs, earning NT$10,000 a month.

“I am a middle-aged, single, childless woman who doesn’t have a steady job. I am going to take the debt to my grave,” she says. “Every morning I wake up, I think of the debt that keeps adding up. But I can’t afford to rent a place elsewhere.”

Apart from the back rents for the past five years, residents have to pay daily fees for using the land until they tear down their own houses. For the recalcitrant ones, the central government sends in bulldozers to do the job, and charges them demolition costs two or three times higher than the going rate, according to residents.

Cheng Wei-hui says residents are constantly “pestered with phone calls and visits” by prosecutors and staff from the Taipei Detention Center (台北看守所), which owns most of the land in Huaguang, as well as police officers, asking them to move away. Outspoken tenants like Cheng Wei-hui are often “targeted.”

“The police have shown up at my door telling me to leave. Everyone has been threatened in one way or another,” she says.

Some elderly residents have died from the stress. Due to massive debt incurred by MOJ fines, 72-year-old Hsu Chu-ju (許竹菊) felt she had no other choice and hired demolition workers in January to tear down her soya milk shop that had been in business for more than 50 years. She died of shock on the same day.

Up in smoke

Arson has also been a worrying concern for Huaguang residents as fires often “mysteriously” break out in squatter communities set for demolition and urban renewal projects. Past examples include the KMT veterans’ settlement on Linsen North Road (林森北路), which was partly burned down in 1997 before it was turned into Linsen Park (林森公園).

In 2008, a fire destroyed a section of Huaguang. It started in a house without electricity and running water that had been empty for years. The fire investigation report, however, insisted that a faulty electrical circuit caused the blaze. Three years later, a fire broke out in another vacant house on the second day of the Lunar New Year, burning down more than 15 homes. This time, it was arson, but the arsonist was never caught.

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