Those living at the Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium (樂生療養院) have recently noticed something different about their living space, something many can’t take their eyes off — a Christmas tree made with caps from antibiotic bottles.
The mosaic, consisting of hundreds of the circular plastic objects colored in bright red, yellow, green, blue and white, is the first Christmas tree the institution has installed in its wards since it was built in 1930 to isolate individuals with leprosy, or Hansen’s disease.
ENTER THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS
In the past, due to budget constraints and concerns over infection, seasonal decoration was restricted to exterior parts of the buildings.
“This year, it’s all about bringing the spirit in,” said Vinia Yu (游麗芬), a senior official at the sanatorium.
The nurses who came up with the Christmas tree idea began collecting used caps from antibiotic bottles several months ago, and stayed late after work to hand-stick the “tree” on the wall.
“The purpose is to shed a different light on the meaning of life through recycled goods. The caps may seem useless and disposable, but when pieced together, they form a totally different landscape,” said Yu.
She explained that most residents at Losheng have experienced strong feelings of inferiority because they were sent to the institute under a compulsory quarantine policy enforced by the Japanese colonial government and continued by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) until 1962.
While many residents still think they don’t measure up and are in constant search for some meaning in life, they hope that the tree delivers a simple message, maybe even an answer, to the quest: that value can be found even in the quotidian.
“Hansen’s disease was greatly feared in the early days because it was believed to be highly contagious and incurable,” said Lin Chin-feng (林慶豐), superintendent of Losheng, the only government-run leprosy colony in Taiwan.
Before the quarantine ban was lifted, Taiwanese falling victim to the chronic bacterial disease of the skin were confined involuntarily to the institute.
At its height, there were 1,000 residents and 60 buildings on the 90,750 ping, self-sustained community. Designed for lifelong isolation, the sanatorium has a complete sewage and water purification system, power equipment, laundry room, barbershop, cafeteria, library, tile factory and worship facilities.
WORLD HERITAGE SITE
Today, with the discovery of effective treatment, there are only 189 patients at the sanatorium, at an average age of 78. Less than 1,000 other individuals are living with Hansen’s disease nationwide.
Despite the success of medicine and the near extinction of the disease, Lin called attention to the aging problem of the existing leprosy population, which may need more attention and spiritual support.
“Leprosy, like other diseases in history, is a public health issue that concerns everyone and should not be forgotten,” said Lin, who is hoping to secure NT$1.2 billion from the government next year to create a comprehensive park which includes a museum and long-term health care institute.
In the meantime, the Ministry of Culture has selected Losheng as one of Taiwan’s 17 potential world heritage sites, because it bears testimony to medical history, hospital architectural history and human rights history.
“There is still more work to do,” Lin said, as he introduced the Christmas tree and other holiday festivities planned for the coming months. Of course, for residents the tree is just the beginning in a whole slew of events meant to ring in the festive season and a new year.
TREE OF LIFE
“I’m going to give out lots of gifts and cards for Christmas because I remember receiving lots of them from priests when I was a kid,” Wu Hsi-mei (吳西梅), a Losheng resident for more than 50 years, said happily.
Wu first arrived at the sanatorium as a teenager and has become so attached to the place that she stayed on. The 66-year-old vegetable vendor only has a minor deformity so she volunteers to look after others she calls “family members.”
Like other residents, whenever she walks past the tree, she stops and ponders the message that the recycled caps symbolize.
“This is life,” she said. “You can have a full life. It just depends on how you live it.”