A week after more than 1,000 protesters took to the street on March 16 to preserve the Losheng (Happy Life) Sanatorium (樂生療養院), some of them gathered at the complex to reflect on their campaign. It was a jovial affair, as young activists chatted with and teased the residents of the leprosy sanatorium. There was even a cake to celebrate the 77th birthday Chen Tsai-tien (陳再添), a long-time resident.
Residents have rarely been so content. The complex was opened in 1930 by the Japanese colonial government to segregate those with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, amid fear that the disease could infect the general population.
“Each one of us has been hurt, rejected and discriminated against. We were afraid of being hurt again, so we closed the door and lived amongst ourselves. It took a long time for us to open up,” says Chen.
Leprosy patients had very little contact with the outside world for the first 40 years of the sanatorium’s existence. That changed in 1973 when a group of students from Fu Jen Catholic University (輔仁大學) came to Losheng to visit the residents and offer care. At first, the students were ignored.
“We were hostile towards people from outside because they treated us like zoo animals,” says long-time resident Tang Hsiang-ming (湯祥明).
“The students were only allowed to visit certain areas because sanatorium authorities didn’t want people to know of the harsh conditions inside. But they didn’t give up. They came every week. Little by little, we became closer.”
The students played music and held dumpling parties inside the sanatorium and every now and then took residents on an outing. Gradually, the patients felt more confident and less ashamed of the disease and their disfigurements. With the arrival of the students and the growing confidence of the sanatorium’s residents, authorities could no longer keep Losheng from opening up.
Over the course of several decades, the sanatorium has become the only home for the residents, a place where they feel safe. They planted flowers and tended a vegetable garden or helped out at households where fellow residents were in need.
“We looked after each other. We were a family,” Tang says.
Then the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) came with a plan to build a maintenance depot on the site of the sanatorium.
In the name of development
In 1994, the central government sold the hill where the sanatorium stood to the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation for the construction of part of the Sinjhuang MRT Line. Losheng residents were not consulted. After learning about the plan, they pleaded their case to the government, but to no avail.
Without consent from the residents, the first stage of demolition work began in 2002. At the time, Lee Tien-pei (李添培) lived with his family of seven at House No. 100 (100號), living quarters built for patients with children. When the building was torn down, Lee’s family was asked to leave the sanatorium. Other families were similarly affected.
Meanwhile, Chen, who lived in Tainan House (台南舍), one of the remaining buildings, watched anxiously as bulldozers flattened his neighbors’ homes.
“We were told not to worry because Tainan House was not slated for demolition,” Chen says. “But every day we woke up and saw bulldozers digging away our home. Our hearts bled.”
Soon, the demolition work caused structural damage to the rest of the compound. Tainan House started to crack, the floor tilted and windows and doors broke. Without communicating with residents face to face, sanatorium authorities ordered them to move immediately, threatening to cut off their supply of water and electricity.
Past tenants vividly recall how they were forced to relocate to the prefabricated sheds that they have inhabited ever since.
“It was a rainy night. All of us were told to move at once. We didn’t even have time to pack. It was chaotic,” Chen says.
The next morning, residents went back to pick up their belongings, only to find that their home had been razed to the ground.
“It stung my heart to see my collection of books, paintings, ink and paintbrushes buried under the debris,” recalls Tang, who says that reading helped him get through the dark days of isolation.
The forced evictions have also resulted in serious health problems and even death for some former patients.
“Most of us moved two or three times. Some moved five times. Others were injured when they were moving and had to have their legs amputated. A few became paralyzed and passed away soon after. A blind patient fell to his death shortly after the move because he didn’t know his way around the new environment,” Lee says.
A group of students came to Losheng in 2004 to help residents preserve their home. They called the forced eviction of the aged residents a violation of their human rights. The activists also say that the sanatorium is an important site that bears witness to the history of Taiwan’s public health. Meetings, discussions and other activities were held inside the sanatorium to facilitate understanding and gain support. One day, the then-director of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights (台灣人權促進會), Wu Hao-jen (吳豪人), showed up and told the residents that they no longer lived under Martial law and had the right to live in freedom and without fear.
“It was a wake-up call. We knew we had to fight for our rights from that moment on,” Tang says.
In 2005, the former lepers united to form the Losheng Self-Help Organization. Together with student activists and preservationists their campaign has laid bare government deception.
In 2006, pressed by the hunger strike held by young activists, the now defunct Council of Cultural Affairs (CCA, 文建會) proposed a plan that allowed for the preservation of 90 percent of what’s left of the sanatorium without delaying the line’s completion. The Executive Yuan (行政院) later rejected the proposal.
In April 2007, more than 6,000 demonstrators took to the street in Taipei to support Losheng’s preservation. The demonstrators demanded that partial operations of the MRT line start before completing the depot.
Meanwhile, other Losheng supporters like civil engineer Wang Wei-min (王偉民) warned that construction might trigger landslides because the sanatorium sits on a fault line.
Meanwhile, the county government was accused of fostering antagonism between Losheng residents and inhabitants of the Sinjhuang (新莊) area. In March 2007, along with Sinjhuang mayor and several city councilors, then Taipei County Commissioner Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋) led a demonstration of 10,000 local residents. Chou said that Losheng was an obstacle to the completion of the MRT line and thus the area’s growth and development.
“Thousands of people surrounded the main gate [of Losheng]. They shouted the slogan through speakers: ‘The MRT can’t run if Losheng doesn’t move,’” Chen recalls.
Construction of the maintenance depot resumed in 2008.
Remembered as one of the movement’s fearless leaders, Lu Te-chang (呂德昌) was said to be heartbroken after the demolition and passed away in 2011. Before he died, Lu was often seen wandering through the sanatorium, looking for his demolished home, distraught and seeming lost.
The Sinjhuang MRT Line launched services last January, extending from Daqiaotou Station in Taipei to Fu Jen University Station in New Taipei City. In December, Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) and New Taipei City (新北市) Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫) jointly announced that the MRT line would be in full operation this year, while the maintenance depot remains unfinished. It was exactly like the proposal to run partial operation made by the preservationists and repeatedly dismissed as technically unfeasible by Taipei City’s Department of Rapid Transit Systems (DORTS) a few years ago.
“At that moment, it was clear that the declaration that ‘the MRT can’t run if Losheng doesn’t move’ was a blatant lie,” Lee says.
Wang’s prediction unfortunately came true. Inside the sanatorium and at the Huilung Hospital, cracks have appeared on walls, and sinkholes on the grounds of the complex have grown wider, indicating that landslides occurred soon after construction started in 2009. Buildings including I Yuan (怡園), a facility used to house patients with mental disorders and now the residency of Lan and 92-year-old Lin Chueh (林卻), have repeatedly cracked and been re-cemented. Columns inside the Buddhist shrine are slanted, while the nearby library was recently rebuilt due to structural damage.
After several suspensions, construction was resumed last month despite the fact that DORTS has yet to solve the landslide issue.
Today, only one fourth of the original sanatorium complex remains standing, eroded and fenced in. Nearby at the prefabricated sheds, the aged residents carry out daily chores, seemingly oblivious to the sound of the rumbling heavy machinery in full operation on the construction site.
Years of struggle have taken its toll, and the number of residents is rapidly dwindling.
“For decades, we have lived in fear. It saddens me to think that when I first served as the president [of the self-help association], there were over 400 of us. Now only 186 remain,” says Lee, who is the honorary chairman of Losheng’s self-help association.
For the remaining campaigners, each protest becomes an exhausting task to tackle. To wheelchair-bound residents like Chen, a day on the street means no water intake because going to the toilet is difficult for some. Some have to rely on painkillers to get through the day, and fewer people are physically capable of joining the fight. But they persist.
“I have seen and lived through inhumanity. But people are forgetful. Losheng needs to stay to remind people not to repeat the same mistake,” Tang says.