Mon, Feb 14, 2005 - Page 3 News List

Lepers don't want to leave their home

PRICE OF PROGRESS The cost of constructing the Hsinchuang MRT line includes the destruction of the Happy Life Leprosy Hospital -- but not everyone agrees

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

For 73-year-old Tung Hsiang-ming (湯祥明), Lunar New Year is not a time for family reunions. Since he was sent to the Happy Life Leprosy Hospital in Sinjhuang, Taipei County, in 1951, Tung has spent each holiday with other lepers in the once secluded sanatorium. Still, hot-pot dinners and red envelopes brought some joy to Tung and his fellow patients. This year, however, was different.

Fears of relocation to a new hospital facility -- one with iron-barred windows -- has marred their happiness.

In 2003, Taipei County officials began demolishing the 70-year-old hospital community built under Japanese colonial rule to make room for the Taipei Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system's Xinshuang Line.

Banyan trees were uprooted, elegant Japanese-styled houses were torn down, and old patients were moved from their homes to prefabricated sheds.

With negotiations with the government appearing less and less fruitful, the frustrated patients knew that soon the rest of the complex would be razed to the ground.

For Tung and other 300 lepers, the demolition of Happy Life was the most unwelcome news for the Lunar New Year.

"When the society turned its back on me and ostracized me in the 1950s, I found peace here at Happy Life. Happy Life is my home and the other patients are my family. I don't want to move," Tung said, sitting in a small pre-fab shanty crammed with a plank bed, TV set, tabletop gas burner and cooking utensils.

For many other lepers, the Happy Life is not just a verdant hospital complex. It is a place where they lived out the pain of parting with their families and where they survived the devastations of leprosy. It is home.

Since many of the older patients were cut off from society and their families decades ago, they now have few ties to the outside world.

Huang Jing-liang (黃金涼), who was sent by the Japanese colonial regime to Happy Life when she was 14, has spent most of her life in the segregated hospital.

"I've lived here for more than 60 years without contact with my family. If Happy Life is not my home, what is?" the 75-year-old Huang said.

For these people, the new Huilung Community Hospital, where the Taipei County Government plans to relocate them, can never replace Happy Life.

For the government, however, the MRT project is crucial.

When the Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) visited Happy Life and the newly-built Huilung Community Hospital last month, the conflict over transportation project and rights of the patients flared up.

"If patients refuse to move to the new hospital, the hospital should improve its facilities and listen more to the patients," Lu said.

"However, the MRT is a nationally significant project. Once such an important project is delayed, the nation will lose a considerable amount of money. Who is going to pay for this?" she said.

According to the county government, changing the route of the Xinshuang MRT line in order to preserve Happy Life would cost more than NT$2 billion (US$63 million) and delay the project's completion by more than three years.

But are the MRT line and patients' rights mutually exclusive? Many city planning experts believe not.

"It is possible to preserve Happy Life as historical and cultural site with the MRT trains running past it. It could be a shared space for modern technology and historical heritage," said Hsia Chu-joe (夏鑄九), a professor at National Taiwan University's Graduate Institute of Building and Planning.

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