Most people who have joined the anti-nuclear energy activities in recent years will have no trouble recognizing a man on a wheelchair with that determined look in his eye.
However, few are aware of the bitter-sweet story behind the man, Yilan Charlei Chen Foundation president Chen Hsi-nan (陳錫南), a wealthy entrepreneur turned anti-nuclear activist whose life took an unexpected turn 17 years ago when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Chen had a difficult childhood. He lost his father, a sailor, at the age of eight to a shipwreck, a tragic accident that forced his mother to single-handedly support the family and her four children by doing part-time housekeeping jobs.
“It was a really tough time for my family. I was forced to study in five different elementary schools. Most of the time, I had no idea where my next meal would come from,” Chen said.
Given his family’s financial predicament, Chen said his life was unlike that of an ordinary child. He had to collect waste tires everyday after school so that his family could use them to start a fire for cooking.
He also had to scavenge for fish heads discarded by canning factories near the Nanfangao fishing port in Yilan County and bring them home for dinner.
However, these hardships also taught Chen the value of determination and perseverance.
Dreaming of a better life, Chen’s family moved to Taipei when he was 11.
Chen first tried to make a living by selling blank tapes on the street. The job not only honed his sales skills, but also helped him later on when he founded a company selling motherboards and personal computers when he was 27.
By the time he was 40, his net worth had risen to hundreds of millions of New Taiwan dollars.
However, adversity followed success. While playing golf with his friends, Chen, then 45, found himself losing control of his hands.
He went to a doctor the following day and found out that he had Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.
“If Chen had not been forced to leave the electronics industry because of his illness, [Hon Hai Precision Industry Co chairman] Terry Gou (郭台銘) would not have had the chance to become the man he is today,” one of Chen’s close friends said.
Gou first became the wealthiest man in Taiwan in 2005 with a net worth of US$3.2 billion. He was ranked the third-richest person in the country by Forbes magazine in March last year.
Despite his condition, Chen, now 62, has maintained a positive attitude in life.
“Fortunately, Parkinson’s disease is chronic and I still have plenty of time to change my life’s direction,” he said.
Recalling how he got involved in the anti-nuclear campaign, Chen said it was the sight of a radioactive cloud presumably caused by Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear catastrophe in 2011 passing over a building in Taiwan.
“I was thinking then: If the disaster had occurred in a small, densely populated country like Taiwan, it could have caused much more severe damage,” Chen said.
Despite sharing the same general goal as other anti-nuclear activists, Chen decided to take a different approach to raise public awareness of the potential dangers of nuclear energy.
In an effort to determine the real reasons why Taiwan is ill-suited for nuclear energy technology, Chen brought together a group of local and overseas nuclear experts to conduct studies on the problem of nuclear waste disposal, the production cost for nuclear-generated electricity and possible alternatives to nuclear power generation.