A chance encounter between a 72-year-old Taiwan-born urologist who lives in the US and a homeless inventor has led to an unlikely partnership that could save the lives of homeless and displaced people.
A graduate from Kaohsiung Medical College, the predecessor to Kaohsiung Medical University, Jong Chen (陳榮良) immigrated to the US in 1970 and began practicing medicine in Sacramento, California, in 1977.
Over the past four decades, Chen has established strong networks in the Californian capital, where he occasionally arranges meetings between local political figures and government officials from Taiwan.
It is also where he met Mike Williams, a once successful inventor in the US’ medical and dental industry who ended up homeless, and gave his life a much-needed second chance.
Despite holding about 20 patents — including one for the first intra-oral camera and another for a wire catheter camera for heart surgery — Williams found himself at rock bottom after his home went into foreclosure in 2009 and he lost a large part of his savings in a scam.
Williams began living in his car with only a laptop, a few items of clothing and a mug, which his five-year-old granddaughter had given him as a gift.
However, he soon had to sell the vehicle and take shelter in a dumpster.
When Williams thought his life could not get any worse, he was one day severely beaten by two men while resting in a Sacramento park.
However, the incident turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise, as it brought Williams into contact with Chen, who he otherwise would never have had the chance to meet.
Chen not only treated Williams’ prostate injury, but also helped get him off the streets. Chen partnered with Williams to develop an idea Williams had for inventing secure survival pods for homeless and displaced people.
The pair’s story was picked up by US media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, provoking a fervent public response and discussions about a potential movie deal, which could bring their story to the silver screen.
Remembering back to his first encounter with Williams, Chen said that while it was incomprehensible to him that someone like Williams could end up on the streets, he was also fully aware that helping the inventor did not address the prevalent problem of homelessness.
“So I asked Williams how come an educated man like himself did not try to find a way to help himself and others like him … After hearing about the despair and torment he felt when being looked down upon, I pledged to offer my assistance if he could think up a solution,” Chen said.
It was then that Williams partnered with Chen to build the survival pods, with the latter renting a downtown apartment for the former to start a new life.
Speaking about his business venture with Williams, Chen said the survival pods would provide for basic human needs, like water and electricity, and could also be used to shelter people living in areas affected by natural disasters.
Chen said he hopes to find a Taiwanese company to manufacture the pods — whose prototype is expected to be launched within three weeks — during a planned visit to Taiwan in April, when he is also due to “sweep” the graves of his ancestors.
“In this way, I hope Taiwan can also participate in the project,” Chen said, adding that a number of churches and non-profit organizations had expressed an interest in the pods, which cost between US$3,000 and US$5,000 to manufacture.
As a member of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a non-profit organization founded in Los Angeles in 1982 that aims to promote Taiwan abroad, Chen said he pays close attention to Taiwan’s democracy and politics and returns to Taiwan whenever there is an election.
Aside from that, Chen visits Taiwan about three times a year to meet acquaintances and relatives, including his younger sister in Greater Kaohsiung.
“America may have become my other home, but my mind has never left Taiwan,” Chen said.
Saying the faith of his Protestant parents had played a major role in shaping his life perspectives, Chen said money had never been a priority in his life and that it did not matter whether he was paid for the treatment he provided.
“In this society, as long as you keep doing [what is right], your efforts will never go unnoticed,” Chen said.
Chen added that as a Taiwanese immigrant in the US, he also wanted to demonstrate to US society that “we [Taiwanese immigrants in the US] also give, not just receive.”