Leaving through exit No. 1 of Taipei’s Jiantan MRT Station on a busy weekend, one could be forgiven for being impressed not by the throng of people, but by the energetic movements of a silver-haired volunteer standing at the gate, helping tourists with directions and providing introductions to local attractions.
Eighty-three-year-old Chang Jui-fa (張瑞發) — a former Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) employee with 42 years of service on retirement — attracted the attention of the media on March 28, when Taipei’s metro rail system welcomed its 5.6 billionth passenger and invited some of its most senior volunteers to participate in festivities to celebrate the milestone.
Most were unaware that Chang was the most senior volunteer until he was introduced at the event, and his experience led to questions on what motivated him to be a volunteer worker for so many years.
Chang’s answer was simple: “If you want to live as a part of society, then you should do everything you can for it.”
Chang said he retired in 1996 after working for the TRA for more than four decades, and though he initially found retirement to be very relaxing, he soon became bored.
In late 1997, the MRT’s Tamsui line had just started trial operations and the system was flooded with people, leaving the company desperate for more hands.
On hearing of the need for volunteers, Chang said he immediately signed up and has regularly reported for duty at Jiantan Station ever since. Chang, a Shilin (士林) resident, starts work at 4pm on weekends and on Mondays, and over the past 15 years has logged more than 5,500 hours of service.
“I wanted to serve people and society, and provide a convenient service whether they were traveling for work or pleasure,” Chang said, adding that it was this philosophy that imbued his volunteer work with personal significance.
As as result Chang avoids arriving late, never goes home early, and has not missed any of the classes or certification courses that the company arranged for volunteers.
As Jiantan Station is near the entrance to the Shilin Night Market, the Grand Hotel and other tourist hotspots, it is one of the most visited stations in the capital, with many visitors needing information or help finding their bearings.
Chang said he stands by the MRT gates ready to answer any questions that travelers may have.
“However, the question most often asked is whether we can let people use the station’s restrooms,” Chang said, adding that as nearby Shilin Night Market might not have such facilities he was always willing to be accommodating.
Chang added that his work has some downsides, and that he finds some young people to be disrespectful and poorly mannered.
As an example he cited an incident where he had allowed a student to enter the station without paying in order to use the restroom. When the student came out from the restroom and was about to leave the station, he did not bother to thank Chang.
The student was surprised when Chang stopped him and asked politely whether he had something to say to him. Chang said that even after he asked the young man: “Shouldn’t you say thank you?” the student still did not seem to understand what he meant and just walked away.
In addition, Chang said that some travelers are unfamiliar with how to use the MRT’s coin-shaped tokens that are used for single trips, or by those without Easy Cards, adding that he once saw an MRT user who became so frustrated that they threw their token on the ground in rage.
Chang said he went over and taught the person how to exit the station using the token, but the traveler could not swallow their pride and merely said: “Why is the thing so difficult to use?” before leaving.
Chang said that after several years he has grown used to such behavior and usually does not mind it, adding that he focuses instead on the thanks he receives from people he has helped.
Furthermore, Chang’s proficiency in Japanese — a result of his childhood Japanese education — helps him interact with Japanese tourists.
Chang said there was once a Japanese tourist who had seemingly lost his wallet and had asked for help at the desk, but despite calling the police, no progress could be made because no one present understood Japanese.
Chang was called over and on questioning the man, he ascertained the tourist was unsure of whether he had brought his wallet with him when he left his hotel. On calling the hotel he found out that the man had indeed left it in his room.
The tourist was very surprised, and said he was very impressed with MRT personnel, Chang said.
In his decade-and-a-half as a volunteer, Chang said he has realized that as a volunteer it is necessary to have empathy and patience.
“You have to be able to step into someone’s shoes and think like them. Think what you would do if you were in their position,” Chang said.
Chang said he intends to continue as an MRT volunteer until he can no longer stand, adding that he is happy to be able to contribute to society in any way he can.