As a former banker with more than 20 years of experience who now has to queue up with other homeless people to receive handouts at soup kitchens in Taipei, Wang Wen-liang (王文良) has had more than his share of ups and downs.
Wang holds a master’s degree from National Taiwan University, was a senior executive at a bank with a monthly salary of NT$100,000 (US$3,350), and passed special state examinations to obtain licenses in finance and taxation law.
Now a far cry from his years as a high-salaried professional enjoying a life of luxury, Wang reflected on his life as he stood in line on Tuesday to receive free zongzi (粽子, glutinous rice dumplings) in celebration of the Dragon Boat Festival this week.
Holding the hot zongzi in his hands, Wang said he was very grateful to the Genesis Social Welfare Foundation and the Zenon Homeless Social Welfare Foundation, who distributed the traditional treat.
Officials at the two foundations said that due to the stagnant economy and high rate of unemployment, they are serving about 25 percent more people this year than in the previous year.
Wang started his career at the Taiwan Cooperative Bank and later worked in First Commercial Bank’s Vietnam branch for 16 years, where he worked his way up to the post of deputy general-manager.
One day, he discovered that some of the bank’s top executives were colluding with other businessmen to misappropriate company assets for their personal gain. Wang said that after he blew the whistle on the executives, he was beaten up. Realizing that his life was in danger if he stayed on at the bank, Wang decided to return to Taiwan last year.
Soon after returning home, he signed on as a guarantor for a friend, a high-school teacher, who wanted to take out a loan. However, the teacher defaulted on the payments, wiping out all NT$15 million of Wang’s savings.
In a bid to avoid burdening his family with his debt, Wang divorced his wife and left his home. As he recounted his tragic story, Wang’s mood perked up just once: when he mentioned his only daughter, who he proudly said will soon complete her studies at National Chiao Tung University.
“I used to enjoy the good life, but now I’ve hit rock bottom. I feel too ashamed to ask my relatives for help,” he said.
These days, when the ex-banker returns to his alma mater, it is to sleep or seek shelter at the 24-hour McDonald’s opposite the school’s front entrance.
“I have to order something to stay in there, but at least it’s cheap, I can get a drink for NT$25. Once I buy something, it satisfies their regulations and I can stay as long as I want. McDonald’s is good to people like me, they have never asked me to leave,” he said.
“When I need to shower, I can go use the facilities in the university dorms, because I’m a graduate. I can also wash and dry my clothes there as it only costs NT$10,” Wang said.
He also goes to the school’s main library everyday to read the Commercial Times, Economic Daily News, and other business weeklies to keep up with current affairs.
To finance his meals at McDonald’s, Wang uses his experience in foreign currency exchange to work as an independent financial adviser for three major firms, from which he earns NT$9,000 a month.
He goes to libraries to read up on financial news and write analysis reports which he then faxes to the firms from convenience stores.
“The three firms that employ me probably have no idea that one of their freelance analysts is homeless,” he said.
At night, still dressed in his business suit, Wang heads to McDonald’s to sleep, using a table as a pillow. He said that this has been his daily routine for the past 370 days.
Wang said he is trying to pick himself up, facing life with optimism and continuing to look for new opportunities as he takes up odd jobs to support himself.
Though it is hard, he said he tries to stay positive, even when misfortune strike again. For example, two months ago, he found a job as a substitute worker in a rotating shift in seven libraries in New Taipei City (新北市).
However, while heading to work at a library in Tamsui District (淡水), Wang was in a traffic accident and suffered a leg injury that saw him hospitalized for several days.
“I will not be knocked down. With my determination, I will make my comeback,” he said.
“Having gone through these hard times has opened my eyes to the abundance of friendship and warmth of the people in Taiwan. If I was down and out in Vietnam or in China, I would have been finished a long time ago,” Wang said.
“Taiwan is an amazing country. We get landslides whenever it rains and are hit by earthquakes, but even when the land is crumbling under our feet, people’s hard work keeps the nation together,” Wang said.
“No wonder that renowned Japanese economist Ohmae once said that of all the countries he has been to, Taiwan is the most adept at dealing with misfortunes and believing in its destiny,” he said.