Discovering life in Taipei from the eyes of the homeless
Around a dozen tourists recently gathered around a gray-haired man donning a cowboy jacket outside the ornate Longshan Temple in Taipei, enthralled by his stories of Wanhua District that even locals don’t know.
The man, named Chen Tzu-chiang ( ) or A-Chiang ( ) for short, represents one of the faces of the new tour organization “Hidden Taipei” ( ) that is trying to show people Taiwan’s capital from a unique perspective — through the eyes of the homeless.
A-Chiang, who was once homeless himself, has taken to his new role as a tour guide after receiving training from the organization.
“I was the first one to enter the training course and the first to transition into the new job,” the 65-year-old said with pride.
It only seemed natural for him to tell the story of the once bustling Wanhua District in the southwestern part of the city that has lost much of its former glamour since Taipei’s development shifted eastward.
Now the district in the city with the most low-income households, senior citizens living alone, people with disabilities, and homeless, Wanhua has been portrayed as an area populated by the “five vaga- bonds” ( ), referring to hoodlums, the homeless, street prostitutes, street vendors and migrant workers.
It’s a side of the district A-Chiang is familiar with. After showing visitors Longshan Temple, A-Chiang led the tourists past Manga Park and down a drinking street that once was famous for its thriving sex trade.
“From the outside, you can only see a small counter, but inside, there is one cubicle after another,” he said, noting that at least 3,000 street girls worked in the bars lining the street when they were at the peak of their popularity.
The unusual stroll through a part of the city often ignored by visitors mirrors A-Chiang’s many life experiences.
A-Chiang said he began skipping classes and mingling with other delinquents as a junior in high school, and he ended up paying a hefty price for joining up with gangs — spending 23 years of the prime years of his life in and out of prison.
After being released from jail for the final time in 2001, he went to China to launch a fashion accessories business. But like some other Taiwanese who go there to start ventures, he was swindled of his assets and ended up deeply in debt.
He returned to Taiwan but couldn’t find a job because of his criminal record. Penniless, he became homeless at the age of 55.
Even worse, he was badly assaulted after standing up for a female homeless person bullied by several young hoodlums.
It was only when Taipei’s Department of Social Welfare intervened that his hardships were reversed. Through the support program, he was able to get to know a Wanhuabased social worker named Chang Hsien-chung ( ) who encouraged him to take part in a tour guide class created for the homeless.
But A-chiang rejected the offer out of hand, insisting he was not fit for the job.
“When I thought about having to stand before those normal families, students and people from all walks of life, I shuddered because of my inferiority complex,” A-chiang said.
Yet despite his reservations, he eventually took part in the class because he felt indebted to the city.
Even as many of his homeless classmates dropped out of the training program, he stuck to his guns and became the first in his class to graduate.
The once introverted A-Chiang, who shut himself off from others for much of his life, now leads about a dozen tour groups a month, earning enough to cover his basic living expenses.
He thanked all of the program’s participants for their warmth and encouragement, which he said has become the driving force motivating him to continue the job.
Another guide who made it through the program, nicknamed A-Ho ( ), was homeless for more than 20 years and slept on every street corner and park bench in the area, yet found a way to survive.
He pointed out a garbage can at the corner of an arcade, saying that he used to sleep near it and be given plenty of boxed meals by generous people.
“You won’t go hungry here. You could even eat yourself to death.”
The 62-year-old grew up in Taitung and came to Taipei in his youth in search of a better life. As Wanhua declined, however, he found it increasingly difficult to get work, landing occasional jobs as a truck driver or construction worker before ending up homeless because of an addiction to alcohol.
But he was saved by his humor, optimism, and fondness for talking to others, which led him to take part in “Hidden Taipei’s” training classes and make it possible for him to rent a place to live.
A jovial person who often sings during the two-hour walking tour, A-ho said he could be a tour guide until the day he dies.