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.

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