Homelessness, Debt, Lost Memories: Hongmaogang's Cautionary Tale

Homelessness, Debt, Lost Memories: Hongmaogang's Cautionary Tale
Nick Aspenwall
Why you need to know

The people of Hongmaogang have faced numerous challenges since their village was relocated in 2007. Now, residents work to keep their homeland's spirit alive - and warn their threatened neighbors in Dalinpu of what lies ahead.

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The proposed relocation of Dalinpu (大林蒲), a 320-year-old village in Kaohsiung’s southern industrial outskirts, is being fast-tracked in a manner that has left a large contingent of its residents feeling uneasy. Perhaps none are more skeptical than former residents of nearby Hongmaogang (紅毛港) who lived through the relocation of their own village in 2007. The two homesteads have long been intertwined, and the many Hongmaogang natives who moved to Dalinpu are now staring down displacement once again.

Some former Hongmaogang residents faced financial troubles and became homeless after defaulting on their new mortgages, expecting them to be backed by government compensation that never came. Many residents employed in the formerly lucrative local fishing industry found themselves lacking the skills to find well-paying jobs. The people of Hongmaogang, especially disadvantaged residents, “had to face economic difficulties” after relocating, says Wang Zhenyu (王振宇), who directed the documentary 紅毛港家變 (“Hongmaogang Home Change”) with his friend Chen Yingyan (陳穎彥). “People felt they had lost their roots.”

The relocation divided the village as some residents opted against moving to the relocation site near Kaohsiung International Airport, and others were priced out of building new homes there. In the process, Hongmaogang’s community spirit has been lost. Through sustained activism and an ambitious project to map the locations of village families before relocation, some residents are trying to keep their memories alive – while warning the people of Dalinpu to pay close attention to a relocation process they find impossible to trust.

Taipower
Credit: Nick Aspinwall
The expansion of the Taipower plant, as seen from what used to be the wharf of Hongmaogang. Residents remember the area as the former hub of the village's fishing industry.
History repeating

Hongmaogang’s relocation was the culmination of over 40 years of planning to transform the industrial area around that surrounded what was once a traditional fishing village. In 1973, the Kuomintang included the expansion of the Port of Kaohsiung in its Ten Major Construction Plans (十大建設). The move was welcomed by Hongmaogang residents, who wished to support national development and benefited from the influx of nearby industry.

The Kaohsiung city government passed a resolution in 2000 to relocate the entire village to accommodate an intercontinental container terminal and an expansion of the neighboring Taipower Dalin coal-fired power plant. After decades of public debate and protest, Hongmaogang was relocated in 2007 amidst mutterings from residents who accepted the inevitability of relocation but claimed that the process was rushed, secretive, and unfair.

Ask townspeople who best represents their sentiments about the relocation process and they will likely mention Hong Fangqi (洪芳騏), who calls herself “the daughter of Hongmaogang.” She had owned a bait and tackle shop, but once the tides of imminent relocation rose around her peninsular harbor town, she became a de facto leader of local protest movements. Years after moving 3 km south to Dalinpu, she still becomes indignant at the memory. “The government tormented us” during relocation, she says, adding she hopes Dalinpu can be spared the same fate.

At a Sept. 17, 2017 meeting, the Dalinpu relocation committee began its property valuation process to determine the amount of compensation homeowners will be entitled to once their land is repossessed by the government. Dalinpu residents told me the process was moving too fast and with insufficient public input, much like the relocation of their neighbors in 2007. Like in Hongmaogang, current proposals call for Dalinpu landowners to choose between a one-for-one land swap – receiving land at the relocation site – and a cash payout, both based on residential status and the value of the property being relinquished.

In both cases, the city government has been strict in establishing qualifications for those eligible to receive compensation, according to Hong. Residents who were not listed as, or married to, the head of a household on their hukou [household] registration received no compensation. Despite this, the city government allowed Dalinpu landlords to fill out the relocation survey on behalf of residents listed under the hukou of households that belonged to them, which immediately thrust its results into question.

Hong lamented that, in Hongmaogang, properties were valued by the government in 2000, but were not adjusted when the real estate market boomed in 2006, prior to relocation. Residents thus traded their land at below market rates (as low as NT$10,000, or about US$338 per ping, 3.31 square meters) and had little money to invest in their newly obtained property. The maximum compensatory payout was NT$1.5 million (about US$50,000), which was available to qualifying married couples who owned land.

Some residents bought homes ahead of relocation and quickly found themselves unable to afford their mortgages. Because the requirements to qualify for compensation were confusing, residents often expected money that never came, or simply did not know whether money was available to them. As their old homes had been torn down, they became homeless, bouncing between the homes of friends and relatives and, in some cases, a park near the Hongmaogang relocation site.

Xiao Zou Aju (蕭鄒阿菊), 95, had nowhere to go after losing her home in Hongmaogang. Initially, she lived with a friend for five years. When her health began to fail, she moved in with her 77-year-old daughter, who now lives in Miaoli, northwestern Taiwan, after scrambling to find a place to live herself. “Our house was torn down,” she tells me. “We had nowhere to go.”

Hong fears that Dalinpu residents – especially the elderly and disadvantaged among them – are, like Xiao and her family, unaware of how to claim compensation and are losing their voice with each passing day. Often away from the village at work in central Taiwan, her main platform for activism is now the Facebook group 大林蒲廣場, or “Dalinpu Square.” She remains an influential voice among Dalinpu residents who vividly remember the fate of Hongmaogang and worry that history is repeating itself. “If this isn’t corruption,” Hong asks, “what is?”

Yueliang
Credit: Nick Aspinwall
Yueliang (月亮), a Hongmaogang native, points out where families used to live on a large-scale map being developed by Professor Ron Wu (吳榮慶) and a team of volunteers.
Mapping the Past

After 2007, the people of Hongmaogang were effectively dispersed. Some ex-residents have worked to keep its memory from fading. Yueliang (月亮), a Hongmaogang native, has assisted a Kaohsiung professor and a team of volunteers in using satellite imaging to map the former homes of his onetime neighbors.

Yueliang took his unconventional name (Chinese for “moon”) after being adopted by a family which had seven daughters and believed that taking in a male child would bring them a biological son. When his adoptive parents bore a baby boy, “my mission in life was complete,” he says.

Despite decades of prior rumblings, the actual relocation of Hongmaogang was sudden. “I felt overwhelmed,” Yueliang recalls. “There wasn't much time to plan the next step.” Left without a place to go, he became nomadic. He stayed with his uncle for a few months, rented a house in nearby Xiaogang (小港), and even lived in an abandoned building on a nearby hill. He’s lived in Dalinpu for the past seven years, finding periodic work as a day laborer and devoting his spare time to preserving the memory of his lost hometown.

Map_of_Hongmaogang
Credit: Prof. Ron Wu
A Google Earth aerial of Hongmaogang before relocation. The characters on the map are the names of the families plotted by Ron Wu and his volunteers.

Yueliang became involved with the map project after responding to a Facebook post by Ron Wu (吳榮慶), a professor of electrical engineering at Kaohsiung’s I-Shou University, who started surveying and locating residents after relocation in 2007. “I simply wanted to know who the neighbors were and share [the map] with folks,” Wu says. His team has mapped and labeled about 30 percent of Hongmaogang’s former homes. The map has been exhibited at Kaohsiung’s Chaofeng Temple (超峰寺) and at community events, attracting both Hongmaogang natives and curious outsiders.

In his small cottage, tucked deep within a labyrinth of decaying concrete alleyways, Yueliang explains that mapping his hometown was simple. In Hongmaogang, each family would live together in a “block” of houses in the same neighborhood. When two residents met, they would each know exactly where the other lived upon sharing their surnames. Professor Wu’s team has thus been able to piece together, block by block, a story of small-town togetherness that, here and in neighboring Dalinpu, is at risk of being lost to history.

READ NEXT: In South Taiwan, a Polluted Village Prepares for Relocation

Editor: David Green

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