1992 / 10月
Chang Chung-fang /photos courtesy of Huang Li-li /tr. by Phil Newell
It is late at night, and as usual the light in the neighborhood chief's dry goods store is illuminated. This lamp has brought the people of the Neikou li (or neighborhood) a great deal of hope . . . .
"Friends and neighbors, hello everyone! Today they are going to lay down blacktop on such-and-such street, lane number such-and-such, so please don't park there for the time being . . . ."
". . . Let's everybody work together to get this recycling done. Please wrap up your empty plastic bottles, old cans, discarded clothing, and so on in separate bundles. When you hear that song being broadcast by the recycling truck, please give your bundles to the truck . . . ."
"Who's that?" This question came from a newly married couple named Hsiao who had just moved into the Neikou li (an administrative division roughly encompassing a neighborhood) in the Neihu District of Taipei less than three months earlier. It turns out that this guy driving on every street and back alley in the neighborhood broadcasting from his vehicle is none other than the man unknown to no local person--the li leader Chen Yen-cheng.
"In all the time I was growing up, I never knew who the neighborhood leader was around my house. When I moved here, I found that it would be difficult not to know him," says Mr. Hsiao. And Mrs. Hsiao, who hailed from a rather remote and inconvenient locality, began to get a positive feeling about her new living environment. "This enthusiastic and responsible neighborhood chief made me feel a sense of identification with this place," she explains.
Not the boss, the chief: "Uncle neighborhood leader" Chen is in fact still quite young--only 4l this year. Eight years ago he moved from Sanchung to the Neikou li, and opened a dry goods store. Ever since becoming the neighborhood chief two years ago, the nominal shop boss has been running in and out busy all the time. He already has no time to look after his business. He can only occasionally "help out the wife" to look after the store when he has a little spare time, but most of the time he is too busy being an "old hen," fussily looking after this or that.
Asked about her husband's "not handling his primary duties," Mrs. Chen strongly supports him. The only thing is that, without Chen Yen-cheng's help, Mrs. Chen must spend the entire day "tied down" to the shop, unable to take even a step out, and "fully deprived of my freedom," she adds.
The main reason why Chen Yen-cheng was pushed forward by his neighbors to be neighborhood chief, giving him a duty he could not in good conscience shirk, is that Neikou li was marked out as a future garbage burial site. This news compelled the residents to change their long-standing attitude of neglecting the neighborhood chief election and to get involved in the most recent race. They decided to choose someone who was really willing to do something for the area.
Thanks in part to the natural advantage of having a dry goods store, plus his innate enthusiasm, Chen's shop became something of a "rest station." Anyone who wanted to find a babysitter or rent an apartment would come to his shop to get him to ask around and help out.
When the child of the people living across from the shop went missing, he drove all over looking for him. When someone on the fifth floor passed away, he went over to help carry the deceased-downstairs. Seeing a woman trying to take her mother-in-law to the hospital but unable to flag down a cab, he picked them up and drove them there. All of these things, about which Chen had thought little, turned out to be great assets when it came time to elect the neighborhood chief.
People who had received his help went everywhere helping to campaign for this honest, unassuming man with only a junior high education. When he was elected, the household that couldn't get a taxi to stop that time set off NT$500-600 in firecrackers. "And the taxi ride from Neikou to the hospital couldn't have been more than NT$45," laughs Chen. That's really a high rate of return on his investment.
Suffering for the neighborhood: Actually, it has been no picnic being in the honored place which everyone worked to win for him. There is only a "salary" of NT$10,000 per month and a free newspaper, yet there are countless matters large and small to attend to.
Some people let him know that the neighbor's dog is always barking at night so that people can't sleep, and they hope the li chief can remind the owners. Someone else writes a letter saying that there are too many mosquitos and their leg had been bitten until it swelled, and wants the chief to bring someone in to spray insecticide. The apartment upstairs is leaking water on the one below, but isn't willing to repair the leak, so that the people downstairs can no longer take it, and they seek out the neighborhood chief to mediate. A husband and wife are fighting and talking divorce, and even here the li head is called in to offer advice. A fight over a parking space also brings the neighborhood leader out. Other clerical tasks, like issuing a certificate for a low-income household, issuing a death certificate, and so on, are all part of the neighborhood chief's duties.
In order to serve his neighbors, Chen Yen-cheng set aside a space of 70 square feet or so in the back of his shop to serve as an office. Compared to the finely decorated service offices of city councilmen and other li leaders, this one is too small for words. But in this office littered with photos, newspaper slippings, and official announcements, Chen Yen-cheng has made enviable accomplishments.
In the two-plus years since taking office, he has put into practice his "political ideals" step by step--coming forward to negotiate and solve the problem of the garbage burial site, improving television reception, resolving drainage problems, building a neighborhood park . . . .
"In fact some things have not been difficult in the least," states Chen. Many opinions and problems are just bandied about in the neighborhood or district, but no concrete data is ever given to the district office people to let them understand, so of course there was never any improvement. In his experience, if you write reports concretely and simply, you are more likely to get action.
No need to worry about the rain: What has made his constituents most happy is that Chen has finally solved the problem of flooding on Antai Street every time it rains, a problem that had gone on for over a decade. This street, where a large number of Neikou li residents are concentrated, never experienced rising real estate values because it was usually flooded. When the boss of a hardware store, an outsider to the neighborhood who didn't know the actual situation, wanted to buy a storefront there, he only thought about getting it cheap. It was only when it rained and he experienced the hardship of flooding that he began crying that he'd been had.
After an on-site inspection, Chen Yen-cheng discovered that the drainage pipe along the side of the road was completely fake--a little hole had been dug at the head and at the end, but the part in the middle had never been cleared, so how could the water get through? So he wrote a simple document, hitting only the main points, and attached photographs that he himself had taken during flooding, and sent these to the district office. Not long after there was a response. The drainage ditch was redug, covered, and even blacktopped over. "Our neighborhood chief is really a can-do type," says the hardware store owner.
Getting the neighborhood park followed a similar pattern. Today, with "uncle" neighborhood chief's efforts, Antai Street has a small park, which is something of an improvement in the problem of the lack of recreational space for local residents.
Of course not everything goes so smoothly. Some things which have required too much money or involved a complex variety of interests have left this activist "frustrated." For example, because the Neikou Mountain area is at the end of the water system, it is often short of water. But because few people live there, and the expense would be great, improvement has been put off indefinitely. Antai Street is very narrow, and there are not only daily problems with parking and traffic, but in the event of fire the emergency vehicles can't get in or out. The neighborhood assembly has asked the city to open another road; Chen delivered the petition upward, but as yet has had no concrete answer.
Caught between policy and public opinion: The thorniest problem is still the establishment of a garbage burial site in Neikou. "As a li official and also as a member of the ruling party, I should play the role of a bridge between government and citizens, and not lead the people in confrontations with the government. But opposition to the establishment of the dump is the consensus view of the residents, and it's also not right to go against public opinion," says Chen from between the rock and the hard place.
To solve the problem, on many occasions Chen followed specialists around as they did the work of looking at Neikou, and went to the weather bureau, the forestry bureau, and other units to collect data. Citing factors of space, topography, weather, and geology, he explained how Neikou is not a suitable site for a dump. Adding photos and supporting evidence, he made the report into a volume. He also went to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to petition and to the Taipei City Council to listen in, and took the initiative to give his data to reporters. At that time the name of Neikou li became widely known, and Chen Yen-cheng was the neighborhood chief whose name appeared most often in the papers. He successfully guided opposition to the plan from random, active resistance to documentary resistance.
Given Chen's efforts, though Neikou's name has not yet been removed from the list of eligible sites for the dump, it has moved down from the top-ranked site to number three.
On the other side, the residents of the neighborhood in the Nankang District which has moved up to number one have collectively impeached their neighborhood chief. Hearing this news, Chen Yen-cheng could only sympathize, "It's hard to be a modern neighborhood leader."
Lonely at the top: It's hard to be a neighborhood chief, and especially hard in Neikou. The Neikou neighborhood has the largest area of any li in Taipei City, over 5.6 square kilometers. Four-fifths of this enormous "jurisdiction" is protected mountain land. Because there is a good road into the mountains, many less-than-model citizens have been attracted to dump waste land or garbage here, creating serious environmental pollution.
If he just sees a dump truck laden with dirt whizzing by, or gets a report from a resident, Chen immediately grabs his camera and drives off, tailing the truck. He takes photos of the license plate of the truck "in the act," and then can report the incident with evidence.
"It's actually quite dangerous doing it this way," reveals Chen. Once when he was taking photos he was discovered by the truck driver. The lefty character gave chase, trying to take the camera away. "Fortunately, he didn't dare to hassle me after he knew I was the neighborhood chief."
But there's just too many to catch or prevent. Every day or two, he finds a new pile or two of rubbish or waste land, and it has become serious enough to be the li head's number one priority. Thus when the city DEP chose the five neighborhoods in Neihu to do recycling for the first time, Chen got together with four other neighborhood chiefs and went all out to work with them. "If we do recycling right, then we can lower the amount of garbage, and then we might not need so many dump-sites," he explains.
Drawing up posters by himself, recording information messages, and driving a sound truck through all the streets of the area, Chen's results have not been bad. Neikou's recycling achievements have been outstanding, in fact, and Chen has consequently won praise from the DEP.
A day in the life: Besides these "major tasks," Chen has quite a bit of routine work to do every day. Every day at two or three in the afternoon he drives once around his jurisdiction to see if there are any new piles of garbage or waste land, then takes photos and asks the DEP to come clean them up. If a tree has fallen in the street, he moves it himself. If he has time he'll go by the local temple and cut away some of the wild grass growing there to beautify the surrounding area.
Every evening at eight, he makes a point of going to the Land God Temple in the mountains to have tea and chat with the local elders. This is because he understands that he did not grow up in this place, and if he wants his work to go smoothly, he has to invest a little time keeping in touch with the older generation.
"Topics range from direct election of the president to streetlights that aren't working--we talk about everything. I often go to hear out their views, and that way I won't be attacked as being uninformed," he laughs.
At 10︰00 he goes home. On the long table in front of the store are arrayed several Chinese chess sets, and the chess fans are earnestly playing. Sometimes Chen joins in, sometimes he just sits off to the side and chats. The dry goods shop only closes up at 2︰00 AM. "Besides doing a little extra business, we can keep an eye on things and the local rascals are less likely to do anything precipitous in the area," notes Chen.
This type of li officer, available 24 hours a day, is so busy that there is no personal time left. Hiking and photography are Chen's two great pastimes. In the two years since becoming a neighborhood chief, he hasn't had a real solid hike, and his photography is limited to "evidentiary" work.
It's easy to take care of business, hard to take care of people: As for the son and daughter whom he has not reminded to study in a long time, Chen describes them as being like two trees planted in the earth who must grow up themselves. "I just remind them, remember that Dad is the neighborhood chief, so don't make me upset!"
These problems are not so serious. The biggest headache for Chen is the endless string of compulsory "social" engagements. Drinking and toasting have always been things "I did the worst of everything."
The end of the year is approaching; it is also the season when major events like weddings and births are most common; and the election is also coming up. Each of these events involves "can't refuse" social engagements. Because three of the 30 neighborhood chiefs in Neihu have died from sclerosis of the liver from excessive drinking, the sincere and unassuming Chen must seriously reconsider whether he will run for reelection when his four-year term is up.
But when he heard that the li citizens had given him a big "thumbs up" and said, "This outsider neighborhood chief is even better than a local one," and when he heard that he had become the topic of the day for conversations between taxi drivers and passengers, these verbal "rewards" boosted his morale greatly and allowed him to forget his hard labors.
It is late at night, and the light in the neighborhood chief's shop is, as usual, shining. This light is giving the people of his community much hope.
Wall covered with plaques, floor and desk covered with newspaper clippings, photos, and documents...although Chen Yen-cheng's neighborhood chief's office is small, many accomplishments have been made there.
Whenever there is a wedding, funeral, or other event, the neighborhood chief must not fail to send his respects. Chen has set a one-day record of writing couplets for 18 events.
In typhoon or heavy rains, the work of recycling must go on. Neigborhood chief "Uncle" Chen often accompanies the recycling truck to help out.
Chess, tea, chatting...the sentiments of the residents and needs of the area are often "talked out" just this way.
Ever since becoming neighborhood leader, he has relied on his wife to tend shop; his son and daughter must also largely look after themselves.