By Your Side

Taitung’s “Kids’ Bookhouse”

2018 / July

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Bruce Humes

What does “black kid” mean? Interpretations depend on whom you ask. Some say it refers to a dark-skinned child who labors steadfastly under the sun; but Chen Jun­lang, founder of “Kids’ Bookhouse,” says it is a child who confronts the black hole within the mind, and finds a way out of those dark shadows. In the 18 years since Kids’ Bookhouse was established in Tai­tung, “black kid” has become a meta­phor, a symbol—most of all, a deep-felt wish—for confronting family fragmentation and the setbacks faced by vulnerable children. 

As you follow Provincial Highway 11 along the coast of Tai­tung, when you arrive at Zhi­ben, on either side of the perfectly straight highway the verdant Tai­tung Plain and emerald-green Mt. She­ma­gan spread out before you. It’s easy to miss the “Black Kid Café” located near the 172.5 kilo­meter marker.

After Chen Jun­lang began looking after his own two children in the year 2000, motivated by his sense of social justice and compassion for other youngsters, in 2005 he founded the Ka­sa­va­kan Book­house. Today, nine Kids’ Book­houses are located in eight of Tai­tung’s remote tribal communities, offering companionship to nearly 2,000 children from disadvantaged households headed by a single parent or affected by problems such as poverty or domestic violence. The services they offer have expanded to include assisting unemployed people and delivering meals to the elderly, while also constructing Black Kid Café, which functions as a vocational training site.

A tale of two bowls of noodles

“It wasn’t until I was 36 years old that I began to do what I actually wanted to do,” says Chen, who only discovered that he had reached this high point in his life after founding the first bookhouse. “My motivation was quite simple. I wanted to help children resolve their problems. There have been so many challenges, and many low points that even I didn’t comprehend, but when the difficulties have been resolved, and my mind is recharged with positive energy, it becomes a driving force for progress.”

In order to spend more time with his children, who were becoming increasingly unfamiliar with him, Chen, who had previously sold cars and real estate and operated restaurants, returned to his hometown Tai­tung and sat the exam for court clerk. But to understand how he became known as “Daddy Chen” among bookhouse staff and children alike, we must begin with a tale of noodles.

It was a perfectly ordinary day back in 2000, and Chen had taken his two sons for noodles at a street side vendor. They ran into Xiao Tong, a classmate of his son Chen Yan­han, and the elder Chen naturally invited him along for a bowl of noodles. The father and son, who typically ate two bowls apiece, ordered seconds for Xiao Tong too. But soon afterwards, Xiao Tong upchucked the contents of his lunch. “Daddy Chen, it’s been a long time since I ate so much!” said Xiao Tong apologetically.   

Due to his parents’ divorce and mother’s remarriage, and his father’s even heavier drinking bouts due to subsequent unemployment, before Xiao Tong ran into the Chens that day he hadn’t had a solid dinner for three years. Since Chen regularly accompanied his sons as they did their homework, he invited Xiao Tong to join them.

“Even the coolest of kids needs care.” The gate to the Chen family’s three-sided courtyard was thrown open and gradually children in the neighborhood were attracted by the sound of guitars and boisterous ball games. More and more gathered in the yard, exceeding 60 at one point. Chen discovered that like Xiao Tong, many came from dysfunctional families where they were expected to buy liquor for their parents on their way home from school, but no one fed them when they were hungry. Or else they were being raised by grandparents, and so they hung around making trouble after school.

Surprised and puzzled as to the reason for such family situations, Chen’s sense of compassion was stirred. He began cooking meals for the kids, and the books he had used to study for his court clerk exam became the textbooks from which he learned how to help these children—given up on by the mainstream education system—with their studies.

Companionship brings change

His yard filled with so many youngsters, at times Chen couldn’t help but intervene in the “family affairs” of children other than his own. But he chose to ignore rumors of “gang-style incidents at the Chen residence.”

He continued to look the other way until one day a gang fight broke out among the youngsters, and a 15-year-old was beaten to death. Chen braced himself to attend the autopsy and cremation. “The whole process was very saddening, and the parents of the dead child’s persistence in demanding monetary compensation from the families of the instigators made it worse. It convinced me that screwed-up children are raised by screwed-up parents. I felt utterly disheartened, and I closed my home to the kids for three months,” says Chen, his lips pressed tightly together.

During this period, the children who had frequented the Chen abode paced about outside and even threw messages on strips of paper over the wall into the courtyard. Eventually Chen couldn’t help himself; once again he opened the doors to his home. In order to operate the place and feed more than 50 children, he depleted his savings despite eating instant noodles for 18 months. Fed up, his wife finally demanded a divorce. His wife gone, abandoned by his friends, and all his money spent too, Chen was on the cusp of a nervous breakdown. That’s when he told himself quietly: “This is what I want to do with my life!” In 2005, he leased a plot of land on which he set up the Ka­sa­va­kan Bookhouse (the name “bookhouse” comes from ­shuwu, meaning “library” or “study room”).

Thanks to the undeniable changes that occurred as a result of his loyalty to these children, Chen obtained the greatest possible support to carry on.

“A child who got into daily fights was suddenly the first to apologize, and became serious and courteous; a child who cursed himself for being a fat pig lost weight and became a handsome young man; an asthmatic child one day told me out of the blue that ever since he began running 5000 meters daily, he had not had another attack.” Most strikingly, when Xiao Tong discovered his father dead in the doorway of their house, he stepped over the corpse and asked Chen to “deal with it”; yet even a child like this would tenderly call him “Daddy Chen.” Xiao Tong, now a sergeant major in the army, sometimes comes back to see Chen. Thanks to Chen’s timely companionship, even a former “black kid” like him has escaped the dark shadows of his upbringing, and is no longer a pugnacious bully.     

Practicing what he preaches

In the process of helping the children with their studies, Chen—himself just a high-school graduate—promised them that if they didn’t score better on their exams, he would punish himself by doing push-ups. But the children didn’t take him seriously, and when the exam results were announced, none had improved. Chen’s sense of honor kicked in, and after announcing, “I have failed as your teacher!” he didn’t say another word—he just prostrated himself and began doing push-ups. At the beginning, every­one cheered him on, but when he reached his sixtieth, they began to cry and vowed that next time they would study harder. All in all, he punished himself with 120 push-ups, and they weighed heavily on the children’s hearts.  

“Typically, junior high school students can’t even write out the 26 letters of the alphabet, nor can they spell English words….” In order to help these students who were performing poorly at school to obtain a newfound sense of achievement, Chen, who enjoys sports, came up with the idea of taking the bookhouse children on a trip right around Taiwan. In 2009, 105 youngsters took part in the first group to cycle the length of the island. “When we first returned I was a bit disappointed, because it seemed the children hadn’t really changed. But gradually I dis­covered that the children who had been on the tour together had developed a sense of community. Previously, when the bookhouse rubbish bins were full, no one emptied them, but afterwards there were some who would step up to do so; before exams, everyone would stay inside and study, and some would score more than 100 points higher on practice tests,” says Chen proudly.

Discovering self-confidence

“A team has terrific power.” As an example, Chen cites a youngster named Jian­jie (not his real name) who weighed 115 kilograms when he joined the bookhouse in fifth grade. At that time, his enormous appetite aside, he didn’t stand out in any way. His body emitted a strange odor because his folds of skin made it difficult for him to wash thoroughly. No one liked him. When he cycled around the island with the bookhouse members, the skin on his inner thighs chafed so badly that if he didn’t constantly pedal, his legs would stick together. Crying out in pain, but also spurred on by the group, he thought to himself, “Even those weaker than me can ride up the hill!” So he gritted his teeth, endured the torment, and ascended the hills to catch up to the team.   

Many of the bookhouse kids had not previously tasted any kind of success, but thanks to cycling and, more recently, kayaking around the island, their willpower grew. Once the trips were completed, they found they had built a foundation of self-confidence, their mental energy had increased, and they had accumulated successful experiences. For children who enjoy singing and playing guitar, the bookhouse has arranged concerts; for those who like baking, they trained them to pass the exam for a Class C baking license. Jian­jie, for instance, has circled the island three times on a bike and once by kayak, and won a baking license. His face is full of color, and his expression cheerful.

From DIY bookhouse to workshop and café

Several times bookhouses came under threat of repossession by their landlords and were forced to relocate, so in 2013 Chen leased a piece of land and decided to build an adobe house there to serve as the site for the Qing­lin Bookhouse. Several older bookhouse alumni established their own “black kid” construction team, and—excepting the building’s foundation and steel structure, which were contracted to a construction company—the bookhouse was built entirely by the team. To their surprise, once the island’s first steel-supported adobe structure was completed, the team won the top prize in the 2016 Advanced Developers Association Awards for Emerging Architects.

The Qing­lin Bookhouse format inspired Chen to go on to create a second self-built structure: the “Black Kid Café,” which is dedicated to vocational training. Children who have dropped out of school or possess less than impressive academic qualifications, as well as unemployed adults in the local community, now have a “workshop” where they can acquire vocational skills.

Janusz Korczak, Poland’s “father of children’s human rights,” once said: “Children have the right to be loved, educated and protected.” In addition, Kids’ Bookhouse also gives children the right to be… children. But from time to time the bookhouse finds itself embarrassingly unable to fully cover workers’ salaries and expenses for the children. If you find yourself on Provincial Highway 11 at Zhi­­ben, why not stop off at the Black Kid Café and take a coffee to give them your encouragement and support?

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