TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — The last of over 300 owners of properties condemned to make way for a railway undergrounding project in Tainan is fighting to preserve enough of her house to keep living there, while the Railway Bureau rebuffs calls for a compromise in what has become a cause celebre for critics of the government's handling of resettlements.
Huang Chun-hsiang (黃春香) owns a four-story house in Tainan's North District, about a kilometer north of Tainan Station and just meters from the trench where tracks will be laid down to ease train congestion in the southern city.
Until being evicted in October, Huang lived in this house with her 99-year-old mother and two others whom she let stay rent-free: a woman surnamed Wu (吳), who is unable to work due to a spine condition, and Wu's 17-year-old son, who studies at a local vocational school.
The eminent domain project does not require the leveling of the entire house. The dispute hinges on the staircase that connects the first and second floors and determines whether or not Huang and others can live there in the future.
The Railway Bureau, which operates under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC), rules out leaving space for the existing stairs. It insists they will interfere with the railway but has yet to fully explain how.
Huang and those who have flocked to her cause dispute the agency's claim. They accuse the bureau of bad-faith negotiations and of trying to steamroll the family even as the MOTC was allegedly mulling a solution.
The MOTC has not responded to Taiwan News' requests for comment.
Since the eviction, Huang has returned to her home, essentially camping out on the first floor despite electricity and water having been cut off. In front of the house, students take shifts to guard the place in case a demolition crew unexpectedly returns to finish what they started.
When Taiwan News arrived at the house, two of these student volunteers were resting on a sofa amid the clutter of other furniture and belongings cleared out during the eviction. One of them, a 34-year-old Ph.D. student named Lee Yachiau (李亞橋), said he had been keeping vigil for two months when he is not at school.
Another man was loitering across the street from the property. He recorded this reporter's approach with his phone's camera and tried to dissuade him from meeting Huang, saying she was unavailable. Huang later said the man is one of the employees the Railway Bureau sends to stake out the place:
"They come every day, tell you to move out, or the house will disappear when you are not around. All kinds of intimidation. You see? There are still two people spying on me all the time, leaving me living in fear."
Signs hung from Huang residence by supporters. (Taiwan News photo)
The Tainan Urban District Railway Underground Project was conceived in 1992 and approved in 2012 under the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration. Shifting the line eastward and underground was meant to alleviate the bottleneck north of Tainan Station, cutting down the queuing time for north and southbound trains as well as increasing the value of the surrounding land.
The project required the demolition of 340 properties along an 8.23-km section of the city to house the cut-and-cover tunnel.
While most of the affected households begrudgingly accepted the government's compensation and vacated the premises, 121 formed an action group and resisted, slowing the project to a crawl.
Location of Huang's house on schematic diagram of Tainan railway project (Railway Bureau image)
Huang says the Railway Bureau's original plan left sufficient room between the stairs and the subterranean tracks, but the bureau now claims the current course of the railway cannot be diverted — that doing so would be unsafe and result in further setbacks.
Originally slated for completion by 2022, the new route is only half complete, about 15 percent behind schedule. Activists say it is the bureau's refusal to negotiate that is to blame for the delay.
The number of holdouts was down to five by July of this year. Activists dug in, and a standoff with police ensued until demonstrators were removed as the Railway Bureau's crew made what seemed to be the final push.
By Oct. 13, Huang's was the only property left. Police again came out in force that day and dragged away Huang and the students who had been occupying the house in protest.
Huang's mother is now staying with Huang's younger sister. As for Wu and her son, the Railway Bureau previously agreed to put them up in a hotel for two months, as they still cannot afford housing. However, Wu has a surgery scheduled for January, and it is unclear whether the bureau will continue to provide a space for her while she recovers.
Police forcibly remove student activists from Huang's home on Oct. 13. (公民行動影音 video)
The MOTC ordered a halt to the demolition on Oct. 16 while it entered into negotiations with the concern group. Despite this, the crew kept inflicting damage to the structure, according to Huang.
Inside the house, she gestured to a wall, where sunlight streamed through holes left by excavators that had torn out chunks seemingly at random. "When it rains, it's covered in water."
Room in Huang residence heavily damaged by Railway Bureau's demolition team. (Taiwan News photo)
The stairs end after the first flight. The upper floors are connected only by a jury-rigged ramp and metal scaffolding, making ascents precarious. Huang hopes the government will let her rebuild enough of the staircase for the second floor to remain accessible.
Upstairs, the damage is more severe. Several rooms are exposed to the elements. The top floor is a tangle of twisted steel, concrete, and bricks.
When asked why the authorities insist on wrecking the stairwell if it does not obstruct the railway, she replied: "If the staircase is gone, I can no longer live here." She believes the Railway Bureau is already counting on the house becoming unlivable to avoid having to put up with similarly recalcitrant residents in the future.
The Railway Bureau did not articulate an answer to the stair question until August of this year. Lee has responded to the government agency's position point by point.
According to the bureau, preserving the stairs would mean altering the radius of curvature of the railway, which would be dangerous for trains traveling at high speeds. Lee pointed out that the majority of trains stop at Tainan Station and therefore pass the Huang residence slowly.
The bureau's second rationale was that a "green park road" and drainage ditch are slated for the area containing the stairwell and that making an allowance for it would "alter the urban landscape." Lee stressed that if the urban landscape is really the issue, then the bureau's concern is a purely cosmetic one:
"It is more important to protect the people's right to a living [space] than to sacrifice it for urban landscape design."
Accompanied by various civic organizations and Taiwan People's Party legislator Jang Chyi-lu (張其祿), the action group held a press conference outside MOTC headquarters on Nov. 6.
They issued the following demands: an option that allows continued access to the second floor; a seat at the table for Huang and her supporters at relevant ministry meetings; and an end to the Railway Bureau's unilaterally dismissing of the staircase matter.
TPP Legislator Jang Chyi-lu speaks at press conference outside MOTC headquarters. (Taiwan News photo)
The following week, Deputy Transportation Minister Wang Kow-tsai (王國材) visited the house to ascertain the situation. He said the issue of the stairs would be brought back up for discussion.
Huang has grown wary, however, and views the ministry overtures as a delay tactic. "I think they're liars," she remarked. "As far as I'm concerned, these government officials are all corrupt."
Meanwhile, she said the government has offered only NT$40,000 (US$1,420) per ping (1 ping = 3.3 square meters) in compensation, one-third the original price of the house, without taking into account the value of wiring and other additions.
Tainan Mayor Huang Wei-cher (黃偉哲) has said the owners of the destroyed properties will be compensated as generously as possible. He has also admonished Huang's supporters, stating that the "90 percent of Tainan residents who hope to complete the underground railway as soon as possible" cannot be ignored, per CNA.
As for the transportation ministry's plan to install parks and roads to add to the surrounding land's value, Huang dismissed this as deceptive. When the local government acquires enough land for public works projects, it often repurposes it and allows new houses to be built there instead, she stated.
On Nov. 12, the central engineering office of the MOTC's Department of Railways and Highways proposed repairing the damaged walls and building a new stairway in a different part of the house, one it deems not to be in conflict with the railway. Huang's side says this would also render the house uninhabitable, as too little space would remain on the first floor.