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A Utopian Vision for Nanjichang—Borough Chief Fang Hesheng

Long-time borough chief Fang Hesheng strives to help people in need in his community out of a belief that those with the ability to help have a responsibility to do so.

Long-time borough chief Fang Hesheng strives to help people in need in his community out of a belief that those with the ability to help have a responsibility to do so.
 

A passage in the Li Yun chapter of The Classic of Rites describes a time in which “people loved not just their own parents, nor just their own children. The aged were provided for until their death; the able-bodied had work; and the young, the opportunity to grow up. There was care for widows, widowers, orphans, childless elderly people, and people suffering from illness.” Tai­pei’s Zhong­qin Borough, located in the city’s Zhong­zheng District, is home to a large number of poor and disadvantaged people, but borough chief Fang He­sheng is working diligently to create a more equitable world.

 

It may only be early morning at the Nanjichang ­LOHAS Community Center in the Zhongqin Borough of Taipei’s Zhongzheng District, but volunteers are already hard at work preparing the day’s communal lunch. As noon approaches, elderly diners gather around the tables, while volunteers stand by to deliver meals to the wider community by motor scooter or van.

White-haired borough resident Guo-Li Abi arrived here early this morning to help prepare lunch and has stayed to share the meal. She’ll have a nap afterwards, and then go have a chat with a friend who owns a shop. At four in the afternoon, she’ll head off to help manage the community’s foodsharing fridge. An active 83-year-old, Guo-Li has no trouble climbing the stairs to her third-floor home, which is decorated with photos from her wiserball team’s second-place finish in a Malaysian tournament. She keeps borough chief Fang Hesheng’s phone number in a very visible location as well.

The Nanjichang community is 57 years old. A bit messy and chaotic with illegal structures erected long ago, locals have responded positively to Fang’s calls to pool their skills and strengths to help one another.

A former beauty

When the government finished building the Nanjichang housing project in 1963, it was the most modern housing development in Taiwan. It was the first to have flush toilets, and since all of the community’s power lines were underground, there was nary a utility pole to be seen. The apartments were a showcase for government construction efforts, and a frequent destination for foreign dignitaries. Fang recalls frequently flushing the family’s toilet as a child to show guests how it worked.

The government erected the Nanjichang housing as a means to settle rural-urban migrants and flood victims. A great deal of attention was paid to the structures’ ex­terior appearance, and the exposed spiral staircases remain eye-catching even today. When Fang’s family settled here, his father had a shop that made and sold cotton quilts. Fang recalls that they couldn’t leave so much as a broom and dustpan outside without getting a ticket from the police. But at some point this once model community fell into decay. In the 1980s, a lack of space led residents to begin building upward, with some going so far as to extend their balconies outward and even encroach on the staircases. Corrugated sheet metal in every color began to paper over the once neat and orderly housing project. Interestingly, the mottled appearance of the aging project is what led dir­ector Luc Besson to use it as a location for his movie Lucy.

The project ended up housing many elderly, disadvantaged and low-income residents, with the result that stories about elderly individuals who lived by themselves dying alone became a news staple a decade or so ago.

Meals and funerals

Fang was elected borough chief in 1998, and has now served for more than 20 years. When he first ran for office, he was at home recuperating from an injury and using his free time to help elderly neighbors apply for allowances offered to low-income seniors. “Seeing the plight of so many elderly, seeing so much need, is what really pushed me to run for borough chief…. My mother passed away when I was young, and it was neighbors who took care of me growing up. Now, when I see people in need, I figure I can help….”

But just because help is offered doesn’t mean it’s accepted. Fang says that you have to first build trust. Seniors who live alone tend to be suspicious of other people’s motives. Fang’s solution was to do everything himself, even handling funeral arrangements. “Why do I arrange funerals for seniors who have died? The biggest reason is that I want the elderly in the community to trust me, and to let them know that their borough chief will be with them to the end, no matter what.”

But how could Fang help community seniors in more immediate and practical ways? After seeking advice from the Heping Branch of Taipei City Hospital, he started a meal program for Nanjichang’s elderly in 2002. “Zhongqin Borough offers three types of meal service…. We can deliver meals; seniors can pick them up for themselves; or they can enjoy a group meal at the community center.”

“We began with food, but providing care beyond that has been crucial.” Fang says that meals are about more than full bellies. Shared meals are important because they get seniors out of their homes. Interacting with the neighborhood helps them maintain social contact and also makes it easier for the local care center to keep an eye on them.

These days, Fang’s program prepares more than 300 boxed meals a day, but government support for the program’s costs is limited. “If the government only provides support for the cost of 40 senior meals, do I tell the 41st person that they can’t eat?” he asks. “The Department of Social Welfare says it can’t provide financial assistance, that we don’t meet its criteria. So, forget it. I’ll do it. I’ll handle it.” As Fang often remarks, “Providing a group meal for just one day is holding an event. Providing it for five days, that’s caring for people.”

Many care centers check and track seniors’ blood pressure, but Fang goes further by sharing the blood-pressure figures with seniors’ children, too. “Taking seniors’ blood pressure doesn’t keep seniors healthy. What we do is send the figures to their children, which encourages their children to become actively involved. That’s the real key to keeping seniors healthy.”

Having seen children give up on education or be led astray because of dysfunction in community households, Fang set up after-school programs to provide support to struggling elementary- and middle-school-aged kids. He also stopped using the term “juvenile delinquent” to describe troubled young people, and steered some of them towards barista certifications. Encouraging mastery of a trade by which these kids can earn a living gives them a second chance at a successful life.

Sharing and sustainability

Fang puts enormous effort into chasing down the ingredients his meal service needs to provide food to so many, doing his utmost to “feed the five thousand.”

One of his approaches involves a deal with Carrefour under which the company provides him with fruit and vegetables nearing their expiration dates, and so-called “ugly produce” that doesn’t meet market standards of appearance, which it would otherwise have to discard.

Fang jokes that his kitchen serves “no-menu cuisine” because it never knows what it’s going to have on hand to cook on any given day.

“I’ve earned companies’ trust. Since introducing the pilot program in 2016, more than 100 markets have adopted this approach, sending their unsalable food to local social welfare organizations…. Isn’t it wonderful?”

He has gone on to establish a food bank. By allowing people to come in and select exactly what they need, the food bank ensures that food donations don’t go to waste. He has also negotiated arrangements that allow food collection stations to be set up outside of markets so that consumers can make donations while shopping for their own everyday needs. This has increased the variety of items his food bank offers.

More recently, he rented a retail space to establish the neighborhood’s Housebook60 coffee shop, which serves meals made from excess food. In addition to reducing food waste, the cafe provides work and income to the community’s disadvantaged young people.

Now, many communities are emulating Fang’s approach and asking for his advice. Some, in places as far afield as Germany, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea and Shanghai, China, have established long-term exchanges, too. Communities drawing on the system he has built over the last 20 years can begin by using whichever aspect of it they most need, and then slowly scale up their own operations.

Cooperation makes it fun

Asked about how he’s funding his efforts, Fang says: “The government provides roughly NT$3 of ­every NT$10 I spend, so I have to come up with the other NT$7 ­myself.” Fundraising is always on his mind. “I don’t have a monopoly on [providing services], but ever­yone who does it struggles with the difficulties.”

“I know that if I quit, I could take it easy. But I also know that if I quit, these kids and seniors would have real problems.” And so, even as the world deals with the pandemic, Zhongqin Borough continues to provide services to residents. “I have a good sense of where my seniors have traveled and who they’ve been in contact with. And having them come over here to share a meal and a chat is better than having them sit at home panicking over the stories and death counts on the news.”

The possible effects of urban renewal programs on Nanjichang have been a hot topic in recent years, and Fang has thought long and hard about the community’s future. He has spoken with Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je about working with Taipei Metro to build an educational and social welfare center above the metro station under construction next to Zhongyi Elementary School. The building will include daycare for young and old, a library, and a community kitchen, with the goal of having young and old learning and eating together. But bringing the project to fruition over the next few years will require communal effort.

When we interview Fang at Housebook60, we also meet the cafe’s cat, a paraplegic rescue that Fang adopted. It too has found a home and people who care for it in the disadvantaged Nanjichang community, where Fang is slowly building a world in which “the elderly are cared for, the able-­bodied have work, the young have the opportunity to grow up, and widows, widowers, orphans, childless elderly people, and people suffering from illness are all provided for.”