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Stories of the Brave and the Perseverant

Township reborn from ashes gains newfound prestige

 
九二一震災,中部嚴重受創,許多人的家園一夕間被震毀,但信心依舊在,藉由政府重建大軍、永續工程協助,激發在地產業新生力量,並持續傳承、發揚光大。台中縣石岡鄉的主婦們接受行政院勞工委員會職業訓練局在職訓練,開創出災後的新生機。
 

By Elizabeth Hsu CNA staff writer

Longan was traditionally an unremarkable village in central Taiwan, lacking the scenic vistas or a distinct historical and cultural heritage to set it apart from other communities and make outsiders take note.

That all changed on Sept. 21, 1999. A destructive magnitude 7.3 earthquake shook the village to its very foundations in the middle of the night, with many local residents killed by their collapsing homes.

Also jarred forever was Longan's anonymity and nondescript past, as survivors united and refused to surrender to the blast's devastation, rebuilding their community with the help of a team of architects headed by Luo Shi-wei, director of Tunghai University's Department of Architecture.


In Taichung city students went to see earth rupture caused by the 921 Earthquake. (Oct 8, 1999 CNA)

Luo's contributions continue to this day, in Longan and throughout Jhongliao Township in which the village is located, and the new institutions built and sustained since the earthquake have given the area newfound visibility.

Recalling the aftermath of the second deadliest earthquake in Taiwan's recorded history, Luo said he rushed to the area three days after the quake hit with more than NT$2 million (US$61,000) in donations from students, teachers and alumni of the department.

He wanted to use the money to build prefabricated housing units to shelter those rendered homeless by the quake, and he and his team of architects scoured the area for land on which they could install the pre-fab units.

They searched most of the worst-hit areas -- Nantou County's Caotun, Guosing, Puli, Jiji and Jhongliao townships, and Taichung County's Sinshe, Shihgang and Dongshih townships -- but had little success, stymied by land ownership and building construction issues.

Finally, one township lent a helping hand.

"We needed land to accommodate the shelters, and during those chaotic days, only Jhongliao Township chief Wu Chao-feng was willing to help us. He eventually contacted a local landowner who was willing to offer us his land near the Pingxi River to build the shelters, " Luo said.

Jhongliao is an agricultural township set in the mountains that had 4,829 households and 17,925 residents prior to the earthquake in 1999. It was an aging community, with many young people leaving home for the city to find work and live a more modern life.

The earthquake, centered in the neighboring township of Jiji, hit it as hard as any township in Taiwan.

A total of 178 lives were lost in Jhongliao, the highest number in proportion to its population of any township in the country, as 2,528 homes crumbled and another 1,417 were severely damaged. Most of the damaged homes were old brick houses.

Luo's prefabricated houses, which differed from the many temporary shelters being erected in the area at the time, offered every homeless household an independent living space of 427 square feet.

The distinction was critical to earthquake victims, Luo said, because what they needed was not just a short-term shelter but a place where they could start making a living again. The homeless families refused to see themselves as "refugees."

In the first several years after the destructive earthquake, Luo spent most of his time in the northern part of Jhongliao. Under his guidance, Cingshuei Village was relocated and rebuilt over a four-year period on solid ground, its new structures sturdily constructed to resist future quakes.

While the relocation of Cingshuei earned him many accolades, Luo believes his most influential restoration project in the shattered township was the establishment of a community educational center and a public kitchen for the elderly in Longan.

Opened May 7, 2000, the Lungyenlin community educational center was housed in the office of a local forestry conservation association and a bamboo factory. It offered classes to help local victims of the earthquake learn professional skills that enabled them to rebuild their homes and their lives.

In the center's first semester, area residents could choose from courses on computers, photography, English, medicinal plants, woodworking, and construction materials, Luo says.


Vice President Annette Lu consoled the 921 Earthquake victims in Jhongliao Township. (July 27, 2000 CNA)

The formation of the educational center was part of a broader rebuilding process, encompassing spatial, social and industrial reconstruction, in which it was hoped people would learn not only how to appreciate the place where they lived but also how to use local resources to improve their living environment and livelihoods.

Luo's initiatives fulfilled these goals, triggering the re-engineering and transformation of the aging community.

With knowledge learned at the center, some local farmers evolved into successful operators of competitive leisure-oriented farms. Others launched new businesses by growing medicinal plants.

Luo and his team also built a unique kitchen for Longan village that turned into a communal gathering ground for senior citizens to eat and converse together.

Opened in May 2001, the kitchen offered fresh and cheap lunches and dinners on a daily basis to seniors who were unable to care for themselves following the earthquake.

It also delivered meals to elderly people living alone in remote mountain areas, a service that eventually became a way to keep tabs on the health of these older residents, says village chief Liao Chen-yi.

The kitchen for seniors -- the only one of its kind in Taiwan -- and the Longyenlin community educational center have not been closed for even a day since they opened nearly a decade ago and continue to serve local residents today.

They have even become tourist attractions, their stories becoming legends that have caught the attention of outsiders and put the small village on the map, along with the area's new recreational farms and hiking paths.

Luo insists that his role was of trifling importance, saying he was just one of many people including historians, cultural workers and the local residents themselves, who helped the village rise again from the ashes.

In fact, he is thankful for all that he has learned from the restoration process, in which he witnessed severly scarred individuals and communities go through some intense soul-searching before learning to care for their living environment.

 
 
 
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