"Business is picking up gradually. I've cultivated some new customers. Some old customers from the neighborhood would come buy rolls from me from time to time, but this shop is out of the way, and the rest is about NT$30,000 per month. I don't know how long I can sustain the business, but I'll do it until I can't or until I have to move again". Mr. Lee lets out a long sigh and shook his head.
Mr. Lee or Brother Lee (李哥), as residents of the Huaguang Community call him, was born in the community in 1958. Brother Lee's father, or "Gong Gong (公公/Grandpa)", was a police officer from the Jiangsu Province in China. He and his wife came to Taiwan in 1949, after the Nationalist Chinese Party (KMT) lost the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They settled in the Huaguang Community and purchased a small, modest house, where Mr. Lee Senior sold clay oven rolls for more than three decades. Brother Lee picked up his father's trade after Mr. Lee Senior retired.
As I approached the shop, I saw Brother Lee making his famous rolls and listening to Taiwanese songs by my favorite Taiwanese singer, Jiang Hui (江蕙).
"Come! Eat some rolls first!" Brother Lee puts two rolls in the small paper bag and stuffs them in my hand, "Try a sweet one and a salty one. They are warm and crunchy!"
Brother Lee opened his new shop two months ago, and he sells several kinds of rolls. The rolls are all covered in sesame. The longer shaped one has melted sugar inside. The gooey sugar seeps out when one bites into the roll. The round one is salty and is generously laced with green onion. Mr. Lee also makes rolls stuffed with red bean paste, and he also makes chewy green onion flat bread where the dough bounces inside of one's mouth when one eats it.
"You know I went to Jiangsu twice, one time for sightseeing, and one time to take care of my mother when she fell ill there during a visit", Brother Lee said, "My mother never wanted to go back to China to stay, now that people are free to do so. She said everything she has and know is here. My father was more nostalgic. He wanted to be back, especially when he expired. Both of my parents passed away at an old age. They were both in their 90s. Fortunately, they were gone before the government tried to take our home; otherwise, they would probably be devastated and suffer like the other elderly from the community".
The Ministry of Justice sued Brother Lee and his family members whose names are attached to the Huaguang Community house for more than one million dollars. After going to court and losing his case for illegally profiting and residing, Brother Lee was ordered to pay a part of the fine, which was NT$180,000. The government also froze Brother Lee's family members bank account and is taking 1/3 of his nephew's salary.
"I tried to sneak back to my home to make rolls after we were evicted, but the Civil Executioners caught me and screamed at me to leave". Brother Lee lights up a cigarette, gazing into the distance, "They were making fun of us during demolition day (April 24th), including the Borough Chief. They were smirking and saying, 'We told you to leave earlier. Why fight this? After all your efforts, we are still here, tearing down you house. Hurry up and pack your crap and stop being so pathetic. Did you know? your houses are the easiest to tear down'".
"I don't know why the government did this to us. We are law abiding citizens, making a honest living. We never did anything to harm anyone else. We pay taxes. So, why treat us like we are some kind of beggar or criminals? You know that old lady from the soy milk breakfast place who died the day of demolition? The government people said she died because she was already in poor health, and no one asked her to come witness the demolition anyway".
"But, " Brother Lee finishes his cigarette and starts to make a new batch of rolls again, "We all have to start again somehow, right? Some friends told me about this new shop. It costs a lot to rent, NT$30,000, and I make about NT$2,000 on a good day. I also have to pay for electricity, water and material. It'll not be easy to maintain my new shop, but I'll keep going and not give up".
As I bid goodbye to Brother Lee, I said I would come back again and also tell my friends about his new shop. "Yes, now you know where I am, come and eat rolls again!" Brother Lee said with a smile.
I also wanted to buy extra rolls, but Brother Lee refused to take money from me, so we did the typical Taiwanese thing of trying to stuff the money into each other's hands while Brother Lee pushing the bag of rolls into my arm. Brother Lee finally took money from me and thanked me for visiting him.
I have been following the eviction and forced demolition of the Huaguang Community since February and observed more than three demolitions. The authorities and some members of the media have painted the residents as greedy, difficult, money-hungry troublemakers who refused to move from their "illegal" households. Nothing could be further from the truth. The residents work just as hard as everyone else to make a living. They understand nothing is for free and don't want anything for free. The residents settled in the community because of Taiwan's political past, and they were permitted to reside in the community until last year. President Ma Ying-jeou and his political associates often like to say they are only acting in accordance to law (依法行政); however, the law is made for the people. When one takes the human and humanity from the law, the law is nothing but a soulless shell.
If you are in Taipei and are looking for a good breakfast or delicious snack, be sure to visit Brother Lee at: 南海路二段14號 at Exit 2 of Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial MRT Stop.
For further reading on the eviction and demolition of Huaguang Community, please read previous blog entries: