Lòshēng Sanatorium 樂生療養院 sits on a small hill close to the Westernmost edge of New Taipei, overlooking the rest of Xinzhuang District 新莊區 in which it (barely) sits, before ceding to Taoyuan City 桃園市. Opened in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, it served as a place of exile for Taiwanese afflicted with Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy – and residents were forcibly confined to the compound, effectively quarantined, to prevent the (at the time thought to be) incredibly infectious disease from spreading to the general populace.
The photographs in this report were taken over a series of 3 trips to Losheng in the Summer of 2017 – there’s an awful lot to explore, and certain unexpected events resulted in my developing a deep affection for the place and not just in an ‘omgcoolabandonedstuffs’ kind of way (although there is plenty of that, if that’s what you came for).
Construction of Losheng by the Japanese government began in 1927 and was completed in early 1930 – it’s expansive design; more like a village than a hospital – with wide paths, ample greenery, and gathering spaces for it’s residents, is a little different to the dense, concentration camp-esque shantytown you might expect an imperial nation to construct for it’s colonised peoples, and due to the stigma associated with leprosy and possible contagion, these were among the lowest of those. I suspect the motives of the Japanese for building such an ornate and thoughtfully designed complex weren’t entirely altruistic – Thanks to the implementation of a policy of ‘Mainland Extensionism 內地延長主義’ wherein Taiwan was intended to be treated as an extension of Japan (and not just a separate colony), the latter’s laws, policies, education system .etc were all gradually implemented with the end-goal of being complete cultural assimilation of the Taiwanese, and building a facility such as Losheng would most likely have had the ulterior motive of projecting an aura of power, wealth and benevolence designed to aid in the large scale effort of getting the locals on-side.
The hospital opened with an intake of just 5 patients, yet over it’s first year this quickly increased to over 100, and in 1934, when the Japanese introduced a policy of Mandatory Isolation 絕對隔離[PDF], for Hans Disease sufferers, the floodgates were opened and the sanatorium’s population exploded at such a rate, that the number of patients far exceeded the hospital’s intended capacity, leading to less than ideal living standards inside. Food was scarce, and although residents were given rationed amounts, many came to rely on care packages sent in by relatives who hadn’t yet abandoned them – not an option for the remainder who had either been effectively expunged from their family trees – such was the social stigma, or who had none to speak of at all.
With the rising number of patients being admitted from all over Taiwan1, Losheng underwent a period of rapid expansion in an attempt to keep pace with those incoming, and as containment efforts ramped up, barbed wire was installed, an armed guard posted at the hospital entrance, and disinfection stations installed across the campus so that staff and the few visitors who weren’t afraid to go inside could be ‘decontaminated’ upon exiting, along with all outgoing mail and equipment. Even with these thorough measures in place to prevent anyone leaving, escapees were an issue – particularly around the end of WWII, when food already in short supply became even scarcer, and hunger drove many to break out and try their luck outside2. This didn’t often last long before these runaways were located by the Japanese police, and subsequently returned to be beaten, whipped, or confined further still, inside a small cell on the edge of the compound in a kind of Russian doll-esque state of isolation within isolation.
- Columbarium 靈骨塔 – storage for the ashes of cremated residents*
- Zhēn déshě 貞德舍 – residence for female patients*
- Xǐyī House 喜一舍*
- Market 市場*
- Kaohsiung House 高雄舍
- Fū tún House 夫屯舍
- Qīxīng House 七星舍
- Fú yǎ House 符雅舍
- Pínghé House 平和舍*
- Hospital Administrator’s Office 院長室*
- Zhōngshān Hall 中山堂*
- Sìchuān Memorial Hall 世川紀念館*
- Reflection Room 反省室 (solitary confinement cell in other words)
- Harmony Garden 怡園 (another confinement cell with an Orwellian name)
- Chù gāo House 處高舍
- Dàtóng House 大同舍
- Píng’ān House 平安舍
- Welfare Club 福利社蓬萊舍 (social cooperative store)
- Counselling Room 輔導室
- Chiayi House 嘉義舍
- Wáng shān House 王山舍
- Xīnshēng House 新生舍
- Fúshòu House 福壽舍
- Buddhist Temple 佛堂
- Xīnjiàn House 新建舍
- Zhāoyáng House 朝陽舍
- Bathhouse 澡堂
- Main Kitchen 大廚房
- Boiler Room 鍋爐室
- Shuāngài House 雙愛舍
- Yúwēng House 漁翁舍
- Health Benefit House 2 惠生二舍
- Health Benefit House 1 惠生一舍
- Serious Illness Ward 重病房
- Pharmacy 藥局
- Emergency Ward 急病房
- Admin Office & Staff Living Quarters 行政辦公室*
The exodus of the Japanese from the island after the war left Losheng in the hands of the newly installed KMT government, although this appears to have had little effect for the residents themselves with the policy of separation remaining largely unchanged and meagre food rations still remaining a serious issue. Life in Losheng sustained it’s rather grim outlook, with treatments being limited to basic (and ineffective) drugs such as penicillin, along with traditional Chinese medicinal methods – many residents thus became resigned to the idea of being exiled for the remainder of their lives. It wasn’t until 1956 that the first effective treatment for leprosy arrived at the sanatorium – Dapsone or ‘DDS’, which had proved effective against the Leprosy bacterium in the West where it had been developed. It’s initial rollout in Losheng did not go well – limited quantities were made available to patients and distributed by lottery, resulting in violence towards staff from those not selected to be treated. Even after adequate stock of the drug was in place, patients were given little (if any) guidance on how much to take, from doctors inexperienced with how it should be administered, amplifying the already numerous and painful side-effects that resulted from overdoses, and made yet worse still, by the already poor health of many who took it. Fear of the drug spread through Losheng, and many refused treatment, preferring to deal with the pain they knew, over the one they didn’t. Others hoarded it when it was handed out, stockpiling enough so that death was guaranteed (albeit slowly and painfully) when they took all that they’d amassed at once.
In 1958, an international leprosy conference held in Tokyo concluded that the disease was not as contagious as initially thought, and recommended the withdrawal of isolation measures for those afflicted. It took a few years for Taiwan to put this into practice, but in 1962, after 5 years of effective adjustments of DDS dosages to safer levels, and with most patients now in recovery, the government finally abolished their longstanding policy of forced separation, leaving the former patients free to exit into the outside world if they wished. Though a few did, many chose to remain in Losheng – after decades of isolation, family ties were often effectively severed, and extensive readjustment, along with likely discrimination due to obvious disfigurements marking them as lepers (the stigma of which would take further decades to fully abate) was a hard pill to swallow. The hospital compound had morphed from what was effectively a prison, into a haven of sorts – the residents had everything they needed within it’s walls and often banded together, constructing new buildings, such as the cooperatively run store, growing vegetables and practicing religion in the Buddhist temple and recently constructed Catholic church.
In 1993, the Taipei Metro assessed and selected the land on which Losheng stood as an ideal site to construct a depot for the MRT’s proposed Orange Line, which would terminate in nearby Huilong. This plan necessitated the demolition of the majority of the sanatorium, and the following year a scheme was devised for relocating the residents to a newly proposed hospital nearby. They were asked for their input on the design of the new facility, and an idea was proposed that (supposedly) took into account their needs. Taipei Metro acquired the Losheng site from the government in 2002, but It wasn’t until 2004 as the new building was being constructed (2 years after the demolition of some of Losheng’s outer buildings), that the hospital’s occupants noticed it’s design was totally different to that which they were promised – taking on the form a large tower, rather than the ‘house-like’ accommodation that was proposed to them – not the most convenient structure to access for those with limited mobility. I’m sure the fact that this new development also had a much smaller footprint, handily resulting in less land needing to have been purchased to accommodate it, wasn’t at all lost on the government members involved in the project.
The Losheng resident’s plight at the hands of the MRT company has prompted the creation of several supporting groups such as the Losheng Youth League 青年樂生聯盟, who have consistently organised protests and events to raise public awareness since demolition started, and drawn significant media attention in the process. Alongside this, much work has been done towards attempting to grant Losheng ‘cultural asset’ status, which would afford it a greater protections from further demolition. In response to this and other protests, Taipei Metro proposed a ’41%’ plan, which would guarantee the preservation of a fraction of the remaining buildings, but demolish historic structures such as the cooperative store and the hospital’s remaining 2 wings. Residents and protesters shot this proposal down as unacceptable and the Ministry of Culture 文建會 instead countered with a ’90%’ plan, which was intended to demonstrate the viability of completion of the depot, while retaining the vast majority of Losheng’s remaining structures. This was rejected on the grounds that the reduced minimum curve radius of the track designs in the 90% schematic were unworkable, citing safety concerns as the issue.
Losheng was finally given it’s designation as a cultural monument in 2009, and thus afforded protection under the ‘Cultural Assets Act 文化資產保存法’. The further opening of the Fu Jen University 輔大 > Huilong 迴龍 section of track in 2013, also put to bed claims that the line’s operation would be impossible without more demolition and completion of the depot, and the MRT appear to have relented somewhat in their approach to the situation, so much so that reconstruction of some of the buildings that were torn down now seems a distinct possibly. An initial ‘Land Bridge Plan 陸橋方案’ was set in motion by the construction company, which involves the building of a wide bridge so that the old sanatorium can be easily accessed from the main Zhongzheng Road – this sounds reasonable enough, however it has triggered widespread outcry from the hospital’s supporters, due to the lack of thought that appears to have been put into ensuring the design is suitable for the residents to use.
Access to the bridge is via an elevator, rather than a slope which is hardly convenient for those whose limbs have been amputated. Instead, protesters and residents have been pushing for another scheme – the ‘Large Sloped Platform 緩坡大平台案’, which is less of a bridge and more like a suspended park above the MRT tracks, with the sanatorium’s original ‘Y’ shaped road3 being reinstated, along with the large green space originally present at it’s entrance. Instead of an elevator, access would be accomplished through one long gradual slope, much more suitable for the resident’s electric wheelchairs. In 2016, the construction company gathered interested parties from both sides of the ongoing conflict, to discuss the feasibility of this proposal. From what I can tell (my translations get a little murky here), the plans were judged as technically feasible, although a number of the rail lines would have to be sacrificed to accommodate it. Despite these issues, it appears as if a consensus was reached and both sides were in agreement that the current design would be changed to the Large Platform proposal.
Mid-2017 saw concerns raised from Losheng supporters watching the progress of construction, that there was no evidence of the agreed upon sloped platform, and instead, the original Land Bridge plan looked to be underway. A petition to the government soon followed in which answers were demanded and after 4 months of consideration, they eventually followed through with a lengthy, official response. You can read the full thing (in Chinese) here, but to summarise: the community supported plans were soundly rejected due to a mixture of concerns regarding cost, unacceptable passenger transfer delays due to the reduction in the number of lines, issues with the intended design’s impact on emergency service response times and the steep gradient potentially causing problems such as runaway mobility scooters rolling down onto the main road – A disappointing result for those hoping for a more complete restoration and a seeming step backwards from the tentative approval of the previous meeting.
Skip forward to early 2018, and construction of the Land Bridge is well under way, much the chagrin of the hospital’s supporters who have staged protests in which cardboard effigies of the bridge, which has in a way come to symbolise the constant breaches of trust that have plagued the past two decades of fighting for Losheng’s survival; are destroyed and even as the depot’s projected completion date of December 2018 looms, it appears the saga will still be far from over, although I imagine the window for major design alterations has probably passed at this point in time.
Like I assume most foreigners are, I was initially drawn to to visit Losheng for the ‘frozen-in-time’ main hospital building, filled with relics from it’s days of operation and with a fascinating history to boot – Leprosy isn’t a disease I imagine most people think much at all of in the West, and when they do, I would hazard a guess it’s most likely for it’s biblical connotations; but I’ll be honest and say I thought it was something which was more or less ancient history at this point – no longer around, Like smallpox – and if it was, it was only in some tiny capacity, marginalised on the fringes of some developing nation – out of sight, out of mind. Of course in actuality, it’s only in the latter half of the 20th century that effective drugs have been developed and made available, largely eradicating it from the Western world, yet it’s still pervasive in countries such as India, Myanmar, Brazil, and much of Africa – not quite ancient history yet.
I first visited the hospital with a local friend in early July 2017 after a morning spent exploring Dadaocheng 大稻埕, and one of the first things you notice as you approach Losheng is the sheer scale of the Taipei Metro depot construction project which dominates the entire area at the foot of the hill on which the old hospital stands, and has been ongoing now since 2003. The new tower-style Losheng building looms to the South-West of of this sprawling building site, and the main access to the old hospital is via a narrow bridge that spans the flattened gravel wasteland below. Once into the old area, the city noise attenuates subtly (punctuated with the occasional sound of heavy machinery labouring down below) and I was finally able to get an initial measure of the place.
The majority of the compound is given over to residences – most being in the traditional sānhéyuàn 三合院 style, and many are now abandoned as the residents either chose to leave, or relocated to the new building we’d just passed. The amount of stuff left behind is surprising – most are filled with traces of the homes’ final occupants: photos, toys, books, clothes; it really seems as if one day, everyone just decided to walk out with only what they could carry… and actually that’s pretty much what happened! After doing some digging, it appears that around 2005, when the residents were being increasingly pressured into moving to the newly constructed premises – to add further insult to injury, they were requested to vacate within days, and told that they could bring no more than 2 small crates worth of personal possessions with them – everything else must be left behind. Ah bureaucracy.
After exploring a few of the dormitories, we directed our attention to the main hospital itself, but not before an older man suddenly whizzed towards us in his electric wheelchair and started merrily chatting away. As it turns out, he was one of the few dozen or so residents who chose to remain on-site rather than be pressured into leaving by the powers-that-be, and was offering us an invitation to his home for some piping hot tea. Dutifully adhering to the British stereotype where ‘no’ doesn’t even figure into the equation of such a proposition, I gratefully accepted and we were led to the courtyard of his home nearby, where he sat us down in some chairs next to the kettle, and indicated that we should help ourselves to the pistachios and dried beans kept in jars underneath.
The afternoon had taken a rather unexpected turn (like all the best ones do) as we found ourselves, cups of tea in hand, chatting to him about his life in the sanatorium compound. I wouldn’t say the conversation was fluid exactly – with my friend patiently translating for the both of us – but it was fascinating. He told us that he had arrived in Losheng in 1970, when he was just 16 years old – a latecomer to the hospital relatively speaking – and up until recently when a new resident had moved in, he’d been the youngest in the old compound area. The time of his arrival only just succeeded Losheng’s period of peak population in the mid 1960s, and he recalled that there were still around 1000 residents present at this time, with each dormitory (designed with single occupancy in mind) holding 3 people, so privacy was obviously very hard to come by. He had never had a wife – we were told that marriage within the sanatorium was not allowed, as it was feared that leprosy would be passed down to any subsequent children, although interestingly he did mention that marriages with those outside of the sanatorium were permitted (bear in mind that at this time, residents were not forcibly confined to the premises), however from what I gather, this was not at all common due to the public’s persistent fear of the disease, and the understandable unwillingness of those afflicted, to go out and be subject to potential abuse and further ostracisation.
At this point in the conversation, further visitors arrived – a couple of what I took to be students aged around 20 or so, with a middle aged man in tow. They were quickly included in the small gathering. One of the students (my hunch was correct) spoke some basic English and I learned that she was studying Anthropology and apparently often came to help the residents with chores, shopping .etc, but on this particular occasion, the task at hand was to measure and mark the cracks that had been appearing all over the buildings in the area – a side effect of the excavation work done down below which had caused the land to start slipping. After some more idle talk, we left them to their task, before a further car pulled up and some shopping was brought to our host from the man who got out. When this was all put away we resumed our conversation, with me accepting yet another refill of tea (bringing my total to around 6 or so, as he’d kept offering as I finished each cup and I’m very much a ‘yes’ man when it come to such things), when he asked us if we wanted to see where he lived. Of course we did, and said as much, so he proudly led us over to his dormitory, in the East wing of the building.
With the subsequent decline in sanatorium population in the intervening years, he now had a room all to himself. It was very narrow, with a small bed in one corner, and various nicknacks sitting on the sparse amount of furniture that still managed to take up the rest of the available space. Interestingly, there were a few photos dotted around as well – one I recall, was of what looked like members of a marching band, with brass instruments in hand. I asked about his photos and was told they were of hospital staff, fellow residents, and other visitors to Losheng – No family members of course, which somehow really hit home for me just how isolated, those that lived here had been and how much they’d had to endure.
Before we left, I asked if I could take some photos to remember him by to which he kindly obliged, but not before dashing back to his room to get his tablet so he could do likewise – I’m not normally one for selfies, but on this particular occasion, I let it slide! I did think about sharing the photos here, but I wouldn’t be totally comfortable doing that without his permission – I had no idea I was going to write this when I took them so it never occurred for me to get it at the time. We then said our goodbyes after thanking him profusely for his hospitality, and I promised I’d return at some point (and I really do mean to), before we headed down to the old hospital below.
The hospital itself is laid out in a curious manner with 3 wings, connected by a single central corridor that form the character 王 for ‘king’ (probably coincidentally)4. It’s certainly odd, but makes sense when you consider that the purpose of the building was to act as a quarantine, and the long corridor functions as a kind of ‘choke point’, forcing all persons along a single path – making it easier to ensure that they undergo the proper disinfection procedures at the stations installed along it (and also I’m sure, to guard against potential escapees). The uppermost wing houses the pharmacy, where I imagine DDS was originally distributed along with other drugs not necessarily related to leprosy; various diagnosis rooms and offices, along with a newer 1960s-era ward building tacked onto it’s Western side.
The larger middle wing, is one of the most interesting areas of Losheng, housing the pitch Black X-Ray room, with attached development lab, a medical laboratory and an incredibly well kept operating theatre. I imagine a large number of amputations would have been performed there over the years – contrary to popular belief, leprosy itself doesn’t actually cause limbs to drop off, but it can cause significant nerve damage, resulting in a loss of feeling, so patients are often unaware of injuries, which can all too often lead to severe infection necessitating the removal of the limb. The large canister of Nitrous Oxide in the corner may well have been used to anaesthetise patients during such operations.
I’m not entirely sure what the original purpose of the Easternmost room in this wing once was, but at some point in it’s history it’s been repurposed into a kind of museum, with exhibits covering the history of the hospital, along with some glass cases that, bizarrely, once appear to have contained books relating to WWII-era Soviet literature judging from the information cards I found, along with printouts covering what appear to be Chinese religious artefacts. My hunch is that these have been appropriated from the hospital’s former library at some point (possibly one of the demolished buildings), as I believe the room itself was once another ward.
The St. Williams’s Catholic church 樂生聖威廉天主堂的過 is yet another highlight – an architectural fusion of East and Western influences, finished in 1965 as a result of the collaborative efforts of 4 Western missionaries keen to build on the work of the steady influx of evangelists preaching in the sanatorium since the late 1950s. It’s actually one of 2 Christian churches on the hospital grounds, the other being the still-in-use Presbyterian church 台灣基督長老教會聖望教會 that now lies in the grounds of the new hospital. Because of it’s location on the edge of Losheng next to the construction works, the congregation of St. Williams were forced to vacate it in late 2005, and relocate to the 9th floor of the newly constructed hospital building. Inside, things are rather sparse – no intricate murals, immense stained glass windows or anything of the sort, but it does carry off a kind of austere elegance that I rather like. I also spotted a boxed up Christmas Tree on a chair in the corner. It’s never too early…
Collectively over my visits, I managed to cover a large portion of the old hospital grounds, but even still, I’ve nowhere near seen it all. I’d love to gain access to the huge kitchen, boiler room and the confinement cells, but they’ll have to wait until a return visit I think, there’s also some further interesting connections to be made too with related disease clinics and organisations across both Taipei, and the country as a whole – with hopeful looking sites in Tamsui, Tainan and Yilan already on my personal map of curiosities.
Losheng roughly translates to ‘Happy Life’ which possibly sounds rather Orwellian given the effective imprisonment of it’s occupants, however despite their constant battle with bureaucracy, these days the statement seems to ring truer than it once did, and it’s remaining residents seem to have carved out as happy a life as they can under the circumstances. I’m definitely not finished with the hospital just yet. There are some interesting years ahead, and I’ll be keeping an eye on how things progress once the MRT depot is fully operational, and the focus shifts onto the nature of the reconstructions, which I’ve heard are tentatively scheduled for a 2022 completion date.
I’m by no means the first to write about Losheng – it’s fight for survival in Taiwan’s capital has been fairly high profile as these things go, so there are a wealth of informative articles (mostly in Chinese) on the web for further reading. I highly recommend the following resources which I used to help write this piece:
- MedForLosheng: Incredibly detailed articles on the hospital’s history, relocation strategy, and accounts from the residents themselves about life inside.
- Happy Losheng 快樂·樂生: Facebook group of the Losheng Youth League.
- Blue Joe: A very thorough article on the sanatorium.
- MOHW Losheng Timeline: A timeline of significant event in the hospital’s history from the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
- Losheng Youth League Wiki: Oral histories and a log of press attention related to the hospital.
- Taiwan Association of Human Rights 台灣人權促進會: Timeline of the construction of Losheng’s buildings.
- Love Losheng: Detailed information along with some Q&As – In English!
- Laying out a Model Village: Academic article that gives an insight into leprosy in Taiwan under Japanese rule.
- Police arrested those with leprosy and sent many to Taipei via rail in special isolated passenger cars. These were colloquially referred to by many citizens as 苔疙 (moss warts) cars – almost certainly a reference to the similar looking skin lesions caused by leprosy.
- Not all escapees sought freedom for food – from reading resident’s accounts, in the 1950s one patient apparently snuck out to watch a movie instead!
- One path for infected patients, and another for those uninfected.
- Interestingly the traditional reading of this character has the 3 lines representing Heaven, Man, and Earth (from top to bottom) with the vertical stroke being the king connecting them all. The demolition of the lower wing has effectively removed ‘Earth’ from the equation – I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere if you look hard enough…