Conference poses roadblock to charity lunch

The China Post news staff

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Once a year there is a free lunch, but this year, it was particularly tough getting there. Guests to Taipei’s year-end charity banquet — an annual event since 1996 — passed through cops and three barricaded checkpoints this year to get to their table in front of the Presidential Office. That’s because the banquet coincided with a highly watched and heavily secured conference on pension reform taking place inside the Presidential Office.

In anticipation of a mass protest against the conference, Taipei police set up a 2,000-strong force in the perimeter of the building, through which 150 cooks and 800 volunteers shuffled through early Sunday with 44,000 plates and 30,000 chairs. They were followed by a procession of homeless people, low-income families with small children, the elderly and the disabled, who passed through the police cordon in a slow trickle to eat.

“Maybe it should have been held somewhere else this year,” one guest said.

The organizers — The Genesis Social Welfare Foundation and its sister groups — said this year’s banquet had drawn about 30,000 people, some coming from as far as New Taipei City’s Jinshan District.

The banquet drew about 20 percent more people this year compared to a year earlier; most were repeat guests. One of them, 67-year-old Huang Chu-yu (黃祝敔), came to the banquet this year under different circumstances.

A year ago, Huang was a homeless man who had accepted a free lunch. This year, he came as a volunteer. He told Central News Agency that he had been living in a park in Wanhua when volunteers from Jen’an Homeless Social Welfare Foundation spotted him and gave him a sleeping bag. The foundation then settled him in at its dormitory and, he said, with the organization’s help, he began a small business selling brown sugar cakes. The business eventually allowed him to earn enough money to rent a small home and to return to the year-end banquet, this time to help out. “It’s more blessed to give than to receive,” Huang said.