Our vendors: Chao-you Chen (The Big Issue Taiwan, Taipei, Taiwan)

By Yu-ruei Lu, The Big Issue Taiwan

At 7pm, there are lots of people who have just left work or school at the second exit of the Xihu metro station. With copies of the magazine in his hands, Chen is standing on the pavement about 20 metres away from the exit, waiting for passersby to buy them from him. “The selling usually moves slowly at the end of the month,” he says. “It didn’t go well today. Only three magazines sold…” Despite the lack of sales, Chen is standing straight with his head held high.

Chen joined the magazine-selling team at The Big Issue Taiwan at the beginning of this year. Despite having only five months of selling experience under his belt thus far, he’s been cleverly and actively looking for his own way of making a living by doing this type of work. “At first, I was only selling at Minquan West Road Station. I tried at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Station as well, but it didn’t really work,” Chen tells me. “I then recalled my previous job in Neihu where I held banner ads for a construction company. I remembered there were big crowds, and there happened to be no magazine sellers in that area, so I volunteered to ‘develop’ business at Xihu station. Now I sell here every Thursday and Friday evening!” Chen says with pride.

Chao-you Chen, magazine seller at Xihu station. Credit: Yu-ruei Lu / The Big Issue Taiwan

In 2003, he worked as a maintenance assistant at Taipei Railway Workshop, a national historic site, where he cleaned car engines. Unfortunately, he threw his back out at work when moving heavy objects, which has led to him being incapable of doing heavy manual labour jobs ever since. With the help of a job placement, he found a job as a cleaner at a hotel in Wulai Hot Spring Township. Although the hotel offered free meals and accommodation, Chen quit the job within a year because the pain in his lower back wasn’t improving. Day after day, he went without a steady job, and he eventually ran out of money in the autumn of 2006. He started visiting Good 119 [a Christian centre based in Taiwan, which aims to help people in need, provides free services and sets up churches] for a free lunch, as well as taking a free bento from The Salvation Army in the afternoon. Afterwards, on his friend’s recommendation, Chen got a job holding banner ads, which he did from 2006 to the beginning of this year when he switched to selling The Big Issue Taiwan. “I’d been holding banner ads on the street for nearly 10 years. Rain or shine, my life had been spent doing that,” says Chen, speaking in Taiwanese Hokkien.

In 1976, when Chen finished his military service, Taiwan’s construction industry was just about to boom as houses were being built all over Taipei. “I entered the construction industry after finishing military service. My job title was ‘assistant engineer’, but I was actually doing layouts, which we nicknamed ‘cross-slitting’, on construction sites. Not until the layout was done could construction companies start their work. Now that I think about it, it was a pretty grand job at the time,” Chen recalls.

Chao-you Chen, magazine seller at Xihu station. Credit: Yu-ruei Lu / The Big Issue Taiwan

The number of people moving in and around the metro exit gradually decreases after 8pm and Chen is already supposed to have finished work. It’s quite unlikely that he’ll sell any more magazines today. “I’m about to pack up and leave,” he tells me. “I’m pretty old now. I’ve come to know what life is like – and life is a snob. I’m very grateful to the magazine company for providing me with the job. Considering my current health condition, it’s really difficult for me to find any other sort of work,” he adds.

Chen tells me that he still watches glove puppetry at temples once in a while, which was something that he used to do during his banner-holding period and which he found very relaxing. After Chen leaves me and I’m standing in the empty street under the cover of night, I realise that Chen left the story of his life in the 90s time untold. I wonder what he was up to then.

Translated by Sunny Tseng (Taiwan)