Sweet potato is very delicious!

Ronan O'ConnellThe West Australian
Homeless people in Taipei have the chance to take travellers on paid tours of the city.
Camera IconHomeless people in Taipei have the chance to take travellers on paid tours of the city. Credit: Ronan O'Connell/Supplied

While the homeless are sometimes coldly viewed as blights on popular cities, in Taiwan these disadvantage people are now a key part of the tourism industry, having been taught to become tour guides. An inspiring social welfare initiative in the capital of Taipei is helping homeless people and poor single mothers to survive the coronavirus pandemic by allowing them to earn money as tour guides.

The pandemic has made life even more difficult for Taiwan’s underprivileged, according to Shirley Fang, spokesperson for Topology Travel, the company which helps organise these tours. This Asian nation has avoided the Covid-19 catastrophes that have unfolded in so many countries due to similarly strict border controls to those in Australia. Taiwan has registered just one-third as many infections as Australia, despite having a similar population at 24 million people.

Poor single mothers in Taiwan are supported by an initiative that lets them take tourists along on a day out as food vendors.
Camera IconPoor single mothers in Taiwan are supported by an initiative that lets them take tourists along on a day out as food vendors. Credit: Ronan O'Connell/Supplied

But its economy has suffered and that downturn has hit its most vulnerable citizens, Mrs Fang said. There has never been a tougher time for a Taiwanese person to be homeless or to be raising a child alone. Which is why there is so much value in Topology’s tours, which are run in conjunction with Taiwan’s Genesis Social Welfare Foundation and Homeless Taiwan organisation.

These tours were not started in response to the pandemic, though. Prior to this global disaster, I joined Topology’s Potato Mama tour, during which I and three other tourists spent a few hours as helpers for a single mother who operates a mobile roasted sweet potato cart on the streets of Taipei.

Our guide, Da Zeng, is one of about 50 potato mamas across Taiwan. They get potato roasting devices on wheels — provided for free by Genesis — and then set up at busy spots in cities to sell this hot food, which for decades has been a simple and popular snack in Taiwan.

Not only do they make money from these sales, but the potato mamas also get to keep a significant amount of the $60 per person paid by tourists to join their tours. In this way, they are also building business and interpersonal skills that will benefit them across their whole life, Ms Fang said.

D Zeng became a potato mama more than a decade ago when she was struggling financially to raise her one year old child as a single mum. Now she has independence, financial security, a child doing well in school, and enjoys meeting tourists from all over the world.

Taiwan is empowering its underprivileged people via tourism.
Camera IconTaiwan is empowering its underprivileged people via tourism. Credit: Ronan O'Connell/Supplied

That’s what Da Zeng told me as we set up her potato cart on a busy street corner next to an underground station. Soon I was advertising our wares in poorly-executed Mandarin language, yelling “Di Gua Hao Chi!”, which means “Sweet potato is very delicious!”.

When I organised that experience I was unaware Topology also offers something called ‘My Homeless Tour’ This is a truly unique and inspiring initiative which sees homeless people in Taipei taught to become tour guides. Similar to the potato mama project, the aim is to not only help these underprivileged people earn money, but to let them develop new skills, and earn confidence and self worth.

The homeless men and women take tourists, who pay $180 per person, on a three-and-half hour tour through a part of Taipei which the guide knows well. They explain that area from the perspective of a homeless person, and detail the realities of living on the streets. The guide tells participants how they manage to find food, how they’re treated by the public, how they get help from the community, and share the story of how they became homeless.

A two-hour walking tour is followed by lunch before this confronting and rewarding experience ends with a Q&A session with the guide. Taiwan, then, is showing the world and our own State of WA that homeless people should not be pushed aside and hidden, but rather pushed forward and empowered.

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