The Wild East / Culture Shock
Why am I suing my landlady? Out of principle, basically. She broke the law, and therefore needs to be taught a lesson so she doesn’t do it again.
I reported my Taiwanese landlady, ‘Helen’ Lin, to the Tamsui police station a few months ago, on charges of ‘undue invasion of privacy’, a violation of Article 306 in Taiwan’s criminal code. Since that time, she cut my water and electricity, so a harassment charge will be added when the case gets to court, as this is a human rights violation.
How this all came about: I moved into the top floor student accommodation in Tamsui, for its proximity to my friends, fantastic view, balcony for my dog and what I thought was privacy. I paid 6 months in advance, and then was offered a job on Penghu so I maintained two residences, one in Tamsui and Penghu.
About that time, a recovering alcoholic acquaintance of mine, an auntie-type figure, ‘Ann’, was broke and paying exorbitant rent in Taipei. So I helped her move in next door, lending her money to move in (a fact she stupidly announced to the landlady, who immediately had a few second thoughts about signing a one-year contract). Based on my guanxi, the landlady gave her a break on rent, and agreed that Ann could leave some things in the hall for a few days’ moving period.
The situation seemed to benefit us all – filling a vacancy for my landlady, cheap digs for Ann where she and her cat were supposed to live quietly, and Ann would take care of my balcony garden while I was away. Things SEEMED to have worked out well. We even planned that in the summer Ann could sub for me in Penghu, a plum job, which she needed desperately…
While I was away the mice began to play. Ann’s cat meowed a lot, bothering students in the building, who complained to the landlady, and they, Helen claimed, moved out (she lied about several things thereafter, so it’s unclear if they actually did move out). Then, Ann had left boxes of her things downstairs in the hall for weeks, so people reportedly complained about that as well. On top of that, Ann colonized the adjacent rooftop with over a dozen chairs, tables and other furniture, so it looked like a cafe up there. When I’d visit once or twice a month, at the time it seemed amusing to me, since rooftops in Taiwan are usually unused anyway, so I didn’t protest. Ann spent long hours writing and basically ‘resting’ there. But to the landlady, it was another type of envelope-pushing activity that only added to her rage.
I began receiving alarming messages from both Ann and the landlady. Helen suddenly wanted both of us OUT, immediately. It turns out she was terminally pissed off about the cat, the stuff in the hall, and the colonized rooftop (the neighboring building owner had complained, a loss of ‘face’ for Helen). Helen yelled at me over the phone while I was in Penghu that my dog was barking too much. At that point, I knew she was lying, she was so desperate to get rid of us — because my dog doesn’t bark! And my dog and I weren’t even there, in the first place! How much quieter can you get than not being there at all! Helen was lumping me and Ann together, which was unfair, but I apologized for my ‘friend’s’ behavior and Ann moved some but not all of her stuff out of the hall.
About this time, a neighbor told me Anne locked herself out, ‘drunk as a skunk’, and police were involved to let her in, and so again the landlady was involved, who by this time feared the foreigner was a suicide risk. As a cultural note, to an ethnic Chinese person, someone committing suicide in your building effectively makes it ‘haunted’ and thereafter ‘uninhabitable’.
I informed Helen two or three times via text message that she must make an appointment to see us, or to enter our residential space, or that I would have to call the cops, citing Article 306. I told Anne not to talk to Helen if she suddenly appeared on her doorstep. But Helen persisted. She and her scowling, thuggish husband came and pulled out the electric socket in the hall so that we would be unable to use the electric kettle to boil water.
Then, Ann said, the landlady showed up on her door (unannounced, again), the scary husband entered her room as Anne was coming out of the shower. The landlady was wielding a new contract and bullied Anne into signing a new one. At first, she pressured Anne to move out immediately, in two weeks, then when that was clearly impossible, they agreed on a month’s time.
I asked Ann – Why didn’t you slam the door in the landlady’s face and refuse to talk to her? Why did you sign, giving up your rights to the one-year contract? She was intimidated, she said. That was a huge mistake – giving up her one-year contract. The new contract signed illegally and under duress could have been thrown out of court, probably, but understandably Ann didn’t want to live in a stressful home environment; and frankly I was extremely glad to see her go, as she had drunkenly tried to bust my door down, and refused to leave until I gave her her keys back – which she’d simply misplaced!
But worse yet, Helen was still insisting on evicting me, too. I refused to leave my home, as the whole situation was so unfair. It was unfair and illegal. I didn’t think I should have to leave, I didn’t want to leave, so I held my ground for a while. I thought Helen would eventually cool down, realize her actions were unfair, and let me stay. But she didn’t.
This type of situation has never happened to me before, but I refused to leave. I actually looked for another place, but couldn’t find anything really suitable for me and my dog. Besides, according to police, I didn’t have to leave due to the fact there was a court case pending. So I stayed. I asked my friend Wu Bart to negotiate with Helen, got the lichang’s (neighborhood chief’s) number so he could help us negotiate, asked a tenant organization to moderate, but she remained intractable. I tried to bargain with her, told her how I just wanted to make peace and not trouble. I promised to immediately drop the police charges if she re-signed a lease with me, but she refused.
My friends suggested continuing to pay rent so that my right to stay would be reinforced, until perhaps she changed her mind. But I didn’t have her bank info and by this time she wouldn’t give it to me. She tried showing up unannounced on my doorstep but I wouldn’t be bullied and intimidated like Anne. Helen sent me angry repetitive Chinese text messages, like 20 of them, about the electric bill. I said I would gladly pay if she could refrain ONE WEEK from invading my privacy.
I told Helen exactly how I would be paying it: I would first send her a text message then give it to her building manager on the second floor. So I went downstairs and handed it to the unfortunate woman there, got her to sign a receipt to prove payment had been received, thanked her and left. Soon afterwards the poor girl was knocking urgently on my door, begging to get back the signed receipt and trying to return the money to me, which I put on the landing since she’d already signed for it.
I apologized to the hapless manager that the landlady had involved her in such a mess, and was acting so crazy. She had the landlady on her cellphone, who was frantically ordering her to refuse to let me pay the rent! Yes, a Taiwanese landlord refusing to accept money!
Then later on that day the landlady came in person, again, without an appointment of course – and finally accepted my rent. She and her husband also pressured me to hand over my ID; which I promptly refused. Helen mentioned that her friend hadn’t given the photo of my ID when she’d taken it before. I declined to give it to her again — unless we were signing a new lease!
I went to Penghu in early October, looking for a new job or maybe to get my old one back, but over the summer Anne had ingratiated herself with my boss, somehow turned her against me, and undercut my salary, so that it became too unsavory a prospect to return and work with a person who only seemed to bring trouble and strife into my life.
Ann’s destructive influence continued, however, and it was far-reaching. When I returned ‘home’ to Tamsui, the landlady had cut the water and electricity, and affixed a note over the circuit breaker instructing me not to touch it or police would be called! I tried asking her nicely to restore it, but she just ignored that request.
At this time, my phone had been broken for a week and when I regained some access, I sent Helen a message that I would be paying the electric bill that evening, Oct 20. But when I called on the manager she refused to have anything to do with it, and quickly closed the door in my face and got on the phone with Helen. She claimed that she ‘wasn’t the manager’. So Helen by proxy refused payment a second time. Instead, she had the police station send me a notice to pay the rent there. Not bloody likely!
After all this bullshit, I finally acknowledged Helen was not going to ever ‘come around’ to seeing reason. In fact, at this point she could go to hell as far as I was concerned. It was no use waiting on her to become a fair, rational human being. No amount of reasoning seemed to get through to these people. She actually accused me of harassment, for knocking on the manager’s door to pay the rent!
So I had to find a new place to move, again. But it’s going to be on my time. I went to the police again to try to file a harassment charge, and was assured that if the landlady touched my stuff I could have her arrested. Hopefully she is not crazy and stupid enough to do that. What a fiasco that would be! But hopefully she will back off now and not bother me, and I won’t have to arrest my landlady too! I’m keeping a positive attitude. 🙂
For others who are faced with situations of unfair treatment in a foreign country, this experience shows some of the recourses that are open to us. Briefly, we can and should file police charges; we can sue them (and win settlements in mediation); we can involve the media; we can involve third-party ombudsmen, such as the Council of Labor (for employment disputes), non-profit mediation organizations, or the lichang (里長 neighborhood chief).
We can avail ourselves of these resources, and we should. Keep the faith. I will! Know your rights, and don’t let ’em ever bring you down.
Have you had troubling experiences with Taiwanese landlords, too? Feel free to share your experience in the comments section below.