There was a time when former soldier Huang Yung-fu’s quaint, little village at the edge of Nantun district in Taiwan, bustled with life. Over 1,200 households, mostly comprising military veterans, lived like a large single family. As years rolled, the elders passed away, one after another, while the younger generation migrated out.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
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Towards the end of the 20th century, the Taiwanese government embarked on a drive to demolish the withering and dilapidated settlements in Nantun, once constructed hastily to accommodate the military families. Urban developers stepped into the scene, eyeing the area to construct deluxe housing estates and skyscrapers. Residents were offered hefty compensation of up to $61,000.
By 2008, it happened so that only 11 of the 1,200 houses in Yung-fu’s village were left behind and 86-year-old Yung-fu, an unmarried man with no family, was the sole resident.
Yung-fu took up a weapon to fight the government
Needless to say, the government ordered him to vacate the village immediately. But, Yung-fu had known no home in the past 37 years other than his village. The gritty octogenarian, who had one of Taiwan’s highest military valour medals to his name, refused to move out. He resolved to stop his government from bulldozing his hometown to rubble.
Yung-fu picked up his weapon – a paintbrush, dipped it in some vibrant colours and allowed his imagination to fly. Soon, a summer bird came to life on the walls of his shabby bungalow. That’s where the story begins.
The Rainbow Village
Over the next few years, the lone crusader has been painting his entire village with mesmerising artworks, which now adorn the walls of abandoned homes and streets where nobody walks anymore. Even today, he wakes up at sharp 4 AM every day and sets out with his brushes and paint cans.
Ranging from folk art and indigenous quotes to abstract murals of people, animals and elements of nature – Yung-fu’s art is a melting pot of a plethora of emotions. Each of his murals tells a different story where sprightly-coloured animals dance around with astronauts and samurais accompanying them.
Interestingly, Yung-fu has no formal training in art and had never painted in 70 years, after his childhood experiments with painting and sketching. Born in Hong Kong, his life had known only the sights and sounds of a battlefield, ever since he joined the army at 15, to fight in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937. He fled to Taiwan later in 1949. During his career as a soldier, he was severely wounded by bullets twice, but survived through both of them.
Huang Yung-fu is now recognised worldwide as Grandpa Rainbow, the 96-year-old creator of Rainbow Village – which was once fading into oblivion, like thousands of other such settlements across the world.
Though he started painting in 2008, his efforts did not come to light until two years later in 2010, when a young university student from the next town Taichung discovered Yung-fu at work while passing by the deserted township. After interacting with him, the student spread the word and crowdfunded to support Yung-fu with barrels of paint and other art supplies.
In October 2010, after being flooded by emails and appeals from petitioning citizens to save ‘Rainbow Village’, Taichung’s Mayor passed the official order to preserve the village as a community park. At present, Rainbow Village witnesses millions of spellbound tourists every year, who are always greeted by Yung-fu outside his home.
Finding love at 89
Though Huang Yung-fu had stayed unmarried almost all his life, his heart found its true soulmate in 2013 at a hospital, where he was being treated for pneumonia. An aged nurse who was looking after him soon became the love of his life, and a little later, his wife.
Earlier, a small donation box was placed outside Yung-fu’s doors which used to cater to all the costs of his minimalistic yet ‘colourful’ lifestyle. Now, a group of young art enthusiasts market postcards and illustrations of his art and fund his needs. The surplus, as per his wish, is sent to local homes and organisations caregiving for the elderly.
– With inputs from Eliot Stein’s story for BBC Travel.
At thirteen, Neela was married off to a husband much older than her. At sixteen, she became a mother, and at nineteen, she was a widow. Despite having no regular income, she was faced with the daunting task of taking care of her in-laws, her own parents and of course, her little daughter. For young Neela, life has never known a trajectory where her voice is heard and her destiny is not blamed. That was until she came under the ambit of Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation and discovered a new identity for herself. The taste of financial independence was indeed delightful for her, but her zeal to work hard for a newer, better life stood at the helm of it all.
No one has ever become poor by giving – Anne Frank
Founded by Kameshwari from Bengaluru, the foundation works with distressed women in three Karnataka villages, helping them to earn their livelihood by handcrafting a wide range of decorative or daily-use household items. Like Neela, nineteen women with struggles similar or worse, have found a new lease of life at Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation. Every piece of item created at Hosa Belaku is recycled from leftover fabrics, paper, dry waste or scrap metals.
Hosa Belaku – a new dawn
“I have been working in the social sector for the past two decades. Since 2013, I got associated with Belaku Trust, who was working with rural women in Karnataka,” shares Kameshwari, a former legal executive.
“Most of these women were victims of alcohol abuse and harassment on the domestic front. Some were widowed, single mothers or differently-abled – making life all the more hard for them in a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, circumstances led Belaku Trust to close their operations in 2015. The women were left in a lurch,” she narrates.
Some of these women desperately pleaded with Kameshwari to let them sustain their only source of income and independence. Moved by their plight, Kameshwari resolved to do her best to help as many women as possible. Investing a sizeable proportion of her own savings, she launched the Hosa Belaku Artisan’s Foundation in 2017. At present, the foundation has active workshops in three villages in the suburbs of Bengaluru, namely, Halasuru, Achalu and Kadahalli.
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At the prime of her life, Pavithra’s husband left her for another woman. Heartbroken and devastated, she was clueless about how to earn her living. The story is similar for many other women in these villagers, with careless, abusive or estranged husbands, most being alcohol addicts. The pangs of poverty would sometimes become more unbearable than the constant physical abuse by their husbands. Yet, they had no way to have some respite from the ordeal. Few women did work seasonally as agricultural labourers. The backbreaking toil in the sun would take a toll on their health, while the deplorable situation at their homes would haunt them for the rest of the year.
Kameshwari mortgaged her jewelery for Rs 6 lakh to start Hosa Belaku Artisian's Foundation. Most of the women employed in this foundation face domestic violence in their homes. Kindly donate here : bit.ly/hosabelaku
Society, with its primitive doctrines, only made it worse for these women. For instance, nobody was willing to marry Shivlingi because she had a facial deformity. After a point, her own brothers abandoned her as if she had become a liability.
If one visits these women now, they would be found basking in their newfound success with Hosa Belaku. But, not only the women, Hosa Belaku’s workforce comprises a 19-year-old young man as well. All his life, Yogi, who is affected by Polio, had accompanied his mother everywhere. She used to work with the foundation until she recently passed away in an accident. Yogi’s father is visually-challenged, so the entire family received a major emotional and financial setback after his mother’s sudden demise. A helpless Yogi would painstakingly drag himself from door to door in search of work. “We took him in and trained him in toy-making. Now you would find him in a corner, making beautiful toys for children,” shares a proud Kameshwari.
Sunshine, Lamp and Dawn – Illuminating lives
The women groups at the three villages are designated with three unique names and assigned with a unique task each. Kirana (Sunshine), the group at Kadahalli is involved with paper products, making notepads, bags and jewellery.
The Halsuru group Deepa (Lamp) has adopted the art of block printing. Vibrant, stylish and beautiful handbags, cushion covers, stoles and notebooks are curated with the utmost care and precision by the women.
At Ushe (Dawn), needle and thread rules. Women who were already skilled in sewing and embroidery now earn by making stuffed toys, patchwork products and embroidered fabrics.
True to their names, the groups have indeed brought new light into the lives of their employees.
Suma and Jayamma are both senior workers at Kirana who have succeeded in constructing small concrete houses for themselves, a huge step up from the dilapidated huts they spent their youth in. Another aged lady in the same group has another compelling achievement to be proud of. Bearing the taunts and trauma from her drunkard husband all her life, she has single-handedly raised a son and a daughter with proper education. Her son, who is currently an aspiring engineer, was supported with a laptop from Hosa Belaku. Honamma, a young widow from the group Deepa is treading a similar path, raising her son all on her own.
The only solace
How much gratitude these women have towards Hosa Belaku is perhaps evident from Shri’s unwavering dedication. Diabetes is taking a toll on her eyesight yet she refuses to give up and continues etching her grit on the ornate block-printed fabrics.
The reason for such gratitude is manifold. For the conscious urban consumers, Hosa Belaku is striving to save the environment with their 100%-recycled policy. But, for the workers, it is the lifeline which not only offers them economic security but also allows them a place to voice, share and resolve the problems plaguing their lives.
“They come here and find a peaceful break from their household obligations. Some still face domestic violence regularly, the workshop is an escape for them. They discuss their issues and try to find feasible solutions. It takes the load off their tired minds. The work here is a breath of fresh air for them,” Kameshwari asserts.
“We have been assisted time and again by established non-profits and retail chains across Bengaluru, who have graciously showcased and marketed products made by our artisans. We would like more people to know about Hosa Belaku and its incredible women, and respect their brilliant spirit by purchasing their crafts,” Kameshwari expresses her wish.