Fighting the Good Fight to Help a Stranger in a Strange Land

Le Van Cuong
Le Van Cuong (photo: Register Files)

"Speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves. Protect the rights of all who are helpless. Speak for them and be a righteous judge. Protect the rights of the poor and needy." (Proverbs 31:8-9)

I first met Shaw Jong in 2013 while volunteering with the homeless on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

It was difficult to have a conversation with Shaw as he seemed to be always enjoying a private, unheard joke between him and the Creator. His constant, warm smile was a bit unnerving but perhaps that's just because I'm a jaded New Yorker. People who smile and look you directly in the eye aren't typical in Gotham.

Shaw is a naturalized American citizen, having immigrated from Taiwan as an undergrad. He had grown up in a particularly devout Catholic family and naturally sought out opportunities to put his faith to work. After all, faith without works is DOA―deader than a dodo (James 2:14-26).

He was heavily involved with working for the homeless and quickly becoming the point man for the New Jersey Catholic Chinese community. I assisted him whenever I could with retreats and pilgrimages.

In his free time, he liked to talk about St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Cabrini and Dorothy Day.

"Did you know that the Chinese have a great devotion to Mother Cabrini?" asked Shaw. I remarked that I didn't. Considering that the saint didn't like to travel by boat, I can't imagine that she had ever been to China.

"No, it's not that she was in China. She only wanted to go there but Pope Leo XIII asked her to instead come to New York City to help immigrants."

And there you have it!

The mere desire to help the Chinese was all that it took to impress Shaw and Chinese Catholics in general.

Shaw had studied Computer Science in Oklahoma and Kansas and worked for Bell Labs at Lucent Technologies in Holmdel, New Jersey as a telecommunication researcher until his retirement last year. Having retired, he had more time to devote to Catholic causes.

He identifies with Dorothy Day and the Catholics Worker Movement she founded. After 37 years in the United States, having raised a son who subsequently became a well-known civil rights lawyer, Shaw relocated back to Taiwan in late 2015.

I wish I could say that I knew Shaw sufficiently to say that I saw a development in his spirituality. In actuality, he was that way for as long as I have known him.

That's why it didn't come as too much of a surprise when he admitted to me that he wanted to go back to Taiwan to help the poor there. He now serves in the country's poorest region, Yunlin County.

Catholics make up approximately 2.5% of the population of Taiwan but they have a remarkable presence that their relatively tiny numbers belie. They are associated, as we often are, with an excellent educational system, the fight for civil rights and ecumenical/interfaith dialogue. In fact, the current president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, is Catholic. So is the Vice President-elect, Chen Chien-jen. In fact, he's a Knight of Malta who quoted Matthew 5:13, Christ's reference to Believers as being the Salt and Light of the world, in his acceptance speech. Many Catholics see him as a person who can advance the Faith.

Since Shaw's arrival in rural Taiwan, he's documented many victims of industrial accidents. Most of them are poor, illiterate, bullied foreign workers who suffer in silence. They're truly the voiceless, downtrodden, forgotten faces whom we ignore as we step around them on the street, too embarrassed to look into their eyes.

It's all the more shameful considering they reflect God's very image.

Shaw recently recounted to me some struggles in his apostolate. Le Van Cuong, a Vietnamese migrant worker, came to Taiwan for the chance of earning money for his impoverished family back home.

He came to Taiwan, a healthy, robust, young man already indebted to a loan shark before his first day at work at the big local conglomerate, Tung Ho Steel.

Now, Cuong is a mere shadow of the man he used to be. He's a broken man, both literally and figuratively. His physicians doubt he'll ever walk again. When he worked at Tung Ho Steel, he lived as a prisoner and wasn't even allowed to practice the religion of his choosing.

Twenty-two days after he started working at the steelworks, a loose steel plate shot out from the assembly line and damaged his right leg badly. Fourteen months and four operations later, Cuong was still unable to stand, let alone walk. He was in constant pain. Shaw visited him three times a week at the company's dorm but, at Cuong's insistence, he could only do so during the day when the other workers were at the factory.

Cuong's employer demanded he return to work despite the fact that he's a bedridden invalid. On Sundays, Shaw would take him to Mass. Even though Cuong wasn't Christian, let alone a Catholic, he enjoyed the respite and comfort of the ritual.

His 90 minutes' absence was soon reported and his supervisors scolded him saying, “If you could ‘have fun' outside of the dorm, you could have gone back to work!” They coerced Cuong to sign a document promising never to venture out of the dorm again except for work or a physician's appointment.

When Shaw visited him on February 11th of this year, Cuong was in terrible pain. Apparently, one of the steel plates in his leg, which was held in place with ten large screws, was causing him a great deal of pain. Three of the screws had become loose and actually protruded from his skin. His employers took him to see a surgeon and scheduled a fifth operation for which he had to wait three weeks in abject agony. Concerned for his pain, Shaw stayed a bit longer to comfort him. Unfortunately, Cuong's supervisor found out and three of the company's muscle showed up. They towered over the diminutive Shaw trying to intimidate him into abandoning Cuong.

Shaw begged them to allow him to make another doctor's appointment or seek a second opinion for Cuong as quickly as possible. He even promised to pay all of his bills and personally take him to see the physician if they would only allow him to help.

The confrontation escalated into a shouting match and Shaw was forcibly kicked out of the dorm.

The next day, when Shaw returned to Cuong's dorm, a sign was posted on the door which read: “This is company property. Trespassers will be severely prosecuted!”

Shaw tried to call Cuong but phone conversations were severely limited as the latter only spoke limited Mandarin. During that fateful call, Shaw surmised that his friend had been punished for talking to him. In addition, Cuong was forced to sign yet another document promising to cut off all the communication with him, his only outside contact.

Shaw quickly sought out legal representation for Cuong even going so far as approaching Taiwan's Labor Department for help. Unfortunately, everything Shaw did was reported to Cuong's employer. Carloads of the company's managers soon descended upon him at the invalid's bedside, who was punished repeatedly for Shaw's attempts at assisting him.

Ultimately, as a stranger in a strange land, (1 Pet. 2:11-12) Cuong became overwhelmed and he decided that he had had enough of this agony and “voluntarily” left Taiwan.

Prior to his departure, Cuong's employer gave him NT$100,000 (about US$3,000) as a token "gift" even though they were legally required to give him more than ten times that amount had he stayed until his three-year labor contract was over. Further, having left, Cuong lost all his medical benefits and his worker's disability insurance payout.

Subsequently, rumors started circulating about two additional migrants in Cuong's dorm who similarly suffered from serious industrial injuries. They also eventually left Taiwan "voluntarily" without receiving any compensation and medical treatment.

In March, 2016, Cuong's former dormmate was crushed to death at the steel mill. His cousin flew in from Vietnam in the morning, collected his ashes and promptly returned home before lunch time. No local news outlets reported the man's death. A precious young life was snuffed out and almost no one noticed.

Shaw has some heavy-hitters backing his apostolate. He needs them as, apparently, the only migrant support groups in Taiwan are all Catholics. The only other group that serves this much put-upon population is a tiny group composed of a priest and two religious sisters. They've already met and hope to combine their efforts to form a single advocacy group. It seems no one else cares.

The retired Archbishop of Taipei, Joseph Ti Kang, visited Shaw on March 19 (St. Joseph's feast day), partially as a friendly drop-by and partially to check on how his apostolate was going. They discussed the plight of migrant worker in Taiwan. The bishop emeritus encouraged him to submit a proposal to set up a ministry within the Diocese of Chiayi and not simply be on his own.

Thomas Chung, the current bishop of Taipei, has an excellent reputation among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and he similarly supports Shaw's work.

A wall of silence exists around industrial injury cases and Taiwan's Labor Department has consistently refused to release any information under the pretext of the Privacy Law. Those who would like to assist Shaw in his apostolate of improving factory workers' situations by making owners provide safe and transparent work environments are invited to donate to a fund to help pay for Cuong's medical bills. Please forward your donation to:

Peil-Ying Mark Chu
4 Nancy Road
Marlboro NJ 07746

Please make the check payable to: NJCCA-OLMV Le Van Cuong Fund.