At least 80% of the Philippines popula-tion is Catholic. After Filipino workers started coming to Taiwan, Catholic churches throughout Taiwan have naturally become their principal meeting places. Besides providing religious solace, the churches have also set up special counseling services for them. Because St. Christopher's Catholic Church on Taipei's Chungshan North Road was set up specifically for expatriates, the surrounding area has gradually become the gathering spot for Filipino workers. Especially on holidays, when they gather in droves, the area takes on the definitive character of Taipei's "Little Philippines."
Strolling near the intersection of Chungshan North Road and Tehui Street on a Sunday can create the illusion that one is walking in a foreign country. The people coming and going on the street, more darkly complexioned than the average Taiwanese and with striking features, are speaking in dialects from all over the Philippines, or in English. The sidewalk often swells shoulder-to-shoulder with Filipinos, especially at the end of every mass at St. Christopher's Catholic Church.
Next to the church are a convenience store selling Filipino products, a CD shop with Filipino music ringing from the PA, and shops selling all kinds of lovely, affordable Filipino clothes. Spread out on the ground are an assortment of Filipino newspapers and magazines for people to flip through whenever they like. The scene is more boisterous than New York's Chinatown.
Filipino recreation center
Twenty-eight year old Dick, who changed his name in order to come to Taiwan a second time, says that this area has been his holiday recreation center for the past six years in Taipei. Early in the morning, he gets up and goes to the church to take part in mass. At noon he eats with his friends in a nearby Filipino cafeteria. In the afternoon, his little group hangs out together, and in the evening they go shopping, buy clothes or take in a movie in the West Gate district (though he adds, it's too expensive). The relaxing, full day is what motivates him to work hard through the week.
In fact, this gathering in the vicinity of St. Christopher's church gradually began to take shape more than ten years ago. St. Christopher's was established by American parishioners back in the days when US armed forces were stationed in Taiwan. When the armed forces left, it remained as a religious gathering place for English-speaking Catholics. Starting in the 1980s, illegal workers from countries all over the world began to seek help here, because its services were in English, and there were very few Taiwanese. After Filipino workers were allowed into Taiwan, the church quickly became their religious center. Now every Sunday the church, which can accommodate 600 people at one time, must hold five masses to meet the demand.
The church has three priests, one from Italy and two that have been specially sent across from the Philippines. The church's pastor, Father Edwin Corros, has already been in Taiwan for five years. He remarks that the assistance St. Christopher's gives the Filipino workers has become their spiritual pillar in Taiwan, which pleases him very much.
"Besides guiding everyone in their faith in the Lord, the church also provides counseling services to the Filipino workers," Father Corros says, noting that requests for assistance generally include help in adjusting to Taiwanese culture, relationship problems with family members in the Philippines or with Taiwanese friends or employers, economic conflicts with management, and so forth. Usually the church will attempt to serve as intermediary between the two parties. If labor-management frictions cannot be solved, it will help the Filipino worker request the ROC government and the Manila representative office to handle the problem.
"The church is delighted that everyone meets up here," he says. "It's much better than if they went to a disco or a karaoke." To this end, the church holds activities every once in a while. For instance, in September, it held a hymn-singing contest, inviting DJs from the local radio station ICRT and several professional musicians to act as judges. The response was extremely enthusiastic.
In the eyes of the Lord
The power of religion is great, but because the area around the church has become a social hub in its own right, it also functions as a point of commercial opportunity, where underground businesses, such as job placement, the exchange of National Health Insurance cards for mobile phone chips, and the sex trade, are stealthily carried out. Fiercely competitive underground banks, each offering special sales promotion gimmicks, allow Filipino workers, who rarely have a chance to get out and about, to easily change money and send it home. Workers that have secretly fled their contracted jobs also congregate here, where agents find new employers for them. Concerning these affairs, Father Corros says that the church is happy to see normal social interactions between men and women, but it cannot easily intervene in the other, illegal, activities, as it has no coercive power over anyone. Nevertheless, it is a common principle the world over that no one can be apprehended inside a church, and the police have an unspoken recognition of this.
When foreign laborers come to Taiwan, they have a specific time limit. One crop leaves, and a new crop arrives. They are all children of God, and St. Christopher's Catholic Church will keep on serving the foreign laborers in Taiwan.
(facing page) Bathed in sunlight, St. Christopher's Catholic Church gives off an aura of peace. The shade of the trees is a place where foreign laborers gather to chat and share fellowship. (photo by Hsueh Chih-kuang)