On any given Sunday morning in the small city of Chiayi in south-central
Taiwan, a merry band of citizens can be seen boarding trucks and riding off
to the countryside. In private cars and on motorcycles, others join the
convoy until, from near and far, they all assemble at a single site beside a
river. Donning bamboo sun hats and baseball caps, the pilgrims take up
shovels and hoes, baskets and pails, to build a bridge. Leading the party
will be seventy-three-year-old HO MING-TEH, a bald and jolly Pied Piper who
has built more than two hundred bridges in Taiwan's Yunlin, Chiayi, and
Tainan Counties during the past twenty-five years.
HO Ming-teh, a devout Buddhist and former grocer, had already embarked upon
a few modest projects, mending local roads and suspension bridges, when in
1971 a flood swept away an old wooden bridge in nearby Chungpu Township and
took the lives of two brothers. As HO well knew, the countryside was full of
decrepit wooden bridges. Moreover, no bridges at all spanned many of the
region's rivers and streams; to reach towns and markets, rural folk had to
ford them. Bridges were needed—proper concrete bridges. HO resolved to build
Straightaway, he launched a fundraising campaign and, in just a few months,
his first bridge was completed. Since then, HO's bridges have been rising at
the rate of nine a year.
Although trained as a youth in civil engineering, HO was not a professional
bridge builder. He arranged for professional engineers and contractors to do
the technical work. But he himself could assess the need for a bridge, draw
up a plan, purchase the materials, and coordinate with local officials. He
could also raise the money. To emphasize the spirit of giving, HO limited
individual contributions to just a few dollars per project; yet private
donations have yielded all the money needed for HO's many bridges: more than
U.S.$12 million over the years. In addition, HO invited everyone to join him
each Sunday in the good deed of bridge-building, performing the many simple
chores that require no technical skill. More than two hundred thousand
volunteers have done so.
HO organized his projects casually, at first with no formal organization at
all. But as one new bridge after another rose at his initiative, local
newspapers anointed HO and his partners the Chiayi Philanthropy Group. He
adopted the name formally on the day he inaugurated his one-hundredth
bridge. Up till now, however, HO's organization—which also helps poor
families meet burial expenses—has no membership list or formal charter.
Whoever chooses to contribute, contributes; whoever wishes to work, works.
HO himself keeps the books, and his scrupulous reports to donors have earned
the Chiayi Philanthropy Group a reputation for unshakable integrity.
HO's concrete bridges vary in length from just a few meters to over one
hundred; with distinctive white railings, each one is a replica of the
other. Simple and strong, they dot the countryside, moving farm products
swiftly and efficiently to market, opening once remote areas to tourism, and
rendering daily travel safer. They are an incalculable practical boon to the
people of Yunlin, Chiayi, and Tainan Counties.
But they are also something more. These bridges have motivated many
thousands of Taiwanese to devote themselves weekly to the cheerful work of
helping others. HO Ming-teh, the inspiring force, seeks no credit. Buddhism,
he notes, enjoins its followers to do good. And so he does.
In electing HO MING-TEH to receive the 1995 Ramon Magsaysay Award for
Community Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his improving rural
Taiwan with good deeds and sturdy bridges.