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AIDS activist dedicates 18 years to combating the disease

By Enru Lin--It was just bad luck that the first outbreak of AIDS was reported among North America's homosexual population.

But by 1983, popular media had already dubbed AIDS the “gay cancer.” In Los Angeles, gays were uniting to combat the disease, pressured by open discrimination and a government they saw as unresponsive. Watching the pandemic unfold across the globe, a young gay man in Taipei decided that it was time to commit to a cause.

He would commit for exactly 18 years. For Chi Chia-wei (祁家威), the number 18 felt optimal, maybe magic.

Chinese history has proof, he says. Eighteen is the number of years that Wang Bao-chuan (王寶釧) suffered before her lover returned. Su Wu (蘇武) from the Han Dynasty took abuse in enemy territory for 18 full years before he got to go home.

“After the 18th year, eating bitterness finally pays. In 1983 I decided to be an activist for 18 years, because then I'd have my results,” he says, with a conviction that's arresting, like when a grown man tells you he believes in the tooth fairy.

It's this wide-eyed certitude that kept Chi going until 2001, kept him tolerant of umpteenth failures along the way. Failures like an especially stony-faced audience on his lectures circuit, or people who wanted refunds when they realized their donations might go to gays.

Or like in 1986, when an American Red Cross envoy dismissed his hypothesis that condoms can block the sexual transmission of HIV.

“I didn't have any experiment results, but I didn't need them — I used logical reasoning. A condom bars fluid from the site of entry,” says Chi. “But he said to me, 'AIDS is complex, condoms are too simple.' He said my idea was impossible.”

Lines of Defense

Undeterred, Chi kept up his own condom campaign.

This campaign was about distributing packets of condoms in public spaces, with lots of care to vary his personal look: a mummy in gauze one day, Disney's Snow White the next. Once he stood next to a fast-food restaurant and gave out condoms that he lumped inside burger buns.

“I wouldn't have made the news if I did the same thing every day. I tried different things and the media photographers snapped and snapped away. Then people outside of Taipei saw it in the paper, and everybody learned about safer sex,” says Chi.

“He pauses, then recites with the face of a preacher giving a standard homily, “There are three lines of defense. Condoms. Condoms. Condoms.”

At first, Chi paid for his project by teaching classes at a cram school and picking up odd jobs here and there — for a while, he was a security officer at a luxury high-rise. To expand into work he later saw as crucial, he borrowed from friends. When he reached NT$2.5 million in loans in 1991, he went a different way and combed the streets with a donation box.

“But I did that for only as long as I had to,” said Chi. “I thought, I have NT$2.5 million in debts, and here are my project expenses from now until 2001. I needed a total of NT$18 million. When I got to that amount in 1996, I stopped collecting.”

Now he's in the black, says Chi, and the remaining donations went into more condoms, about 400 thousand New Taiwan Dollars' worth every year. He also paid for sex workers to get tested for HIV, and for education campaigns like a three-month inner-city bus ad. As the number of detected cases began to climb, he helped fund housing for local HIV-positive patients.

'A classy homosexual'

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AIDS activist dedicates 18 years to combating the disease
In this photo taken Friday, Nov. 18, Chi Chia-wei (祁家威) is shown in Taipei.

(Enru Lin, The China Post )

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