Taiwan's 'notebook boy' commits his memories in writing

TAIPEI, Nov 16 (Reuters) - Chen Hong-zhi's notebooks are his life.

Nine years ago, Chen seriously damaged his hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with forming memories, in a traffic accident.

The 26-year-old has lost the ability to make and retain short-term memories. Instead, he painstakingly records his days in lined notebooks, crammed with entries in blue ink.

"I use the notebook to remember who I helped today, how much farm work I did, whether there was rain ... the notebook is my memory," said Chen, who lives with his stepmother, Wang Miao-cyong, 65, in a remote village in Hsinchu County, northwestern Taiwan.

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Taiwan's 'notebook boy' Chen Hong-zhi
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Taiwan's 'notebook boy' Chen Hong-zhi

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, quarrels with his stepmother Wang Miao-cyong, 65, while writing his notes at his home in Hsinchu, Taiwan, August 17, 2018. Since his father died four years ago, Chen and his stepmother have lived on a government disability allowance and a small income they get from farming fruit and vegetables. Wang longs to go back to her hometown in Indonesia, but she feels she cannot leave Chen alone. "If I leave, who will take care of my son? I can't imagine his future after I die."

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A notebook of 26-year-old Chen Hong-zhi, who suffers from short-term memory loss, shows his daily notes at his home in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, shops at a supermarket at Beipu Old Street area in Hsinchu, Taiwan, August 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A combination picture shows a scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, detailing his day on November 6, where he writes, he found his lost mobile phone, had lunch at KFC, went to an election campaign rally and slept at 10:38pm (L) and Chen Hong-zhi clapping during an election campaign rally, in the Beipu Old Street area, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, November 6, 2018. The note reads: "November 6 YA found phone and KFC tonight go to eat election campaign rally 10:38 ZZZ". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, arranges lottery tickets at his home in Hsinchu, Taiwan, September 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, takes an afternoon nap next to his stepmother, Wang Miao-cyong, 65, at their home in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 31, 2018. Since his father died four years ago, Chen and his stepmother have lived on a government disability allowance and a small income they get from farming fruit and vegetables. Wang longs to go back to her hometown in Indonesia, but she feels she cannot leave Chen alone. "If I leave, who will take care of my son? I can't imagine his future after I die." 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, eats his lunch near Beipu Old Street area in Hsinchu, Taiwan, October 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, talks on the phone at his home in Hsinchu, Taiwan, September 26, 2018.

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A combination picture shows a scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, detailing his day on October 26, where he writes, he went to a Catholic church and a temple to pray to find his lost phone after a family gathering in the Beipu Old Street area and slept at 10:38pm (L), and Chen Hong-zhi looking for the mobile phone he lost, in Beipu Old Street area, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, October 26, 2018. The note reads: "October 26 go to Beipu alone, Chen clan organisation, go find phone, go Catholic church, Ci-tian Temple, 10:38 ZZZ". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, tries to recall what he did last week at his home, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, is reflected in a broken mirror at his home in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 2, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Dr Lin Ming-teng, head of the psychiatry department at Taipei Veterans General Hospital, shows X-ray images explaining the difference between a normal brain (L) and Chen Hong-zhi's brain during an appointment at the hospital, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 31, 2018. Chen Hong-zhi suffers from short-term memory loss after a traffic accident which left him with serious brain damage. Lin said Chen has made remarkable progress despite his extensive brain damage. "From the X-ray, we can see a large part of his brain in black - these are the sections that were operated on after the traffic accident," Lin said. "After losing such a substantial portion of his brain, it is quite amazing for him to achieve what he is doing now," Lin said, adding that Chen could only remember things he had done in the last five to 10 minutes. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, prepares to boil water for a shower at his home in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 2, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A combination picture shows a scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, detailing his day on July 31, where he removed 3898 weeds in the morning and 888 in the afternoon, went to the hospital on his own, and received T$100 ($3.2) for helping a friend (L), and Dr Lin Ming-teng, head of the psychiatry department at Taipei Veterans General Hospital, talking to Chen Hong-zhi after a medical appointment at the hospital, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 31, 2018. The note reads: "July 31 go to hospital alone Shao's home YA 100 3898 10:08". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, holds a wax gourd for sale, outside his home, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 2, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, looks for the mobile phone he lost, in Beipu Old Street area, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, October 26, 2018.

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, looks at a photograph of himself on his mobile phone in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 2, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, reacts as he walks in Beipu Old Street area in Hsinchu, Taiwan, August 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, prays at a Catholic church to be helped to find his lost mobile phone, on Beipu Old Street area, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, October 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Dr Lin Ming-teng, head of the psychiatry department at Taipei Veterans General Hospital, talks to Chen Hong-zhi after a medical appointment at the hospital, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 31, 2018. Lin said Chen has made remarkable progress despite his extensive brain damage. "After losing such a substantial portion of his brain, it is quite amazing for him to achieve what he is doing now," Lin said, adding that Chen could only remember things he had done in the last five to 10 minutes. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A combination picture shows a scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, detailing his day on September 26, where he writes, he earned T$6600 ($214.7) from selling a third prize lottery gift, fed his neighbour, Uncle Shao's dog, removed 888 weeds, went to Beipu Old Street area to visit his friend, Sister Jhang, and slept at 9:28pm (L), and Chen Hong-zhi talking to Jhang in Hsinchu, Taiwan, September 26, 2018. The note reads: "YA sell sister Jhang third prize 6600 September 26 Shao's dog OK 888 go to Beipu alone visit sister Zhang 9:28". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, prays at a temple to be helped to find his lost mobile phone, on Beipu Old Street area in Hsinchu, Taiwan, October 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, claps during an election campaign rally, in the Beipu Old Street area, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, November 6, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A combination picture shows a scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, detailing his day on August 17, where he writes, he removed 5898 weeds and went to Beipu Old Street area to buy ground tea and breads for his friend, Sister Jhang, (L) and Chen Hong-zhi walking in Beipu Old Street area in Hsinchu, Taiwan, August 17, 2018. The note reads: "August 17 overcast go to Beipu alone 5898 Shao's house go go ground tea go sister Jhang give bread 1 packet x6". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, adjusts clock hands at his home in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 2, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, talks to his friend, Sister Jhang in Hsinchu, Taiwan, September 26, 2018.

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, sleeps in his bed in Hsinchu, Taiwan, September 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A combination picture shows a scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, detailing his day on July 2, where he writes, he chopped 18 bamboos for cooking, removed 5898 weeds on the rainy day, earned T$500 ($16.3) by helping Uncle Liao to sell wax gourds, and slept at 10:08pm (L), and Chen Hong-zhi holding a wax gourd for sale, outside his home, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 2, 2018. The note reads: "July 2, 2018 Make chopped bamboos a little rain 5898 rain sell uncle Liao wax gourds T$500 10:08 ZZZ". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, carries persimmons collected from his neighbour Uncle Shao's garden, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, November 7, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, takes shower at his home in Hsinchu, Taiwan, November 7, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, and his stepmother, Wang Miao-cyong, 65, work on their farmland in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 31, 2018. Since his father died four years ago, Chen and his stepmother have lived on a government disability allowance and a small income they get from farming fruit and vegetables. Wang longs to go back to her hometown in Indonesia, but she feels she cannot leave Chen alone. "If I leave, who will take care of my son? I can't imagine his future after I die." 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, poses with an electric fan he won in a lottery, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, September 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A combination picture shows a scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, detailing his day on November 7, where he writes, he purchased daily necessities for his stepmother, removed 1998 weeds, visited his friend, Sister Jhang, helped his neighbour, Uncle Shao and slept at 10:28pm (L), and Chen Hong-zhi carrying persimmons collected from Shao's garden, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, November 7, 2018. The note reads: "November 7 10:28 ZZZ help mother buy stuff 1998 morning go sister Jhang's home help uncle Shao". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, removes weeds at his farmland, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 31, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, talks to his friend at his neighbour's home in Beipu Old Street area in Hsinchu, Taiwan, August 17, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, smiles as he talks with his neighbour at a market near Beipu Old Street area in Hsinchu, Taiwan, September 26, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, walks through a park, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, November 6, 2018. 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

Chen Hong-zhi, 26, who suffers from short-term memory loss, reacts after removing weeds at his farmland, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 31, 2018.

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, who suffers from short-term memory loss, details his day on November 7, where he writes, he purchased daily necessities for his stepmother, removed 1998 weeds, visited his friend, Sister Jhang, helped his neighbour Uncle Shao and slept at 10:28pm, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, November 7, 2018. The note reads: "November 7 10:28 ZZZ help mother buy stuff 1998 morning go sister Jhang's home help uncle Shao". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, who suffers from short-term memory loss, details his day on July 2, where he writes, he chopped 18 bamboos for cooking, removed 5898 weeds on the rainy day, earned T$500 ($16.3) by helping his neighbour, Uncle Liao, to sell wax gourds, and slept at 10:08pm, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 2, 2018. The note reads: "July 2, 2018 Make chopped bamboos a little rain 5898 rain sell uncle Liao wax gourds T$500 10:08 ZZZ".

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, who suffers from short-term memory loss, details his day on August 17, where he writes, he removed 5898 weeds and went to Beipu Old Street area to buy ground tea and breads for his friend Sister Jhang, in Hsinchu, Taiwan, August 17, 2018. The note reads: "August 17 overcast go to Beipu alone 5898 Shao's house go ground tea go sister Jhang give bread 1 packet x6".

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, who suffers from short-term memory loss, details his day on November 6, where he writes, he found his lost mobile phone, had lunch at KFC, went to an election campaign rally and slept at 10:38pm in Hsinchu, Taiwan, November 6, 2018. The note reads: "November 6 YA found phone and KFC tonight go to eat election campaign rally 10:38 ZZZ". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, who suffers from short-term memory loss, details his day on October 26, where he writes, he went to a Catholic church and a temple to pray to find his lost phone after a family gathering in the Beipu Old Street area, and slept at 10:38pm in Hsinchu, Taiwan, October 26, 2018. The note reads: "October 26 go to Beipu alone, Chen clan organisation, go find phone, go Catholic church, Ci-tian Temple, 10:38 ZZZ". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A scanned copy of a note written by Chen Hong-zhi, who suffers from short-term memory loss, details his day on September 26, where he writes, he earned T$6600 ($214.7) from selling a third prize lottery gift, fed Uncle Shao's dog, removed 888 weeds, went to Beipu Old Street area to visit his friend Sister Jhang, and slept at 9:28pm in Hsinchu, Taiwan, September 26, 2018. The note reads: "YA sell sister Jhang third prize 6600 September 26 Shao's dog OK 888 go to Beipu alone visit sister Jhang 9:28". 

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

A scanned copy of a note by Chen Hong-zhi, who suffers from short-term memory loss, detailing his day on July 31, where he removed 3898 weeds in the morning and 888 in the afternoon, went to the hospital on his own, and received T$100 ($3.2) from helping a friend in Hsinchu, Taiwan, July 31, 2018. The note reads: "July 31 go to hospital alone Shao's home YA 100 3898 10:08".

(REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

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"I once lost one of my notebooks. I was so sad that I was crying and asked my dad to help me find it." 

Since his father died four years ago, Chen and his stepmother have lived on a government disability allowance and a small income they get from farming fruit and vegetables, which they barter with neighbors, some of whom call Chen "notebook boy."

Dr Lin Ming-teng, head of the psychiatry department at Taipei Veterans General Hospital, said Chen has made remarkable progress despite his extensive brain damage.

"From the X-ray, we can see a large part of his brain in black - these are the sections that were operated on after the traffic accident," Lin said.

"After losing such a substantial portion of his brain, it is quite amazing for him to achieve what he is doing now," Lin said, adding that Chen could only remember things he had done in the last five to 10 minutes.

Lin said the damage had also affected Chen's ability to receive and process information.

"This has an effect on his relationship with his mother, too, as sometimes his mother cannot get over the fact that he forgets things," Lin said.

Wang longs to go back to her hometown in Indonesia, but she feels she cannot leave Chen alone.

For now, Chen's notebooks allow him to preserve some semblance of order in his life.

"October 26 go to Beipu alone, Chen clan organization, go find phone, go Catholic church, Citian Temple, 10:38 ZZZ," reads one poignant note about a day he spent searching for, and praying to find, his lost mobile phone.

Ten days later, he found his phone, documenting the find in his notebook, of course.

(Reporting by Tyrone Siu in Taipei, Writing by Anne Marie Roantree, Editing by Karishma Singh)

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