Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A reminder to myself

Taiwan's Aboriginals Try to Preserve Traditional Life in Face of Urban Encroachment
June 22, 2005 — By Annie Huang, Associated Press
WULAI, Taiwan — In a valley of pristine bamboo and cypress trees, Yasa T'iehmu painstakingly adds tufts of red and yellow flowers to his painting of a slender, nude aboriginal woman.
The woman has long black hair strangely reminiscent of the surging waterfall in the background.
"That's a fellow tribal woman I once saw taking a hot spring bath," Yasa says, leaning over a simple wooden table outside his red tin-roofed home in Wulai, a village about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of the Taipei suburb of Xindian.
Wulai sits in the towering Fushan Mountain Range, seat of the Taiya tribe, one of 11 aboriginal groups whose 430,000 members make up a little less than 2 percent of the 23 million people living on this economically booming island. There are about 60,000 Taiya.
Anthropologists say the aboriginals' ancestors came to Taiwan from nearby Pacific islands some 6,000 years ago. Other groups -- mostly Han Chinese -- began migrating from the Asian mainland about four centuries ago, but the aboriginals long kept to themselves, hunting and subsistence farming up and down Taiwan's 400-kilometer (240-mile) mountainous spine.
In recent years, however, as more and more of their people have been assimilated into Taiwan's increasingly complex urban society, the aboriginals have been fighting a losing battle to maintain a separate cultural identity.
It is a phenomenon that Yasa says his art is dedicated to reversing.
"I draw from memories," he says, leafing through his rich paintings of tribal people farming, weaving, fishing and courting under a tropical moonlit sky.
"Our children barely speak the Taiya language. They look at my pictures and exclaim: 'This was how we aboriginals looked in the old days.'"
Yasa is not alone in seeking to preserve Taiya traditions.
Deeper in the mountains, T'iehmu A'yung and dozens of his neighbors are determined to keep tranquil Fushan Village isolated from the influences of a tourism center set up 20 kilometers (12 miles) away for visitors who want a look at aboriginal lifestyles.
Outwardly, however, the aboriginals aren't that different anymore.
Their bamboo and wooden houses have mostly been replaced by concrete structures equipped with basic modern amenities, although the homes retain traditional slanting roofs to sluice away the frequent downpours in the mountains.
Face-tattooing was once a symbol of aboriginal adulthood, but it has been given up as a remnant of a barbarous past. Many aboriginals reserve their colorful traditional clothes and elaborate head wear for tribal festivals that feature days of dancing and singing.
Wulai itself has become a gaudy collection of cheap souvenir shops and uninspiring restaurants catering to tourists from Taipei.
Yet tourism is a boon for the Taiya, giving them much needed work as tour bus drivers and small scale retailers -- reason enough to stay at home.
T'iehmu, 46, a small sturdy man, takes hikers on a daylong trek up and down narrow mountain trails. To supply the small restaurant run by his wife, he raises vegetables, traps wild boars and chops logs for growing delectable wild mushrooms.
He says his three brothers have already moved away from the village and fears his two young children might be tempted to follow them to the bright lights of Taipei.
He points to his latest overnight catch, a squinting boar trapped in a secure wooden cage.
"We don't keep more than one or two of these animals for fear of dirtying the water," he says, explaining that the nearby Nanshih River is the main source of tap water for residents in the capital and polluters are subject to severe fines.
He says his own fishing has recently been confined to a distant creek, because stocks in the Nanshih dwindled and tribal leaders imposed a ban. Now, he says, he treks over several hills to catch shrimp and indigenous fish in his newfound fishing preserve.
In another part of the village, Kao Chiu-mei is hard at work at the Fumiyo workshop, started with 10 other women to preserve the ancient tradition of weaving floral motifs and other patterns on white linen.
She says she originally learned the craft from her elderly mother and is committed to ensuring it is passed along to future generations.
"We would hate to see the art being lost forever," she says.
Still, with many tribal people attracted by the relatively easy life in Taipei and other Taiwanese cities, the battle may soon be lost.
"Life is difficult here even if we do have a great natural environment," says Lin Chao-hui, a town official in Wulai.
Source: Associated Press

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