The Farther South, The Warmer The Weather And The People

Indigenous Hospitality Found in Pingtung

By Cheryl Robbins

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The arts of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples are my passion. Their unique aesthetic quality comes from the particular place where the artist lives and his/her cultural background. They are what has inspired me to promote Taiwan’s indigenous culture internationally and visit indigenous villages around Taiwan whenever time allows.

My first contact with this land’s indigenous cultures was in 1997 when I started working at the National Museum of Natural Science in Taichung. One of the permanent exhibitions in that museum is on the indigenous peoples of Taiwan. To be able to explain this exhibition to international visitors, I needed to study the history and culture of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. I sought out information from the ethnologists on staff and my indigenous coworkers. One of my coworkers was from the Rukai Tribe and invited me to his home in Wutai Village of Wutai Township in Pingtung County.

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Experiencing Indigenous Culture for the First Time

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As we walked around the village, we saw a group of women preparing pigeon peas, a common ingredient in indigenous cuisine. Later, we came across another group of women, a little bit older, also working and chatting. Some of them wore flower wreaths. My friend explained that women traditionally wore such wreaths for their fragrance and beauty. Soon, I was presented with a beautiful wreath of my own to wear. We then visited a very elderly woman with fading tattoos on the backs of her hands, a tradition that is no longer practiced. She explained the meaning of the tattoos to us in the Rukai language, with my friend providing the translation. I couldn’t help but be struck by the warmth of the people and their willingness to share their culture.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the warmth of the people and their willingness to share their culture

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My friend’s family ran a guesthouse, one of about a dozen in the village, and that is where I stayed. The Rukai custom is to politely address an older woman as “ina,” which is what I called my friend’s mother. This made us both smile and laugh as though we were sharing an inside joke.

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One of the most characteristic images of the village is the rows of houses above the elementary school. The facades of these homes are decorated in slate, which is found on the surrounding slopes. Traditional dwellings were built with slate, and the village residents decided that this material should be incorporated into their modern architecture. This image is framed by the towering mountains that encircle the village. In recent years typhoons have brought destruction to Wutai Township and now, whenever there is heavy rain, there is the threat of the road leading into and out of Wutai Village becoming blocked by rockslides. But this has not dampened the spirit or friendliness of the people living there.

Discovering the Art of the Paiwan

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It was also on that first trip that I bought my first indigenous-made handicraft, a bead bracelet. On the way to his village, my friend stopped at the Sha Tao Lazurite Art workshop in Sandi Village of Sandimen Township, which produces bead jewelry. Lead-glass beads have always been an important part of the Paiwan Tribe’s culture, representing social status and position, serving as important betrothal gifts, and providing protection against evil spirits. The owner of the workshop, Shatao, and other artists make both traditional- and contemporary-style beads. Today’s handicrafts, such as these beads, have developed as a way for artists to preserve the culture of their people and to take advantage of increasing tourism. Sandimen Township has led the way in handicrafts-based tourism in Taiwan, and it can be argued that this has resulted in too much commercialism. However, it is still possible to find quality handicrafts with cultural meaning in this area.

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This craft was once in danger of becoming extinct, as many of the beads and handicrafts were taken away by or sold to collectors and there was no knowledge of how to make them. Then Umass Zingrur, a Paiwan artist, stepped in. He researched a quartz-clay formula that resulted in beads that look like the traditional lead-glass ones. At his workshop, the Sandimen Bead Workshop, you can watch as these beads are produced and purchase some of the jewelry on display or order something custom-made.

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Umass’s workshop and the workshops in Sandi Village are all very accessible, located off Provincial Highway No. 24, which connects to National Freeway No. 3. If the road is open, it is possible to take Provincial Highway No. 24 all the way up to Wutai Village. However, a mountain permit is required to enter the village, which can be obtained at a local police station in Pingtung.

Much to See and Do in Pingtung County

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If your travels to Pingtung County take you to Kenting National Park and the Hengchun Peninsula instead of its high mountains, consider a detour from Provincial Highway No. 26 onto County Road No. 199 to Mudan Township. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945), this area was referred to as the “botanical garden” of Taiwan, and with good reason. Wild peonies, white ginger lilies, and other wild flowers take turns blooming throughout the year in breathtaking patches of color.

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As soon as I arrived in Shimen Village on my first visit to Mudan three years ago, a friend took me to the home of Auniyaw, the founder of the Mudan Township Aboriginal Tourism and Cultural Industry Development Association. Within the first minutes of meeting her I felt like family. She explained that there are six Paiwan villages in Mudan Township and then added that in each of the villages the people are known for a specific characteristic, such as having received a high education or being thin or tall.

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While there, I met up with Chen Shi-jie, or Ah Jie, who used to work in Taipei, but left his job to return to his village. He told me about a trail that the young people of Shimen have fixed up and that leads to the ruins of a village where according to legend once lived a people very short in stature. It is only about 300 meters long, up a sturdy wooden stairway. The ruins of the stone houses show that the walls come up only to the waist. There is no way that a person of average size would be able to fit inside. Thus, there may be some truth to this legend.

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We also visited the Jiade Gorge Indigenous Plant Educational Park, operated by Auniyaw’s association. It cultivates plants traditionally used by the Paiwan people, which Auniyaw explains to interested visitors. These plants along with the area’s hot-spring waters are used to make handmade soap, which can be purchased at the park. Running alongside the park is a nature trail leading to a crystal-clear stream.

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There is a saying in Taiwan that the farther south you travel, the warmer the weather and the people. Pingtung County lies at the southern end of Taiwan. It should thus come as no surprise that all of the places mentioned here are in Pingtung County or that the indigenous areas of Pingtung County are the ones that I travel to the most. It is the natural beauty of this part of Taiwan and the hospitality and creativity of its indigenous people that bring me back again and again, each time discovering something new.

Cheryl is the founder and owner of the Tribe-Asia Company: www.tribe-asia.com

Sha Tao Lazurite Art

Add: 7, Lane 37, Zhongzheng Road, Sec. 2, Sandimen Township, Pingtung County

Tel: (08) 799-4849; 0915-563-037

Sandimen Bead Workshop

Add: 215-1, Zhongxiao Road, Shuimen Village, Neipu Township, Pingtung County

Tel: (08) 799-4046

Jiade Gorge Indigenous Plant Educational Park / Mudan Township Indigenous Tourism and Cultural Industry Development Association

Add: 20km marker along County Road 199, Mudan Township, Pingtung County

Tel: (08) 883-1188; 0913-186-080