Friday, July 11, 2008

Orchid Island

Fishing is key to the culture in Orchid Island

I was very excited recently to have the chance to visit Orchid Island to see a traditional boat launch.

A family clan from Donqing village on Orchid Island, also known as Lanyu in Chinese - a volcanic, mountainous island located off Taiwan's south-east coast - are preparing for the biggest celebration in their village in recent years.

This 7.5 metre-long, ten-seater traditional wooden canoe is about to be launched. It is not made from one tree, but 27 separate pieces of wood, taken from several locally grown trees; and held together by glue, wooden pins and cords.

The boat has taken months to complete. According to local traditions, only one single clan from a particular village or an extended family can build a boat.

Boat owner, 69 year old Syapen Koten said he was determined that his family should build a traditional boat. "When I saw other families, other fishing teams during the flying fish season, they all had big, wooden boats. But we only had a small boat. I felt very upset. So I decided to get my family the means to build this big boat."

"Catching flying fish and building boats are closely linked together. If there's no fishing boat, you can't catch the fish. So it is an important part of our tradition."

Wooden canoes on the island - which feature a upturned bow and stern pointing up to the sky - are elaborately carved and painted in the Tao tribe's traditional colours of red white and black. They're decorated with intricate, geometrical patterns.

Each boat is slightly different - since each clan has its own unique totem.

Fishermen will traditionally set out in the boats wearing T-strings, or loin cloths. But in recent years, fewer of the traditional boats are being made. Carving skills are being lost. And richer villagers have started to buy motorboats, rather than wooden canoes, for fishing .

Six families were involved in making the boat. But some of the knowledge of the traditional skills is passing away. This clan fear this boat may be the last they ever make. Elders are passing away. And many of the younger generation have limited knowledge of the elaborate traditional customs.

The boat owner's son, 37 year old Syaman Manidong, says while he was very honoured to take part in the ritual, he's also embarrassed, as he doesn't know how to build a boat or carve.

He's helped his relatives with the heavy lifting and tried to learn from watching them. But he believes that the government should offer more systematic help in providing some training for the young - so they can also become master craftsmen and maintain the traditions.

Building a 10-seater wooden canoe is a communal activity. It's not only time-consuming but also costly. Enough of the island's staple food, taro, needs to be planted and pigs reared well ahead of the elaborate ceremony. The island's inhabitants, who number fewer than 4,000, are mainly aboriginals - members of the Tao tribe. They migrated to the island about 800 years ago from the Batan Archipelago in the northern Philippines.

While the Tao's cultural traditions remain stronger than in many other aboriginal groups in Taiwan - because of the island's distance from the mainland - they have also suffered under the decades-old policy of Sinicisation, pursued when Taiwan was ruled as a one-party state by the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, which once governed all of China. Under the policy, children were forced to learn Mandarin Chinese, not their native tongue, in school.

The central government ordered the island's traditional houses to be demolished and "above ground" concrete housing to be built. However, there are a few remaining traditional houses left on the island, set into the hillsides, built behind coral-rock walls.

The houses are built from stone, half submerged several feet into the ground to protect them from typhoons which often hit the island.

While fish is the main source of protein for villagers, they also raise pigs and goats - which freely roam the island. Other local foods are taro and yam, or sweet potato.

There's little major development on the island, which has one gas station, a post office, bank, and a few convenience stores. There are several small hotels, and many more family-run guesthouses.

Apart from on major festivals, when the young return for the celebrations, locals say the island is made up mainly of old people and children.

Young people can only be educated up to high school level. They must go to the Taiwan mainland if they want to attend college or university. Many more go to Taiwan in search of work, as there are few job opportunities on the island.

Families try to make enough money to send their children to school on the mainland. They believe education is the key to helping the next generation get better opportunities and reversing their economic fortunes.

But sending their children to Taiwan also represents a loss in the link in passing down traditions orally between the generations.

It's the first time the clan will have launched a traditional wooden boat in 30 years. And elaborate rituals need to be followed.

The day before the boat is launched, villagers will arrive throughout the day with gifts of taro - which then will be place in a huge mound inside the boat, covering it completely. Taro leaves will then be carefully placed on top.

On the eve of the boat launch, the clan invite special guests to join them. The elderly male guests are dressed in their finest costumes - including silver helmets and other decorations.
They are ceremoniously welcomed, and sit down to join in singing with the boat owners. The group will sing songs describing the building of the boat, its beauty, as well as their wishes for the future safety of its crew and good fishing catches.

The Tao believe boats possess a soul. That's why before it can be launched, spirits need to be pacified; and evil spirits scared away, or exorcised.

The launch ceremony will include a rite of driving the devils away. Villagers in the clan, old and young, will clench their fists, try to keep their eyes widely opened and shout out loud to scare the bad spirits.

On the day of the boat launch, pigs are slaughtered, intended as a symbolic sacrifice. More than forty pigs will be killed for this ceremony; the meat then roasted and distributed to guests.

A pig can cost more than $100 - a large amount for villagers - but the show of generosity is a sign of the family's prestige and social standing.

The boat is finally about to be launched.
Despite non-stop heavy rain, thousands of people have crowded around the boat and harbour to watch the spectacle.After two days of ceremonial ritual, there's applause and loud cheers as the boat is put out to sea. It will sail and return to the shore several times. High-spirited young villagers splash each other in mock-fights as they swim into the ocean.The boat launch is a powerful reminder that despite worries about the island's future, traditional ceremonies can still powerfully unite islanders and make them feel proud about their rich culture.The ocean and fishing - especially flying fish, also known as skipjack, is central to the Tao culture.

The flying fish season normally begins in March; and traditionally would last until September. But falling fish stocks - blamed on overfishing by mainland Taiwanese fishermen who use motorboats and the impact of global warming - has meant that this year's catch season ended in early June.

The Tao people believe the flying fish is a gift from heaven. And there are many rituals and taboos surrounding the catching and eating of the fish. There are special fish types to be eaten only by the elders, by men and the women. Different fishing methods are observed during different months, to ensure that the fish stocks are sustainably harvested. The tribe believe they should only catch what they can eat.

Fish is hung up and dried at the end of the fishing season - and eaten during the lean winter months

The island's rich traditions and rugged scenery - including excellent diving and snorkeling spots - are a big draw for tourists.

Around 70,000 come to the island every year. Some enterprising islanders have set up small shops and galleries showcasing local crafts and giving them some extra income.

But many elderly villagers resent the tourist arrivals - especially being the subject of snap-happy tourists, many of whom care little about respecting local traditions.

Villagers worry about the impact tourists will have on the young generation. They warn that if outsiders pay scant respect to Orchid Island's traditions and rituals, it will make young children also feel that their traditions are regarded as worthless by outsiders, and not worth observing themselves.

Another big worry for the island is the legacy of this innocuous looking building, whose sign reads "Lanyu (Orchid Island) Storage Site." The building stores potentially hazardous material - nearly 98,000 barrels of low grade nuclear waste taken from Taiwan's three nuclear plants.

The site began operating in 1982; but stopped accepting additional nuclear waste in 1996. Villagers were originally told that the building would be used as a fish cannery, with its own port facilities and that it would provide much-needed employment..Only much later did they discover its true purpose.

The government has said the nuclear waste dump will shut down by 2016 - and the waste will move to another site on Taiwan's main island. There have been protests over the plant since the late 1980s; with villagers reporting mutated fish, claiming increasing cancer rates and contaminated soil.

But removal of the plant, run by the state-owned Taipower, will also mean a loss of income for many islanders; and for the local village government.

Friday, July 4, 2008

direct weekend flights China-Taiwan

Dragon dances, aboriginal singers and a red carpet welcome greeted some of the first passengers to step off the planes making history today as they landed in Tawan.

These were the first direct weekend charter flights between the two sides in nearly 60 years. The first flight - from Guangzhou - arrived at Taoyuan airport just after 8am. The second, from Xiamen, arrived at Taipei's Songshan domestic airport - the first international flight to land there in nearly 30 years.

Watching me watching you...

In the past, travelers between the two sides have had to transit in Hong Kong or Macau to reach their final destination. But the new flights will save passengers time and money...although they will currently only operate from Fridays to Mondays. The goverment here hopes they will soon become regular daily charter flights.

Around 600 Chinese tourists, plus officials and journalists, will be arriving in Taiwan this weekend. But the small numbers are expected to rapidly increase by the end of the month - as Beijing has promised to allow up to 3,000 of its citizens to travel to Taiwan evwery day.

Currently, nearly 5 million Taiwanese travel to China each year; but Beijing has a tight rein on where its citizens can travel, and the number of Chinese who've travelled to Taiwan is still tiny.

Local businesses in Taiwan predict they'll provide a much-needed economic boost.

The agreements on flights and tourists, signed last month, fulfil an election pledge made by Taiwan’s new Presdient, Ma Ying jeou.

He promised voters to boost the island’s economy – and push for a better, less confrontational relationship with China, which still regards the island as part of its territory.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Taipei's urban beach

Posing for photos on Taipei's new urban beach

Taipei has a new summer tourist attraction - a man made beach.
Its not big - just 400 sq metres, behind the city hall. But it does feature white sand, palm trees in the background, parasols and chairs on a wooden deck. Oh, and there are sinks for visitors to wash off the sand between their toes when they need to go back to the office.
The idea follows similar projects in Europe - think Paris with its "plage" and Berlin with some man-made beaches. But Taipei summers are sweltering - more humid than in Europe - and Taiwanese are also notoriously wary of getting their pale skin suntanned. So will it be a hit?
Location location location - a beach with a view of Taipei 101.

When I went down, there were lots of curious visitors. Most couldnt resist taking off their shoes and dipping their feet into the sand.

"Most people here work too hard, take things too seriously", says Emile Sheng, head of Taipei City goverment's research, development and evaluation commission. "We would like to inject more joy into people's lives.

"This is the first man-made beach in Asia..and we would like to come up with a series of ideas to make Taipei the most creative city in the world."

Raking the sand - to clean off the footprints left by visitors.

The concept got praise from the curious public who came to take a look. But some thought it was too small.

One mother, whose kids played in the sand, seemed content to watch them - saying it was a great place for children to play while she had to go to city hall to do some business.

Other young kids - taking photos of each other - also liked the idea, saying it was special.

For those worried about environmental pollution: the city government says the special sand is thicker and heavier than normal beach sand and won't blow away. It can also easily filter water, and wont become clogged if there's a sudden afternoon downpour.

The beach will stay open until November. And aprt of it can be hired out by companies for advertising space. If the idea proves a hit with the public, there could be more man made beaches in the city next summer.