Paradise Lost? Orchid Island's Rocky History

If the Tao people of Orchid Island can overcome some modern-day challenges while celebrating and sharing their rich heritage, the future looks bright for this amazing but remote haven.


Before the 19th century, Orchid Island was almost unknown on Taiwan, and the current name in Chinese, Lanyu (蘭嶼), was given only in 1946. Some 800 years ago, the island was settled by migrants from modern-day Batanes Archipelago in the northern Philippines, and it is believed that another wave of immigration came 200 years ago from those fleeing Spanish rule in Itbayat, one of the Batanes islands.
Up until the 17th century, the Tao people of Orchid Island traded frequently with the northernmost of the Batanes islands, aided by favorable ocean currents and a slightly closer proximity than with Taiwan (42 as against 49 nautical miles). Tribal lore recounts intermarriages between the areas, and commerce in which the Tao traded such items as pigs, goats, and millet for beads, gold, python snakeskins, and buffalo leather for their armor, which the Tao wore in burial rites. Through the Spanish connection with the Philippines, the trade even brought Mexican silver to Orchid Island, which the Tao worked to fashion their distinctive conical helmets, a sign of wealth.
Then 300 years ago, contact with Batanes ceased. As the story goes, during one Tao journey there, the Batanes men became jealous when their women started admiring the strength of the Tao males. The trip ended in slaughter, with only two Tao men escaping to tell the tale. Nevertheless, evidence remains of their shared history. Even today, 70% of their languages are mutually intelligible.
In centuries past, when the Dutch, Spanish, British and others plied these waters in a bid for trade domination, their vessels would sometimes be shipwrecked during a typhoon and the crews forced to make contact with the “savages” on Orchid Island, as they were described at the time. In some cases, the booty enriched the Lanyu natives with gold, enabling them to arm themselves with gold-tipped arrows. 
An expedition representing the Qing emperor was dispatched to the island from Formosa sometime in the first half of the 18th century. Although the original intentions might have been peaceful, the expedition wound up killing scores of natives before departing. Unwisely, the contingent later chose to return, whereupon the Tao turned on them in a bloody reprisal. When news spread of this and other incidents – such as the looting of a shipwrecked vessel on Xiao Lanyu (Little Orchid Island), where the crew was left to die – outsiders began scrupulously avoiding the place. Interestingly, these incidents are not mentioned in Tao folklore, probably because speaking of death was seen as invoking bad spirits.
According to one variation of that folklore, the Tao are descended from “Bamboo and Stone People,” and sprang variously from the chests or knees of these ancestors. Another version of their mythology relates that the first human was lowered from the sky in ancient times when a golden ladder separated heaven and earth, a belief shared with other Southeast Asian peoples.
When the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki brought Taiwan under Japanese colonial rule for 50 years, the Japanese treated Lanyu as a kind of living anthropological museum, leaving it largely undisturbed and making it possible for the island today to represent one of the best-preserved Austronesian cultures. One Japanese anthropologist, seeking to determine what the Tao called themselves, came up with the name “Yami,” which actually means “we.” Today they prefer the term “Tao,” meaning “people.” 
During the Japanese period, the bountiful wild Phalaenopsis orchids on the island were picked and sold until the flowers’ near-extinction. Today, viewing the island’s namesake requires a several-hour hike into the lush mountain rainforests near Mountain Lake (Datienchih) and Small Mountain Lake (Xiaotienchih). 
When the Chinese Nationalist government took power in 1945, the language of instruction changed from Japanese to Mandarin, and the island’s high school boarded students from Monday to Saturday morning. As a result, the younger generations today have for the most part lost the ability to speak their mother tongue.
The Nationalists also confiscated hundreds of hectares used by natives for growing their staples – yams, sweet potatoes, and taro – to build cattle ranches for resettling army veterans, who ultimately departed, finding island conditions too hard. Then, as with Green Island, some of the land was used to build prisons – two for political dissidents and one for prostitutes. Long abandoned, the concrete box-like barracks and other prison facilities can still be seen around the island, along with a few Chinese-style shrines and cemeteries.
Visiting the island in 1967, Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shek were reportedly mortified to see the inhabitants living in half-underground homes. Despite the residents’ pleas, they were forced out of the wooden and stone structures that for eons had weathered typhoons and provided shelter from the heat – and into concrete houses. Just a handful of the traditional abodes now remain, in Yeying Village (Ivalino) on the island’s eastern side. 

Missionary influence


The Chiangs reopened Taiwan to Western missionaries, who had a strong impact on Orchid Island. Ethnologist Lou Tsu K’uang has written that by 1956, “[Yami]…consider the magic power of the new religion well worth giving a try. They apply religious pictures and the Bible as means to chase away evil spirits in case of sickness, adorn themselves and their children with rosaries and medals, side by side with their own charms [of] strings and tufts of goat’s hair.” 
The Church’s influence was in some ways protective. Barry Martinson, who was sent to Lanyu in 1971 for Jesuit training, relates in his wonderful book Song of Orchid Island how the Catholic priest before him, Father Gigers, was well-liked because he dared to scold soldiers when their cows trampled taro fields. The missionaries also provided basic medicines, and sought to arrange educational opportunities on Taiwan for the young people. Martinson says some Orchid Islanders still have portraits of him in their homes.
Although both men and women were proficient in weaving, the Tao were shamed by the authorities into wearing more clothes so that Beijing could not use photos of near-naked Orchid Islanders in their anti-Nationalist propaganda. Except for ceremonial occasions, the men gradually stopped sporting the nifty badailai thong, deemed “obscene” and “underwear-like” by outsiders, in favor of Bermuda-style shorts, while women began covering more of their breasts. Most older women now opt for a colorful blouse, skirt, and necklace, and often go barefoot.
Today, islanders have overlaid their traditional beliefs with Christian ones. Asked about her beliefs, Si Garribang, 27, who has taken the English name of Stephanie, she said she “grew up going to church,” believes in and prays to “a God,” and considers that when people die, they become spirits. Her friend Tracy from Hengtou says she used to go to church, but because the men there “drink too much and try to pick up women,” she now prays at home. Another friend, Teresa, gave up going to church because the services “don’t open my heart,” and believes that “everywhere I go and everything I do, God is there.”
Traditionally, the Tao cosmos usually consists of eight or nine superimposed elliptic planes, supported by five massive tree trunks on the lowest plane. Most of the layers are occupied by spirits, but a middle plane is home to human beings, including the Tao. Gods of different ranks reside on the upper planes. The general term for gods is tao ro to (“people up there”). Ghosts, bad spirits (anito), and “underground people” (tao ro teiraem), dwell on the planes below the humans’.
Taipei-educated Teresa, a nurse at the island’s lone health clinic, says she returned to the island “to serve my people” and married a Tao spearfisherman. She is proud of being “traditional,” but questions some of the superstitions of the past, such as the warning that mothers of infants under three months old must not go outside, since the anito will be drawn by the smell of mother’s milk and take the child’s spirit. Mothers are taught to rub a leaf onto a child’s chest before taking him or her to a new place, and also to say the child’s name aloud while announcing their departure, or else “the child’s soul might stay in that new place.” But regardless of some misgivings, Teresa generally defers to tradition.
Two central activities – boat-making and tending the fields – define the lives of Tao men and women. Making boats, fishing, and collecting shellfish to bring in income to help broaden the family diet are considered men’s work. Women aren’t allowed to touch the boats, watch the boat-launching ceremony, or even descale and cook fish (except when the catch is too big and the whole family pitches in). Women’s work is to carefully tend the staple crops of taro, sweet potatoes, and millet – the latter now faded in importance under the influence of Taiwan’s rice-eating culture.
The Tao’s most important festivals – the Flying Fish Festival, Boat-Launching Festival, and Harvest Festival – revolve around these fishing and farming traditions. Since the dates of the celebrations vary from village to village, potential visitors are advised to call the Taitung Tourism Office (Tel: 089-357131) for the schedule. As of this writing, a team of Tao men were constructing a boat to be launched on June 26 and rowed all the way to Taipei for presentation to President Ma Ying-jeou. 
Knowledge of how to make sturdy, seaworthy boats was given to their ancestors, the Tao say, by “visitors from the underworld” who showed them how to live productive daily lives, with harmonious relations between men and women as well as with nature. According to another legend, the Bamboo and Stone Man also gave them solemn advice: “Use only those resources that you need and do not spoil anything that the creator has given to us.”
Yet another belief is that after islanders fell sick with rashes or diarrhea from eating flying fish, the spirit of the King of the Flying Fish appeared to an old man in a dream, passing along strict rules about how and when to catch the fish and how to honor the gifts of the ocean. Countless generations later, flying fish are still caught and prepared according to these rules, which include drying them with sea salt and eating them either dry or stewed. One detail, however, nowadays is often neglected: serving the fish with its tail through its eyes.

A peaceful people


By the 1950s, scholars described the Yami as “a peaceful people, lacking in martial spirit.” Their weapons were limited to stones and clubs, as well as spears that served only a ceremonial function and to ward off evil spirits. When conflicts arose, the wealthy men of each village (determined by ownership of fields, pigs, and goats) would intervene to make a ruling. If that arbitration failed to settle the matter and the disputants were determined to resort to physical violence, the timing of the contest would be arranged by the combatants’ families and might last for hours until one party was defeated. In the case of death of one of the fighters, the killer was expected to flee into the mountains.
Outsiders have observed that Tao men and women form lasting, monogamous bonds  – at least after having children – and that adultery, rape, prostitution, and domestic violence are unheard of (Tracy notes that such transgressions would be a “loss of face” for the offender, as on such a small island everyone would soon learn of it). Men and women live together but usually don’t marry until a child is produced. In Teresa’s case, once she became pregnant, her husband began building his boat – a rite of manhood – and they married upon its completion.
Childbirth is so important that in a practice that linguistic anthropologists call teknonymy, the names of the parents and grandparents change to reflect the name of the first child. The mother’s given name becomes the name of that child preceded by the prefix “Sinan,” while the father uses the prefix “Siaman” and the grandparents “Siapun.”  
The Yami lifestyle in many ways seeks a balance with nature. For example, during Flying Fish Season, which lasts for four to five months, usually until the end of May, only enough flying fish are caught to meet the family’s own needs for the year. Also during this period, flying fish are eaten almost exclusively, a custom that helps prevent overfishing and allows other fish stocks to mature.
For the rest of the year, men are restricted to eating what are considered “men’s fish” and women “women’s fish,” which tend to be more colorful and tender, with a more delicate taste. There are also “old people’s fish,” which are generally the tougher, less appealing varieties. Octopus, says Teresa, may be eaten by either men or women, but not by expectant mothers, for fear the child might be born without bones.

Specter of nuclear waste


Given the Tao’s reverence for nature, it understandably came as a shock when they discovered that the structure built on the island in the late 1970s was not a fish cannery, as they had reportedly been told, but rather a storage facility for low-level waste – consisting of contaminated clothing and sludge – from Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants.
After large protest demonstrations were held outside government buildings in Taipei in 1991, the authorities agreed to cancel an expansion plan for the repository and to halt any further shipments of waste. In 2002, half the island’s population of 4,000 showed up in front of the facility to demand complete removal of the stored material. The state-owned Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower) then agreed to increase its payments to the community with an additional one-time donation of NT$200 million (US$5.7 million), to provide the residents with free electricity, and to move the waste within nine years. But no other site has yet been found, and the utility has now postponed the promised date of removal to 2016. Meanwhile, the barrels have rusted and the concrete casings holding them have cracked, increasing the concern of the inhabitants of the island.
Nuclear matters aside, members of Lanyu’s younger generation have often felt that their life choices are limited, whether for study or work. Like Teresa, Tracy, and Stephanie, an estimated 25% of the population has moved to Taiwan as a land of opportunity. But the three women are also representative of the trend for some Tao people to trickle back after a stint in Taiwan, often motivated by a desire to “serve our people.”
This is a positive development for Orchid Island, since such individuals are well-equipped to contribute to meeting Lanyu’s bright potential for eco-tourism. In the past few years, running a minsu (“homestay” or bed and breakfast) has become a good source of income for many here. The island features some of the region’s best diving, snorkeling, and spearfishing, although powerful currents usually necessitate hiring a local guide. There are also job opportunities in running nature tours to glimpse the famed Scops owl, flying fox (Taiwanese fruit bat), and birdwing butterflies.
Teresa points out that government grants are available to help Tao people start small businesses, but few people have the skills necessary to draw up a business plan and submit an application. Land rights are another issue. In Tao tradition, land was handed down through the male line, while women inherit the jewelry. It was only rather recently that residents were able to register their land and obtain a deed. (One of Stephanie’s jobs as secretary of the Tao Foundation is to take part in a project under the Council of Indigenous Peoples to try to identify land ownership in all six villages.)
Despite many challenges, Orchid Islanders seem to be navigating their own way, with a cultural reawakening – and pride – in keeping their rich heritage alive. Tourism, including eco-tourism, may open the way to a more prosperous future. But can they transform Lanyu, raising their quality of life while still maintaining the best of their traditions? Can they “sell” their culture without “selling out?” The trick will be finding the right balance between old and new.

— Special thanks to Academia Sinica’s now-discontinued Orchid Island Research Group, Teresa, and the Taitung Tourism Office.


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