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A Minority within a Minority: Cultural Survival on Taiwan's Orchid Island

The indigenous people of Orchid Island, an island off the southeast coast of Taiwan, are a small but distinct group—cut off from their closest relatives in the Philippines—among Taiwan’s remaining two percent Austronesians in a sea of Han Chinese.

The Diversity of Taiwan’s Indigenous Minority

The indigenous Austronesian peoples of Taiwan were gradually overrun by waves of migration from China, particularly after the brief Dutch colonization of southern Taiwan in 1624-1662. The Dutch brought in settlers from the nearby southeast coast of China to help in their establishment of plantations and trade; remnants of the Ming Dynasty later fled to Taiwan after the Manchu invasion of China that established the Ching Dynasty there. Assimilation and intermarriage in the southern west coast plains areas led to a sinicized population with traces of indigenous roots only in place names and in rites of commemoration for a “female ancestor” god nearly lost among the many deities brought by the Chinese, or “Han,” settlers from the region of present south Fujian. Other indigenous peoples living in the mountainous interior and on the east coast were driven out of the fertile valleys by Han settlers and moved further up the mountains, where they were contained within militarized lines of demarcation fortified with guard posts and palisades.

At present Taiwan’s indigenous people are numbered at about 400,000, under two percent of Taiwan’s 22 million people. Given discrimination against the indigenous people and the last five decades of forced assimilation to Chinese culture, including assignment of arbitrary and monosyllabic Chinese names, the figure is almost certainly an undercount, but it has yet to be rectified.

As in many other parts of the world, tribal peoples were historically unable to mount a united resistance to masses migrating from state societies. This is even more true of Taiwan because of the racial and linguistic diversity among Taiwan’s thin population of Austronesian peoples. More linguistic diversity has been found among Taiwan’s dozen or so tribal groups than within all other Austronesian groups, whose language families are found from Southeast Asia to the eastern Pacific. The dispersion has led to alternative theories about the origin of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples: either Taiwan is the ancestral home of these peoples, or in past millennia of migration out from Southeast Asia and through the Philippines Islands, small portions of migrating populations were frequently thrown back to the northwest by the Japan current, landing on the large island of Taiwan.

The latter perspective is of particular relevance to what is probably the latest Austronesian arrival in the area: the Tao people of Orchid Island (Lan Yu), who are distinct from all of the other tribes of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Orchid Island is a small island of 45 square kilometers about four hours by motorboat or 20 minutes by plane from the mountainous southeast coast of Taiwan; the city of Taitung is only 49 nautical miles away. The people of Orchid Island number only 5,000 or so. Half—mostly elders and children under their care—still reside on the island, while the young adults are away working on Taiwan. Oral histories suggest the possibility that Orchid Islanders are descended from those who fled the Spanish occupation of the Philippines some 200 years ago. Twenty-five thousand members of the same cultural and linguistic group live in Batanis Province at the northern tip of the Republic of the Philippines. It is only 42 nautical miles from Orchid Island to the nearest point in Batanis Province.

The two groups have been separated at least since Japan asserted control over Orchid Island not long after it took Taiwan from Manchu China in 1895. The Japanese administration maintained Orchid Island in isolation as a living anthropological museum, leaving the Tao largely undisturbed. Labeled "Yami" by Japanese anthropologists, a name they have rejected in recent years in favor of "Dawu" or "Tao" (which simply mean "people" in their own language), they are the most egalitarian and least stratified of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, recognizing no chiefs or religious specialists. Traditionally, they wore minimal clothing in their warm island environment, living simply on staples of taro, pigs, and fish, and foraging in the lush forests.

The Filipino Tao were subjected to Spanish and American colonialism and cultural assimilation to Christianity beginning perhaps 300 years ago, but under the Philippine policy of multilingualism they have been allowed to maintain their language. Over the last 100 years the two groups have been only vaguely aware of each other, and only a few missionaries have been able to visit both places. But both areas have oral traditions recalling trade and intermarriage in the past. The renewal of Tao language in Taiwan through communication with their cousins in the Philippines remains a possibility.

Though language traditions are better preserved in the Philippines, traditions of material culture are better preserved on Orchid Island. Most of Tao culture and religious observances revolve around the annual cycle of catching and preserving three varieties (white, red, and black) of flying fish that the Tao dry with salt and later stew. Their central cultural emblem is their distinctive fishing boat, a canoe of hand-hewn wooden planks with high upturned extensions of bow and stern pointing to the sky. These are decorated with intricate, geometrical emblems--particularly precise tightly-wound spirals--in white, black and red. A row of these boats on the seashore with their prows jutting up against the sunset has become a favorite scene of artists and photographers.

Another Taiwan Tao distinction, traditional housing, seems to have sprung from the island’s geology of rough coral laid down around steep volcanic slopes. There are few sand beaches or dunes, and in the late summer the island is frequently raked by typhoons. Traditional squares of housing, wet taro fields, and pig pens were all set in an intersecting grid of coral-rock walls, terraced from the ocean up the hillsides. The steep-roofed, wooden plank houses were nestled eight feet or so into the honeycomb, their roofs barely protruding; smooth flat stones in dense grass provided stable narrow paths along the coral ridges and steps down to the doors. Light pavilions for summer chatting and sleeping, or sheds for cleaning and smoking fish, were erected above. But the current reality is hardly so picturesque.

Chinese Chauvinism on Taiwan

Control of Orchid Island passed to the Republic of China along with Taiwan in late 1945, following Japan’s defeat in World War II. Not long after, the Chinese Communist Revolution forced Chiang Kai-Shek to retreat to Taiwan in 1949, where he remained in a suspended state of war, protected from Chinese attack by the United States.

Under Cold War paranoia and the fiction of continuing civil war, Taiwan’s outer islands were heavily fortified and placed under strict military control. The indigenous people of Orchid Island, as well as those of Green Island nearby, where prisons for political offenders were located, were merely local fauna to the military. Military recruits and guards or political prisoners out on work detail sometimes slept with local women, but permanent marriage status was rarely available. Orchid Island, like the other militarized islands, had a "paradise in the military," a whorehouse where prostitutes caught working without a license in Taiwan could be sent to work off their sentences--the ROC version of Japanese "comfort women." The building’s two-story shell still stands.

In 1967, according to local accounts, Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek visited the island and were aghast to see their subjects living in underground hovels. They ordered that above-ground concrete housing be built immediately, and that the inhabitants be relocated. The free roaming of pigs and goats was also found offensive, and concrete pens were later built for pigs as well.

Many of the older people objected and continually moved back to their snug old homes with smooth wooden plank floors and elaborately carved walls. But until 1976, regardless of tears and entreaties, traditional homes were bulldozed; only a few houses of the collaborating elite were spared. Because the concrete for the new houses was mixed with salty ocean sand, a practice common in Taiwan on account of corruption in public construction, the new housing began to crumble in just a few years and continues to deteriorate to the present. Orchid Island’s handicraft center is unoccupied because of shoddy construction, and a modern-looking library building contains thick dust but no books.

The younger Tao generation has been forcibly assimilated to Chinese language and culture for at least three decades under the educational system of the Republic of China on Taiwan. Most Orchid Islanders under the age of 25 speak virtually no Tao. The single high school on the island, founded in 1970, requires that students board there, separating them from their parents for weekdays through Saturday morning, and the school system uses only Mandarin Chinese.

The Nuclear Waste Dump

In 1980 the government-owned utility Taiwan Power Corporation started to build what was said to be a fish cannery with its own port facilities on the southeast point of Orchid Island. The islanders were told that the project would provide employment. But in 1982 Taipower began shipping in barrels of nuclear-contaminated materials from Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants. The facility seems modest at first glance--only a two-story office building is in view. Around one side of the building, however, is a concrete plaza set with rows of low metal hatches: the repository. Those who saw it in construction say the storage space is excavated to a depth of three stories. The capacity is 100,000 barrels. Taipower claims that only low-level waste is stored here, but Taiwan, following what they claim is the U.S. standard, calls all nuclear plant waste "low-level" except the fuel rods.

Residents report deformed fish and other biological anomalies near the dump on Orchid Island. They claim that in the early days plant workers dumped broken barrels in nearby hills. Some medical workers claim increasing rates of cancer among the elderly, and even among the youth, but a lack of systematic epidemiological study and the Tao insistence on burying their dead on the same day without autopsy make their suspicions difficult to prove. Church members have counted 50 stillborn and congenitally deformed babies born to Tao on the island and on Taiwan, and have released this figure to news reporters.

Since 1987, when martial law (declared in 1949) was finally lifted, the Tao people have been protesting against the nuclear waste facility, often with large ceremonies "to drive the evil spirits out of the people’s island."They have been assisted in these protests and in personal appeals to the legislature by Taiwanese anti-nuclear activists and by the Presbyterian Church (see article by Stainton, this issue), and for many years Tao youth were at the forefront of the anti-nuclear movement.

In 1988, in the first of many such actions, the Tao succeeded in physically blocking the wharf when a long-delayed shipment of waste was attempted. In 1994, with the report that a few thousand of the barrels had corroded, Taipower eventually agreed to stop the shipments. By then, 97,000 barrels--near full capacity--were already in storage. Planned construction of another storage area at the site or another facility on a rocky islet nearby had been aborted due to Tao protests. In mid-1998 environmental activists took soil samples around the island and detected Cesium 137 and other manmade isotopes in taro fields. The Taiwan government claims that the level of gamma rays (only one of several indicators of danger to human life) is only that of "natural background" and that Cesium 137 may be present due to atmospheric nuclear testing around the world.

In 1997 Taipower signed a contract with North Korea to take Taiwan’s nuclear waste, and promised the residents of Orchid Island that the dump there would be removed. The promise didn’t survive an international outcry over the plan. Greenpeace of London hired a consulting company to go to Taiwan and examine Taipower’s practices. The resulting 30-page report by John Anderson aired suspicions that the Orchid Island facility was leaking radioactivity and flushing rainwater through the storage area into the ocean, and that there were inadequate records for the contents of the barrels, perhaps in order to mask the side-products of secret nuclear weapons development efforts. 2000 and 2001 have seen exposés of deals between Taipower and Russian authorities for the disposition of Taiwan’s nuclear waste, but Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Commission denies all reports.

Collateral Damage from "Community Appreciation"

Since the opening of tourist travel to the island in 1971 and increased freedom of speech in the late 1980s, Taipower and the military installations remaining on the island have resorted to the buy-off tactics common in governmental and commercial dealings with environmental movements in Taiwan. Bribes have been dispersed from the government in the form of compensation for the salted-cement housing, and from Taipower in the form of land rents and "community compensation" or "appreciation" (hui kuei jin) for the onus of the nuclear waste site. Both have brought community and environmental disaster.

The compensation programs that began eight years ago placed large sums of money in the hands of local government administrators, creating unprecedented opportunities for skimming if those elected locally cooperated with the ruling KMT and Taipower. The Orchid Island community compensation amounts to about NT$90 million (US$2.5 million) annually,1 a sum supposedly slated for 60 percent medical welfare, 30 percent education, and 10 percent infrastructure. As is the case elsewhere in Taiwan, the indigenous people, especially those in remote areas, are already dependent on and subject to control by the penetrating structure of the KMT, which for many decades held sway over their land rights and handed out patronage jobs in local government and in police and military forces. Community compensation exacerbates the problem. And the structure buys the vote at election time, perpetuating itself.

Because of the corruption, a monumental amount of cement has been poured on the island in recent years. One major project paved the road ringing the island, but in addition to the road surface, a foot-high concrete wall was built on both sides of the road to keep the pigs out of the way of vehicles. (Wildlife experts warn that the wall may also block the spawning migrations of land crabs, traditionally a prized food source.) More concrete holds up the protrusions caused by road widening, and still more covers boat-launching areas that were originally pebble beaches. Most of the small streams that run up the slopes to the taro fields are constrained within deep concrete walls, to unknown effect or purpose. Less than a year after the road was built, parts of the side walls toppled and crumbled, and in one section of road raised over taro fields, half of the flimsy red reflectors were shattered. On the beach I met a locally born indigenous truck driver eating lunch who readily volunteered that the local infrastructure projects were driven by graft. He then drove off in his huge cement-mixer truck to deliver another load.

As for the NT$450,000 (US$13,000) compensation promised for each household affected by salt concrete housing, Taiwan’s central government gave each household a window of time--originally three years, beginning in 1996, but then extended two years--in which to apply for funds. Five years was barely enough time to buy building materials shipped from Taiwan; and labor wasn’t supplied to replace the youth working in Taiwan. There was no community planning. New buildings with modern tile and toilet facilities but half-finished roofs (allowing second or third floors later) began springing up in a hodgepodge of locations where households had previous land rights. They even appeared incongruously in an area with the potential to be preserved and restored for the tourist trade, where a few traditional plank houses remained in their grid of ancient grassy coral walls. Meanwhile, for lack of any officially designated area or plan for disposal, the debris from old salted-cement houses, studded with rusty steel rebar, was bulldozed down to the oceanfront or dumped on tide pools on the other side of the island.

Add to this disaster the consumerism of the new cash economy, in which even drinking water in plastic bottles is purchased for guests at the nearest convenience store even though the water flowing down from Orchid Island’s mountains is among the purest in Taiwan, and paradise is lost among the litter. It is said that the older people are most stubborn in discarding litter not far from their doorsteps; they still expect it to disappear into the ground naturally. A few years ago the leading Christian organization on the island held a day of garbage collection and recycling, but the effect was fleeting. In one village, Tung Ching, the area of concrete wave-breakers near the boat landing is also used as a garbage dump, and digging the rubbish out from the maze of pillars would be well nigh impossible. Built closer to the ocean on the vine-covered sand and coral flats are cement cubicles with drainage facilities that were provided to the villagers to serve as pigsties. They lie unused because they are located near unmarked graves, and the villagers, whose culture cuts contact with the dead but deeply values pigs, feel that such a home would be insulting to the animals. The disconnect between ruled and ruler has clearly wrought waste and destruction.

Hope For the Future

Only recently, with the advance of democratization, has the right to a name and education in a language other than Mandarin Chinese been recognized. About five years ago indigenous people were finally given the right to have other than Chinese names, and though just a few activists have actually changed their legal names, more people use their indigenous names in daily life than before. Now Orchid Island Primary School has some simple materials discussing Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Extra native language instruction for children in other more populous tribes is beginning to be developed; Si Jilgilan was one of more than 2,000 indigenous people who took language proficiency tests (administered by the Ministry of Education on December 29, 2001) in more than 38 dialects to qualify as teachers. Indigenous people have also been encouraged, through travel grants, to participate in international events; the grants have allowed them to seek related people in Southeast Asia in recent years.

A few years ago, direct contact between the Tao and the related Filipino tribe finally occurred, although travel from Orchid Island to Basco, capital of Batanis Province, involves four airplane flights, about four days of travel, and an expense of nearly US$1,000 per person. In late March 1998, 25 Taiwan Tao flew to Basco and then traveled to the other two inhabited islands, Batan and Ivatan, by boat to participate in cultural exchange. Seventeen other Taiwanese, including indigenous people from other tribes, elected officials, and journalists, accompanied them. The trip was filmed and aired on the weekly indigenous feature of Taiwan’s public television. Both groups have much to gain from their renewed contact, and for the Taiwan Tao such contact may be crucial for cultural survival, since their language is not closely related to that of the other Austronesian indigenous peoples of Taiwan. (The Taiwan and the Filipino Tao share the same language, except for their usage of imported Japanese/Chinese and Spanish/English words, respectively.) Si Maraos (Chung Chi-Fu), a young Orchid Islander who has worked on this project both as a legislative assistant and as a television documentary maker, has been pushing for renewal of direct boat travel between the two groups, despite bureaucratic obstacles and the danger of naval interdiction. Even with traditional non-motorized boats, the trip is feasible when the seasonal ocean currents are utilized. By direct modern boat travel, it would take about three hours to go from Orchid Island to Basco, and the expense would be minor. He envisions that the two indigenous groups, re-united, can create their own small cultural and economic zone centered on environmental tourism.

And there is yet another ray of hope: the changing character of the Taiwan government. On May 20, 2000 the presidential candidate of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Chen Shui-Bian, broke the KMT’s 55-year monopoly on state power in Taiwan. Although President Chen has so far laid low on Taiwanese nationalism out of fear of China, his election was clearly a victory for the native Taiwanese majority (Han from south China resident in Taiwan before 1945) and for the forces advocating Taiwan independence. Interestingly enough, it is the Austronesian heritage that now serves Taiwanese as a cultural and racial emblem of self-identity to distinguish them from the Chinese mainland—rather like the Maori for New Zealanders. The DPP early on championed indigenous rights, and in campaigning, Chen promised autonomy to Orchid Island. In November 2000, President Chen moved forward on this pledge, and in early 2001 he personally visited Orchid Island and signed a pact for new mutual relations of fellowship with the Tao elders. He promised the islanders and other indigenous peoples autonomy in the near future, setting a four-year window in which to reach a consensus and draft legislation on the form and functions of this autonomy. Land rights in particular are contentious; many indigenous people want private ownership of their land, but such an arrangement is likely to lead to quick sales to outsiders and further fragmentation of the indigenous community. It is hoped that the indigenous tribes, for long the objects of divide-and-conquer tactics, will be able to arrive at a joint program for cultural preservation and economic advance despite their varied circumstances.

1. Land rents paid to Taitung County amount to about NT$200 million (US$5.6 million) annually.

Linda Gail Arrigo has been involved in human rights and social issues in Taiwan since the 1970s. A sociologist, she is currently International Affairs Officer for Green Party Taiwan. The author visited Orchid Island twice, in 1997 and 1998, hosted by artist Si Jilgilan. Both Si Jilgilan and Si Maraos have been interviewed and supplied material for this article.

References & further reading:

Lassen, J. (September 10, 2000). Power play. Taipei Times. www.taipeitimes.com.

Lin, A. C.J. & Keating, J.F. (2000). Island in the Stream: A Quick Case Study of Taiwan’s Complex History. Taipei, Taiwan: SMC Publishing. www.smcbook.com.tw.

Liu, S.H. (November 22, 2000). Chen restates autonomy plan. Taipei Times. www.taipeitimes.com.

Liu, S.H. (June 7, 2000). Orchid Island’s future closely linked to past. Taipei Times. www.taipeitimes.com.

Liu, S.H. (May 25, 2000). Orchid Island Aborigines want autonomy. Taipei Times. www.taipeitimes.com.

Stainton, M. (1999). Aboriginal Self-Government: Taiwan’s Uncompleted Agenda. In Taiwan: A New History. Rubinstein, M.A. (ed.) Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

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