Paradise Lost? Orchid Island’s Rocky History

Photo: Trista di Genova

If the Tao people of Taiwan’s 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.

Check out this link at Travel & Culture magazine to read AmCham’s version of this article.

By Trista di Genova, The Wild East

Before the 19th century, Orchid Island was almost unknown on Taiwan, or Formosa as it was then known. It was also known as Botel Tobago to the first explorers; Lanyu (蘭嶼) was the name given only in 1946. Eight hundred years ago, people emigrated there from modern-day Batane Archipelago north of the Philippines. Two hundred years ago, it is thought another wave of immigration came from those fleeing Spanish rule in Itbayat.

Up until the 17th century, the Tao (which means ‘the people’ in their own language) on this island frequently traded with a few islands in the north of that island chain, aided by favorable ocean currents and a slightly closer proximity than Taiwan, 42 to 49 nautical miles. Oral histories recount intermarriages between the islands, with Tao trading pigs, goats, millet, among other things with Batanes for beads, gold, and prized (python) snakeskins and (buffalo) leather for their armor, pagad, which Tao wore in burial rites. Ichbayaten and Ivatan were, to gifted Tao sea-farers, ‘a stepping-stone’ away. They even obtained Mexican silver (which they worked to fashion their distinctive conical helmets, a sign of wealth) from trade with this region.

Traditional Tao 'armor', found in a gift shop that doubled as a museum. Photo: Trista di Genova

Then three hundred years ago, contact with Batanes ceased. As the story goes, during one Tao journey there, the Batanes men became jealous when their women started eyeing the Tao men for their strength. The trip ended in slaughter, with only two Tao men escaping to tell the story. Nevertheless, evidence remains of their shared history: today 70 percent of their languages are mutually intelligible — the ‘Malayo-Polynesian’ language group (while ironically, it still demands 2-3 days of travel in either direction).

When the Dutch, Spanish, British and other nations plied these waters in a bid for trade domination, at times they’d shipwreck in a typhoon and be forced to make contact with ‘savages’ of this ‘uncivilized’ island, as indigenes worldwide were once described. In some cases, the booty enriched the Lanyu natives with gold, so word spread the islanders used ‘gold-tipped arrows’ and may be a good source for it.

A Ch’ing expedition was dispatched from Formosa to the island but they failed to communicate to the natives what they were looking for, killed scores in the process, then left. They unwisely returned, whereupon the Tao retaliated with bloody annihilation. News spread of this and other disastrous contacts with the island – such as looting and leaving to die a crew shipwrecked on Xiao Lanyu (Little Orchid Island) — so outsiders began scrupulously avoiding the place. Tao folklore interestingly neglects to speak of these incidents, likely because to speak of death could invoke bad spirits.

Tao mythology enigmatically says they are descended from both ‘bamboo and stone people’, and sprang variously from the chest or knee of the ancestors. It was believed in ancient times a golden ladder separated heaven and earth and the first human was lowered from the sky, a belief shared with other Southeast Asian peoples.

Lanyu’s past has drawn the attention of noted anthropologists such as Peter Bellwood, who posits Taiwan was the site of origin for migration of peoples throughout the Pacific. Recently, another anthropologist visited the island to look into the possibility of Lanyu’s connection with the Vikings, based on similarities in boat-shaped gravestones, which were found in the Batanes. So far no evidence has proven this connection.

When the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki made Taiwan Japan’s de facto colony for 50 years, the Japanese considered Lanyu a type of living anthropological museum, leaving it largely undisturbed, a move credited for the island today representing one of the best-preserved Austronesian cultures. One Japanese anthropologist listened to determine what Tao called themselves, hence the name ‘Yami’, which means ‘we’. ‘Tao’, or ‘Tao wu’ as they prefer to call themselves today, means ‘the people’; however, according to Academia Sinica the older generation do call their people ‘Yami’.

Good luck trying to find Phalaenopsis orchids on Orchid Island!

Other major Japanese influences include building a school enforcing the Japanese language through instruction, and capitalizing on the bountiful Phalaenopsis orchids by picking them into near-extinction and selling them. Today, the island’s namesake can only be seen with several hours’ (picturesque) hike into the lush mountain rain forests, near Mountain Lake (Datienchih), a volcano-formed crater, and Small Heavenly Lake (小天池, Xiao tien chih).

When the Chinese Nationalist government took power in 1945, the language of instruction changed to Mandarin, and the island’s high school boarded students from Monday to Saturday morn. Because of this, today’s younger generations have for the most part lost the ability to speak their mother tongue.

This former prison near Dongqing Village now serves as unlikely backdrop for taro farming. Locals believe prisons are inhabited by ghosts of inmates incarcerated there. Military barracks and the other prison in Hengtou remain simply abandoned. Photo: Trista di Genova

The Nationalists also confiscated hundreds of hectares used by natives for growing their staples – yams and sweet potatoes, dry and wet taro — to build cattle ranches for resettling veterans, who ultimately stopped coming, finding island conditions too hard. So, like on Green Island, some of that land was converted to set up prisons for political dissidents — two, in this case, in Hengtou and near Dongqing Village, and one for prostitutes to ‘serve their sentence’ for operating without a license in Taipei. Inmates repaired roads and suchlike, but wreaked havoc on furlough. Long abandoned, these concrete, box-like barracks and prisons are still seen today around the island, as well as a few Chinese-style shrines and burial spots.

When the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-shekvisited the island in 1967, they were mortified to see their compatriots living half-underground. Despite their pleas, residents were forced out of wooden and stone structures that for eons weathered typhoons and heat, and into concrete houses. Traditional underground homes were mostly destroyed, although today a handful remain on the island’s east side in Yeying Village (Ivalino).

The Nationalist influence put an end to most traditional underground dwellings, save for these in Yeying Village (Ivalino). Photo: Trista di Genova

Goats and pigs roaming freely around the island were also seen as unsavory traditions, so pigsties and pens were built for livestock. Today visitors may observe both – a return to free ranging goats, tagged and culled for special celebrations and ceremonies, in addition to community pigsties; one in Yayou belongs to over thirty families.

When the Chiangs opened up Taiwan and its territories to Western missionaries, this also strongly impacted Orchid Island. One source (Lou Tsu-k’uang) says 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 as strings and tufts of goat’s hair.”

At the Lang En Cultural Foundation (which has a small gift shop, museum and community center), this recreation of a Tao wood-and-stone home (traditionally thatched with millet grass) demonstrates how they were cool in summer, warm in winter – ideally suited for an island seasonally hit by typhoons. Around the porch area, berry bushes often grew, handily providing another food source. Photo: Trista di Genova

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, ‘Ji Shenfu’, was ‘well-loved’ because he scolded soldiers for allowing their cows to trample taro fields, something locals wouldn’t dare challenge. Missionaries there also provided some basic medicine, and worked to develop educational opportunities for the population on Taiwan. Some people still have portraits of him in their home, Martinson says.

This old photograph from the Lang En Cultural Foundation shows the traditional garb once commonly worn by Tao men. Not shown here are the rattan hats, silver conical helmets or snakeskin armor. Today, there are precious few who still weave traditional clothing and it’s only worn on ceremonial occasions. Photo: Trista di Genova

On the other hand, the new authorities also shamed Tao people into wearing (more) clothes. Although men and women were both proficient in loom-weaving clothes they needed, Tao accepted the gifts of clothes and food from the Americans. Slowly but surely men stopped sporting (except for ceremonial purposes) the nifty badailai, deemed ‘obscene’ and ‘underwear-like’ to outsiders in favor of Bermuda-style shorts, and women began covering their breasts more (today, older women at least opt for colorful blouse, skirt and necklace, and often go barefoot. But if asked for a photo, they often say they’re ‘ugly’).

Today, islanders have overlaid their traditional beliefs with Catholic, or increasingly more so, Christian ones. When I visited in early May and asked Stephanie (Si Garribang), 27, of Yayou Village what she believes in, she said she ‘grew up going to church’ and that she believed in and prayed to ‘a god’ and that when people die, they become spirits. Her friend, Tracy from Hengtou, used to go to church, but people there ‘drink too much and try to pick up on the women,’ so now she prays at home. Teresa, too, used to go but finds the services ‘don’t open her heart’, and believes ‘Everywhere I go and everything I do, god is there.’

The Tao cosmos once consisted of eight, or in some accounts nine or less, superimposed elliptic planes or layers, supported by five massive tree trunks on the lowest plane. The layers or tiers are occupied not only by spiritual beings but also (on a middle plane) by human beings, including the Tao. On planes above, gods of different rank reside. The general term for gods is tao ro to (people up there). Ghosts, anito, and underground people, tao ro teiraem, are dwellers of the planes below the humans.

One belief still held today is the anito, bad spirits; or even more malevolent, spirits of the dead. One might encounter anito in burial grounds at night, or need to avoid them if you’re a new mother, like Teresa, who’s a nurse at the island’s lone health clinic. Taipei-educated, she returned to the island ‘to serve her people’, and married a Tao spearfisherman. She is proud of being ‘traditional’, but questions some superstitious beliefs of the past. For example, new mothers of infants under 3 months must not go outside, or anito will come. Mother’s milk is believed to have a special smell that may draw the anito, and take the child’s spirit. Or when a child is taken to a new place, mothers must rub a leaf onto the child’s chest; when leaving she must say the child’s name aloud while announcing their departure, or else ‘the soul might stay in that new place’. She often asks why these traditions exist, but her mother ‘cannot explain why; it is just so.’ Regardless of some misgivings, Teresa often defers to tradition; for example, she preferred not to drive a car with her child in it to show me ‘round the island, due to a possible anito attack.

Teresa (Sinan Matopush) is one of many Orchid Islanders who have pursued education and employment in Taiwan, but returned ‘to serve her people’ as a nurse in Lanyu’s health clinic. She’s been listed for years in Lonely Planet guides as the island’s ‘only fluent English speaker’, but today finding educated Lanyu people who thoroughly enjoy sharing their culture with visitors is fairly easy. One recommendation: hang out and talk to locals in the café/breakfast shop across from Ta Ta La Guesthouse in Hengtou. Photo: Trista di Genova

The two most central traditions in the Yami culture — boat-making and tending the fields – define the lives of Tao men and women. What’s considered ‘men’s work’ is making boats, fishing and collecting shellfish to provide supplements (yakan) for the family. Women aren’t allowed to touch the boats, watch the boat-launching ceremony, prepare fish or cook it (except when the catch is too big, when the whole family pitches in); that is men’s work. ‘Women’s work’ is to carefully tend the fields for staples (kanen) of taro, sweet potatoes and millet — the latter now faded in importance since it’s not planted as a communal effort. Men and women thus need to work in harmony; for example, without taro, boats cannot be properly inaugurated, and without skillful fishing the family won’t have enough to eat. For the rest of the year, there is what’s considered ‘men’s fish’, ‘women’s fish’ and ‘old people’s fish’. ‘Women’s fish’ was described by Teresa as the more colorful, tender, ‘vegetarian fish, not stinky’, whereas ‘men’s fish’ eat anything, and ‘old people’s fish’ is usually the tougher, least appealing variety. Octopus, she explained, may be eaten by men or women, but not by expectant mothers, for fear the child mightn’t be born ‘with the bone’.

The Tao’s most important festivals are founded on these fishing-farming traditions: the Flying Fish Festival, Boat-Launching Festival and Harvest Festival (celebrations vary for each village; for schedule check the Taitung County government website: or call the Taitung Tourism Office: 089-357131). To celebrate Tao boat-making skills, a team of Tao men are currently constructing a boat that they will launch on June 26, and row all the way to Taipei, to be presented to President Ma Ying-jeou.

Knowledge of how to make boats was given them, the Tao say, by ‘visitors from the Underworld’ who taught by example, showing how they themselves lived productive daily lives, harmonious between men and women as well as with nature.

To be continued…
Part 2 here; Part 3

One thought on “Paradise Lost? Orchid Island’s Rocky History

  • May 20, 2011 at 1:28 am

    This article is absolutely superb!! There’s too little information/research on Lanyu ’cause it’s always been too remote to get to. Keep up the great work.

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