Orchid Island’s rocky history, Part 3/4

Traditional boats on the beach of Hengtou. Photo: Trista di Genova
Part One here; and Part 2

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 abridged version of this article.

By Trista di Genova, The Wild East

Under the influence of Japanese, Chinese Nationalist and now global culture, Tao culture has by now undergone great changes, potentially posing a threat to their cultural survival. But there’s more. By now everyone knows state-owned Taiwan Power Corporation has stored 97,672 barrels (over 4,800 tons barrels of ‘low level’ waste from Taiwan’s three nuclear power plants on the island’s southernmost tip, bordering Tao fishing grounds.

The fact they will be snorkeling next to a leaky nuclear waste site doesn’t seem to faze these Taiwanese tourists in early May. “Mei guanxi”, one of them told me – “It’s all good”. Photo: Trista di Genova
Locals only discovered the truth via Taiwan media reports, after being deceived for years that the structure was a fishing cannery. In response demonstrations were held at Taipei government buildings to protest in 1991, and later, in 2002, half the island’s population of 4,000 showed up at the site to protest a continued failure to remove the waste.

Taiwan Power Company, Taipower (台灣電力公司) ‘capitulated’ by agreeing to paying the island a one-time NT$200 million (US$5.7 million) payment, providing everyone free electricity and promising to move the waste within 9 years. Negotiations with various countries to store it have so far failed, although it’s promised to move it by 2016. Meanwhile, the barrels have rusted and the concrete casings holding them have cracked, a cause of great concern for residents, who never gave permission in the first place. There is a paucity of epidemiological study on the matter, and the Tao custom of immediate burial does not allow for autopsies, but Teresa says as a health worker, to her knowledge the incidence of cancers is currently the same and in some cases even below that of Taiwan’s population, perhaps thanks to diet. As for long-term effects, we mightn’t know for generations to come, she noted.

Shocking photos like this were released of unprotected workers handling waste on Orchid Island.

As part of Taipower’s ‘package deal’, each Lanyu resident receives around NT$60,000 every 3 years (about US$2000), which may seem a lot to the registered 2 percent unemployed on the island, who seem able to live well on next to nothing, carefully fishing and cultivating the land as they’ve always done, with maybe the occasional part-time job. Teresa believes the unemployment is more like 40 percent, but ‘Who needs a job?’ except for buying oil and gas. Orchid Islanders have always been so self-sufficient that when the first government store opened in the 1950’s, it took some time for the locals to actually use money rather than bartering. And as Teresa said, “It’s like the Chinese say, ‘Life’s easy if you’re poor and getting rich; but if you started off rich, it’s very hard to be poor.’”

Lanyu’s younger generation have often felt their life choices are limited. There are four schools and one junior/senior high school on the island, and only the best students can study in Taiwan, where they’ll find it hard to compete. Nevertheless, an estimated 25 percent of the island’s population has moved to Taiwan as a land of opportunity. Like Teresa, Tracy and Stephanie they wanted to get an education, a good job, make money and buy stuff — nice clothes, a TV, a scooter.

Stephanie, a self-confessed hip-hop lover, spent several years in Taiwan but returned to Orchid Island to ‘serve her people’. Now she has at least four jobs: teaching painting to schoolchildren, running a scooter rental business, working as secretary of the Tao Foundation and sometimes teaching Yami culture to visiting eco-tourists. Photo: Trista di Genova
But like them, a handful of Tao people have begun trickling back after a stint in Taiwan, often motivated to ‘serve their people’. This is a positive thing for Orchid Island, because these individuals are best-equipped to take advantage of Lanyu’s bright eco-tourism potential. Especially in the past three years, running a mingzhu (homestay) seems to be 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 (one contact: Badaiwan Diving in Hengtou: 0937-608854, run by A-Xiong. Snorkelling costs NT$400/half day including equipment and guide; NT$1000 for diving, min. 8 people). There’s work, too, in running nature tours to glimpse the famed Scops owl, flying fox (Taiwanese fruit bat) or birdwing butterflies.

Further, Teresa points out that money does exist to help Tao people start small businesses; unfortunately, few have the skills necessary to draw up a business plan and apply at mayors’ offices, she says. Instead, they often apply for money for things like village cleanups — community tasks everybody should volunteer for, anyway, she argues. ‘I don’t blame them’, she adds. ‘It’s killing my people, but most people don’t realize: you get lazy when the government pays for your life. I want us to all have the same mind, talk, do something. I want to do something but I’m only one person.’

Taiwanese, who are seen as having a more acute business sense, often come, intermarry, start up or work with small businesses — breakfast shops, cafés or mini-markets. But don’t expect much nightlife on Orchid Island; everything closes by midnight. In such a sensitive economy, even the opening of one 7-11 (the island’s first) would likely affect the balance for local entrepreneurs. Besides, the possibility of consistently ‘fresh’ deliveries on the island is patchy at best.

To be continued…

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