Children of Orchid

Just before nightfall in Green Green Grassland (青青草原), on Orchid Island.

If I had a time machine, or if I could be reborn as one of the principal Tao peoples whom first discovered Orchid Island (or Lanyu 蘭嶼 as it is known in Taiwanese), I would have proposed at the tribal council this name: Moonfall Island. The first time any kindred soul is blessed enough to experience nighttime there, whence the ocean breeze exhales and the skies are clear; with darkness swallowed coastlines shrouded but not blanketed in black — glowing; and a galaxy of dust speckles and crescent shapes dance upon the distant waters — shimmering; you will look up, and you will know. That most ancient of friends humming idly by. But I cannot transcend beyond the current limitations of our understanding of physics and time, and there is yet any falsifiable evidence of reincarnation — so “Orchid Island” it remains.

Where orchids bloom

Orchid Island takes its name from the flower it is named after. Although by most stretches of imagination, one would expect to at least see some Orchids — if not walk into a paradise grove of them — the islet is actually more renowned for its serrated, volcanic coastlines, and the mobs of roving goats. Orchids can still be found, but they are regarded as sacred by the island’s aborigine peoples, and their locations are enigma’d away from the devastating tendencies of commercial tourists. A quick peek towards the heart of the island from anywhere along one of Orchid’s two official roads, one tends to surmise the many more ancient secrets tucked away inside the dense tropical jungles and the impassible mountains and valleys.

A map of Orchid Island. Note the evergreen centre of the island.

Ocean-locked by the Philippine Sea, North Pacific Ocean, and the South China Sea, Orchid Island is a tiny (45 square kilometres, to be exact) hideaway, about 200 km’s off the coast of Taiwan, or about a 2.5 hour ferry ride. The approach to the island from the boat is as magnificent as the island itself — with its first sighting hearkening back to something out of the Jurassic. You will immediately notice the tremendous greenery, spectacular bluffs, and thankfully — depending on who you ask — the as-of-yet over-development of the island as a fully commercial destination. For the most part, what the eyes can see above surface, is pristine; preserved. Most buildings run on the smaller end, and concentrate in one of Orchid’s six small towns. Anyone that has ever been to Taiwan can attest that next to its temples, the 7-Eleven’s per capita must be amongst the most dense in the world. Comparatively, there are only two 7-Eleven’s here, and the first one merely opened in 2014.

Goats make up the second most populous demographic after humans. They are considered assets for different elders by earmarking. Seniority between elders are based on the number of goats owned.

Whom the orchids bloom for

And as-is true for most remote islands all around the world, the culture is kept breezy, carefree, and life-loving. The Tao (pronounced Da-wu, meaning “People”) are the aborigine inhabitants of this island, and they number around 4,000. As one of 35 or so officially and unofficially recognized indigenous groups in Taiwan (原住民), their’s is still a decently well preserved culture, on account of the difficulty of access to the island.

As a Canadian, I grew up with many close Filipino friends back home. So the first time I stepped onto Orchid Island, I was taken aback by the physical similarities between the two groups. The reason? The Tao are part of the same Austronesian ethnic group that has made roots across the Pacific — from the Philippines, to Hawaii, to Oceania, all the way to even the Americas. In our conversation with a kind lady (whom I will introduce again later in this profile) in the Orchid town of Iraraley, it was mentioned that their ancestors are closely related (and likely descended from) the peoples of Batan island in the Philippines. So when I say I feel right at home on Orchid, perhaps it was because I saw some of my friends’ faces in the people of Tao — notwithstanding their already tremendously amicable nature typical of the aborigines of Taiwan and the larger subset of Pacific islanders.

It still ogles my mind to see these Tao people, whom look so much alike to my friends back home, comfortably spouting Mandarin Chinese — the official language of Taiwan. More than that, the Tao still possess their native tongue — a language known as… well, Tao. They effortlessly switch between channels, going from rapid-fire mother tongue while they gossip with their compatriots, to an accented, tourist-catered Chinese as they negotiate and weave with the swaths of tourists that visit Orchid Island every year.

It was July 2020 when Alssa and I visited Orchid Island. In other words, the peak of peak seasons. What’s more, with the Taiwanese unable to leave their own borders because of a sweeping worldwide pandemic, their attentions turned to Orchid Island to satisfy their travel itch. Scores of hootin’ and hollerin’ tourists buzzed about on their rented scooters up, down, and around the roads, and the crowd brought a commercially hedonistic energy into the streets. To say then that the island was “busy” would be doing a disservice to the Tao locals whom had to listlessly serve the horde. It was unfortunate, because any approach to the Tao locals would be initially met with perhaps a twinge of resentment. A disarming and non-trivial conversation with them, as, you know, real people, quickly set them at ease, and back into their breezy, smile-infested demeanour.

Beyond the cursory

That was how bustling the island was when we were there. Every hostel, homestay, and hotel was mercilessly booked from day one. Alssa and I were left knocking door-to-door for board and stay on multiple occasions throughout our trip… including our first night on the island (detailed here). That was the backdrop against which we met HeiNiu (黑妞) for the first time: desperate and out of options for a roof over our head.

We had stumbled onto HeiNiu’s establishment, a homestay by the name of 新東岸黑妞部落民宿, or New East Coast HeiNiu Tribal Homestay, out of pure happenstance. We probably shouldn’t even have knocked on his door in the first place — there was no smattering of rented scooters out front indicating patronage like all the other hotels; no hung-up dive suits or diving gear indicating adventure tourism being sold here; no nothing, in fact, except an expansive, sparsely filled grass lot. On it sits two electric blue buildings that sticks out like a sore thumb in the town of Ivalino (野銀). You wouldn’t be able to miss it if you tried.

HeiNiu’s electric blue gazebo. Image courtesy of Google and reviewer 邢瑞蘭.

Yet most people do.

For everything that sticks out and tries to grab your attention, it mostly sits unassuming. It is so undisturbed by the masses, you question whether it is open, or if it is even real. To reflect on it now, it almost feels like a test for wayfarers. Do you follow the crowd, and chase the expensive, luxurious establishments? Or do you take a chance with the black box?

We chose the latter.

Little did we know that meeting HeiNiu, with an iota of absolute minimal expectations, would plant a seed. A vine-garden of rich context — including the struggle of a people — would spring forth, grow, and inform all of our interactions henceforward with every Tao islander we would come across. In our journey, I was particularly struck by memories with HeiNiu, an Iraraley grandmatriach named Salu, and the velvety soul of Auntie Echo and her family. All of them showed us an unyielding hospitality, but more than that, each gave us a glimpse into what makes the Tao as a people, their home, and their struggle, so unique. I feel duty bound to tell their story.

This is the tale of a people whom call this island “Pongso no Tao” — in their language, “the island of the People.”

HeiNiu: the seed

HeiNiu’s name stands for “black little girl” — at least that is what Google Translate says. But the first time you meet him, the juxtaposition couldn’t be more jarring. The most accurate part about that translation may be that he’s black — his skin being a tad bit more than sunkissed; perhaps sunpunched. He is a bustling, heavy-set man, with trunks for arms and legs, and sports a bald cut and a classic goatee. Space you giveth, space he taketh, and with his presence comes an incontestable air of authority and “chiefdom” about him. A sense.

HeiNiu, Alssa, and I posing for the obligatory selfie.

Unlike many of the other commercial establishments on Orchid Island, his carries an undeniable charm that hearkens back to a simpler time. His lot is adorned by tribal talismans: painted versions of the Tao’s eye and warrior, and a carved wooden statue out the front of the lot — an aboriginal figurine with its neck craned as if it howled to the heavens.

A Tao warrior as found stenciled in HeiNiu’s home. The diamond above its head representing the spirit.

Inside the guest portion of the homestay, the common area feels lived-in, and not exactly purposed like a “real” hotel. In one corner sits dozens of trophies and an explosion of medals hung from a singular hook — a closer examination reveals HeiNiu as a former heavyweight bench lifting champion, amongst many other weightlifting accolades. Rustic pieces of authentic and weathered Tao ceremonial armour, helmets, and oxidized knives dangle haphazardly from the walls. What walls that don’t have arbitrarily placed decorations on them are covered ceiling to floor in sharpie — messages from past guests expressing their adoration and respect. Photographs of HeiNiu and friends sit scattered on a table, including one with the former vice president of Taiwan, Lai Ching-Te (賴淸德). You begin to build a sense of the reverence and folklore around this man. I am reminded of a Nassim Taleb lesson. To let your hotel common area look like HeiNiu’s, you would have to overcome a lot of perception bias. Meaning: HeiNiu’s got real skin in the game — we had probably made the right choice staying here.

Here I am, rocking the traditional Tao bamboo helmet, cured fish skin armour, and combat knives.

Invariably, you will hear a “靠腰!” if you are around HeiNiu — a favourite saying of his. It sounds like “kao yao”, and directly translates to “use your hips!”. When I confusingly asked Alssa what this meant, she blurted out a laughter, and reminded me that this was actually an expletive of the highest order. I still don’t know what it means to this day. But HeiNiu is obviously renowned for his 靠腰’s, as every single guest that leaves a memoir on his wall all bold and underline these two characters. It highlights the sort of casual and raw relationship HeiNiu develops with his guests. He is respectful to them, ofcourse, but is never imposing. Neither will he be imposed upon. He commands authority as a self-directed, self-governing man. He explains, “I have never cared to market myself, or this homestay. People can choose to come and stay, or they may choose to never discover my place. I have no need for money.” It is this sort of unabashed and genuine disregard for commercialism that at once captured me.

Ofcourse, HeiNiu still sells small tours in and around Orchid Island, if only to impart the story of the Tao to willing listeners. As a side hustle, he takes his guests around to sightsee the local flora and fauna, including observing the rare owls of Orchid (to which he expertly mimics its owl calls), foraging oceanside for unique marine-life, and going on endemic tropical fruit taste-testing tours. Our group was small, with only one other couple joining, after being recommended to HeiNiu by locals. By comparison, other tour groups were large, calamitous with noise, and generally disrespectful to the peace. HeiNiu contrastingly demands respect to his homeland, whether that be to the spirit of the forest or ocean; or to the sacred owls of the forest whom bear to a family ill omens; or to the source of food his ancestors have long enjoyed.

Orchid Island’s resplendent Halloween-orange Pandan fruit.

It is in this sacred reverence for the ancients that distinguishes HeiNiu from most of the other commercial guides, groups, and businessmen that operate on Orchid. We learn from him that the island, for all its beauty on the surface, is slowly being attritioned away from the Tao locals. Every year, more and more opportunity-seeking Taiwanese businessmen and women — with zero malicious intent — end up setting shop on Orchid. With them comes the wherewithal, perhaps in financial firepower; or the by-the-book insights from a university degree; or some other access-to-opportunity advantage that the Tao locals simply do not have. The result is a devastating competitive and/or comparative advantage where Taiwanese main islander businesses vastly outcompete the local Tao businesses.

This may be the reason why HeiNiu does not market himself or his business. He sees it as an unwinnable battle. Instead, Alssa and I opine that he may simply be enjoying the rest of his days on what remains of his homeland, imparting his people’s culture to those rare few whom still express a genuine interest in learning. We were one of those people, and perhaps HeiNiu took a liking to us. In a supposedly 30 minute tour of the traditional underground houses (地下屋) of Ivalino, he ended up spending two hours with us.

The traditional underground complex he took us to was in fact the one he grew up in. Meant to protect locals from typhoons and storms, the houses are built subterraneously — or basically placed inside a giant hole in the ground (think extreme bungalows). To get down and inside, one must scale tiny stone steps into the hole and onto the ground level, and then effortfully duck under the roof, which hangs down to the face. Inside, the enclosure of the space may give claustrophobics a run for their money. The house we were in was separated into 3 terraced rooms, with each level maybe a foot or two above the one preceding it. Each level is accessed by three sliding doors across the width of every room, and they feel more like windows than anything. The first floor is traditionally the communal area/sleeping quarters, the second usually the dining room, and the last usually serving as the kitchen and storage space.

Image courtesy of Newtalk, showcasing a traditional underground house. Centred in the picture are the storytelling rocks whereupon elders would recline on, surrounded by attendees, to regal traditions and stories.

With HeiNiu, Alssa, and I all squeezed-in together on the second level of the house, HeiNiu obliges us to take a moment to observe the silence. All I could observe was the heat and the humidity. A tiny electric fan perched in one corner between two wooden beams gives us respite. My imagination begins to wander, pondering life as it once was in this space. The thought gives me a certain warmth. As I study the space, I notice a strange, golf-ball sized gash in the floor of the house, and ofcourse inquire. Babies are birthed on the second level, and where we sat was where HeiNiu and his siblings were brought into this world. Upon birth, the umbilical cords are severed and stuffed inside down this hole, to be returned to the Earth. We are talking generations of umbilical cords. All at once, the lifeblood and spirit of the house comes alive. The silence becomes sanctity. I am sitting inside history.

A look inside HeiNiu’s traditional underground house from the first level. Note the window like doorways and the three rising levels.

Nowadays, the inside of his childhood home is emptied out but for the few relics of culture he still shows his guests. In the past, men and boys huddled together to eat off the same plates, while women and girls did the same. We are shown the well-worn plates, and feel the texture and grooves of the weathered wood. There are dedicated plates each for fish, taro’s, and sweet potatoes — staples of the Tao diet. The fish, in particular, are separated into parts. 男人魚, or men’s fish, are the gamier and bonier parts. 女人魚, or women’s fish, are the easier to eat parts. Just a small sign, HeiNiu reminds us, of the men’s general thoughtfulness and consideration for women in his society.

Back outside, still in the earthen hole and surrounded by terraced Earth and stoned walls, HeiNiu beckons us to feel for the breeze. We close our eyes and listen, and are gently kissed by the whistle of the Pacific. The houses are intentionally engineered with big, sloping roofs that are partially above ground. It carries the wind from the ocean, bounces it against the stoned walls, and is directed into the entranceway through the rest of the habitation. With the intention of awareness, the wind suddenly feels substantial. It is natural air conditioning. HeiNiu explains that his family would use to slaughter boars in front of their house. This is so that the gusts of wind would pick up the metallic scent of the blood and shower the house in the aroma of its sacrifice. Symbolically, it represents the invitation of the boar’s spirit to join them in their feast — they do not take any meals for granted. Such is the way the Tao interlace their metaphoric hands with nature.

During the whole conversation, we get a relatively holistic picture of the geniality of the Tao peoples. But as with any indigenous culture that is exposed to the unyielding arm of nationalization (and later globalization), theirs too, is a culture that has been under siege for many generations. The discussion turns to a darker side.

When do we awake from these nightmares?

Now lounging in the gazebo/pavilion typically attached to every house, we are given a brief history of his people’s struggles. He calls them the “three nightmares” — three episodes in modern twentieth century history, when his people and his culture were particularly subjected to oppression.

The lounging gazebos typically attached to every house. Note the extremely low overhang, built to withstand typhoons.

The Tao are said to have existed on Orchid Island for many hundreds of years, possibly even longer. They have seen former empires come and go, including but not limited to: the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Qing dynasty of China, Imperial Japan, and the Kuomingtang (KMT) party — the other claimant for the one true “China”. In all of this political upheaval, the Tao have only ever been cast aside as disregarded bystanders. Their once traditional, seafaring life forever being disrupted.

The first nightmare that would leave a dark mark on their history as a peoples, as HeiNiu would explain, was when the KMT party of yesteryears converted Orchid Island into a political asylum. Convicts, prisoners of war, and political dissenters alike were assigned to the island, only to set loose criminals that raped the local Tao women. More than that, KMT officials would end up setting up a brothel, and many more local women were requisitioned into the Republic of China’s own version of “comfort women.” The “first nightmare” had me reeling in discomfort, and there would still be two more to go.

The second nightmare begins with the inadvertent but nevertheless systematic destruction of the Tao culture. When General Chiang Kai-Shek (the controversial leader of the KMT party and then president of Republic of China [now Taiwan]) and his wife visited Orchid Island ostensibly for the first time, they were appalled at the conditions the Tao were living in. They perceived the Tao’s underground dwellings as squalid and impoverished, and immediately ordered the destruction of these homes. The agathokakological scheme would be to reconstruct the Tao’s homes and help usher them into the modern era. Throughout the next few generations, these homes, with generations of history filling its grounds, would be ruthlessly bulldozed. They were instead replaced by shoddily constructed concrete slabs that would not be maintained. They eventually fell into disrepair. Many of these hollowed out concrete shells can still be found around the island to this day. Similarly, very few traditional homes remain. A depressing no man’s land — ideated for the future, lost in the past. Along with the bulldozing of these homes, their culture and language was repressed. Tao children were separated from their parents, forced to go to government-sanctioned schools, permitted to only speak Mandarin Chinese, and essentially divorced from their identity — not entirely unlike what we hear of today in Xinjiang, China.

HeiNiu gives us a commendably logical retroactive though. He believes the government then was trying to do good for the people of Tao. Perhaps in educating them, or perhaps in trying to modernize them. After all, he continues telling us, the ruling government of yesteryears had laboriously built roads and an airport for the island, which does at the end of the day seed benefits for the Tao — even if the intended benefactors may not have been them. He argues maybe this modernization wasn’t done in the most culturally considerate way — a softer perspective, and probably his way of shedding a ray of positivity. In my view, it feels exactly as it sounds like — the Chinese assuming cultural superiority, and imprinting their way of life onto the Tao upon misguided and erroneous presumptions.

A ray of positivity.

The invisible threat

Launching into the third nightmare, HeiNiu describes what is probably the most relevant issue to current and future generations of the people on the island. In the 1970’s and 80’s, under the directive of powering a modern economy, the Taiwanese government commissioned several nuclear power plants to meet growing energy demands. The country’s nuclear committee thus was charged with seeking an appropriate site to store the mid to low-level nuclear waste it would soon be generating. The committee then had determined, most unfortunately for the Tao, that the southern tip of Orchid Island would be where a nuclear waste storage facility would be located and constructed. The series of lies, unkept promises, and financial repatriation that follows is why the Tao still consider it their ongoing nightmare.

A quick aside: I knew coming into Orchid Island of the nuclear ordeal. It is by far the most pressing and controversial issue for the residents of the island, and any cursory research on the web would net you infinite results about the Lanyu nuclear waste facility. Despite this fact, I was still in disbelief when I saw in the town of Ivalino a large geiger counter, with big red buzzing numbers like a radio alarm clock. It hangs off the side of a building, as if an afterthought, steadily measuring and broadcasting for all to see the radioactivity within the nearby atmosphere. A stark, constant reminder of this invisible danger.

You will find these posters scattered about everywhere on Orchid Island. The words read: “Nuclear waste must leave Lanyu. The body may be destroyed, but the anti-nuclear spirit must never waver.”

Initially, the government had told the people of Tao that the new, mysterious construction would be a canning factory. With the potential prospect of new jobs and economic stimulation, the Tao had even celebrated this turn of good fortunes. By 1980, when the facility had finished construction, and by 1982, when the facility had officially opened and the first shipments of nuclear waste were being imported by the boatloads, the people of Tao had realized they had been sold a lie. When the ruse was accidentally uncovered, nuclear sludge and contaminated equipment had already been stored away into hundreds of thousands of barrels in the facility. What’s worse, these barrels went largely unmaintained and were left exposed to the elements. In short order, the barrels would begin rusting away, revealing its contents to the atmosphere. Generations of protests, sit-in’s, and demonstrations notwithstanding, this issue continues to be the plight of the Tao.

In their earliest attempts to appease the rightfully indignant indigenous of the island, HeiNiu describes tax discounts being awarded to the people of Tao from early Taiwanese governments — the first form of financial repatriation for the nuclear waste — only for the Tao to discover that this tax discount was not so unique; most Taiwanese main islanders were also privy to these same tax “discounts”. Financial repatriation continues to be the strategy of choice employed by modern Taiwanese governments, and even to this day, multiple offers in the $5–7 USD million range per annum continue to be rejected by local leaders. Not accounting for the fact that, well, that really isn’t that large of an amount of money, it also cannot buy back the purity of the once-island paradise, nor can it be used to buy down the growing cases of bone marrow cancer patients on Orchid.

The modern era Taiwanese governments have undergone extensive measures to retrofit the facility for improved safety. Nuclear waste that had been previously sitting inside decaying buckets have since been transferred into newer protocol barrels. But one senses a dreariness to the situation. HeiNiu does not gloss over the fact that the current government recognizes this issue earnestly and is working towards a resolution, but he maintains that deadline after deadline keeps passing, and promises after promises go unkept. The last one — to remove all nuclear waste off Orchid by 2016 — simply expired again without fanfare, to the ire of the Tao.

HeiNiu emphasizes that the nuclear issue is highly politicized. In one instance, an agreement had been reached for the nuclear waste to be shipped off of the island for good. In the last minute, international organizations intervened, and prevented Taiwan from exporting the waste to another country willing to handle the waste. In HeiNiu’s words: “Taiwan is too small. This is not even a topic to be broached.” In another instance, the Tao attempted to list themselves with UNESCO World Heritage status. It may have been one avenue to getting the waste removed. But the proposal was swiftly rejected, as UNESCO is a subsidiary of the United Nations, amongst which China holds a seat. This essentially guarantees political purgatory for Taiwan. No UNESCO statuses would ever grace any of Taiwan’s many cultural treasures, and definitely not Orchid. Finally, the Taiwanese government had tried to convert the island into a National Park, but HeiNiu stresses this is too restrictive of island life — their people subsists on feed from the ocean — “what if I need to catch a lobster for my family?”

This beautiful tropical paradise is in political purgatory, with the nuclear shadow looming over its very existence.

One gets the sense the Tao are merely puppets being strung along by the powers that be. A fact of life that cannot be avoided; an inconvenience on the road to finding some place — any place — to dump on. The past failures of disingenuous governments now completely hinder any tactical maneuverability for all stakeholders. And the ones that have to bear the burden just happen to be the very people whose island they have long called home, to be forever tainted. Everyone’s arms are tied. What was sown by the negligent foreign generations of the past is now a thick weed that cannot be so easily removed. And what consequences are there really? It wouldn’t be for generations before any real impacts can be assessed, and any danger now is scarce imperceptible.

What is a thousand children’s lives compared to ten million children’s?

The irony of the situation can be summated by an anecdote Alssa shared with me, as we reminisced recently about the nuclear issue. While walking by the nuclear waste facility during a hike, Alssa noticed an electronic billboard by the gate of the facility which blared out a message for the indigenous: “If you are of aboriginal status and hold hunting weapons like rifles and bows, please register your weapons at the office.” Many of these indigenous rely on these arms for traditional hunting, as a way of life, yet the government mandates their registration. When the government had effectively imported a vastly deadlier weapon — the nuclear facility — did they register it first with the Tao?

Photographs of protesters against the nuclear threat. Taken from the Lanyu Anti-Nuclear Bar.

Insight into the 3 nightmares directly cuts through the bull on the surface plastering Orchid Island. In my view, these are the things that actually make Orchid one of a kind — it marinates the island and its inhabitants in embryonic context, begging for deeper discovery and investigation. How the hordes of commercial tourists are distracted by the shiny tropical life, IG-worthy foods, and “adventure” suddenly seemed incredibly, incredibly shallow. So intentional or not, HeiNiu changed our trip to Orchid Island completely. It was no longer just a vacation, but a search for deeper truths on the Island of the People.

Salu: instructing on a slipping culture

Thereafter, we approached the natives of Tao with an intention to listen, understand, and learn. The seed had been planted, and the budding curiosity thirsted for impactful connections. It can be difficult to get these opportunities, when most Tao are either working away the day serving the tourist hivemind, or retreated away from the crowds that see them not as inhabitants at home, but NPC’s without a backstory. So when we met Salu, whom not only remembered us, but then directly reached out to us in a friendly gesture, it felt like an undeserved honour. We didn’t feel so different from everyone else.

Salu is a middle-aged grandmatriarch from the town of Iraraley (朗島). She is petite in stature, and her loosely tied black hair is streaked by white. Seemingly young beyond her years to be a grandmother, she effuses an intangible, seasoned quality about her. This was evident in the way she confidently beckoned us to join in company with her friends.

To backtrack briefly, we had met Salu by chance when we were stumbling around Iraraley earlier during the same day. We were yet again desperate for room and board and knocking on every establishment’s door. Salu and her husband, along with their doting infant grandson, had generously spilled out onto the streets to help us. They made some calls to friends on our behalf, and although it did not yield us a room, they still provided directions to the next place to try even in the trying midday heat. It was a brief interaction.

It was now nighttime, and with the peace of mind that comes with knowing there would be a roof over our head at bedtime, we were out in the town on an exploratory walk. We enjoyed getting to breathe in the local life this way. The small residential borough of Iraraley springs alive at sundown. Every neighbour pours out onto the streets in a rowdy chaos. They gather around on their small plastic chairs, gossiping, eating, drinking, and sharing communal space. In one archway, children are huddled together, hovering over one child tapping away on a phone. Near another, two adults lounge outside, conversing in Tao, while watching a Chinese program on a television perched precariously off the steps to the door of their home. Many more charming island-life scenes played out like this. When Salu recognized us as we slithered through one of Iraraley’s brimming alleyways, she hollered out, and we were delighted to not only get a chance to say thank you for the earlier assistance, but also because she was obliging us to sit down and indulge in snacks with her friends. As we plopped down, she deftly cut up slices of coconut, offered us swigs of fresh coconut milk in small plastic cups, and seized her opportunity to become acquainted with her new friends from off the island.

Video: Although this was not nighttime, Iraraley during the day still provides ample island peace and serenity.

We were joined by others: two individuals of elder Tao status, and two younger Tao women. They were all conversing passionately in their dialect, and all seemed to take a special interest in us foreigners. One of the elder ladies, with curly white hair and wrinkled creases that seemed to fold shut over her eyes, was especially friendly in that grandmotherly sort of way. You could intuit the sincerity based off of her radiant smile and the way she would gently grab and pat your arms. When we were finished with one cup of coconut milk, the elderly gentleman would immediately spring up and pour us another cup out of a weathered milk jug. Much coconut milk had been poured out of that thing. The two elders kept unloading onto us in Tao, between smiles, with scant awareness that we had absolutely zero understanding of what they were saying. Body language was more than enough.

Salu herself spoke Mandarin to us, but expertly navigated between her mother tongue and Chinese to translate and add context to whatever the elders were saying. It wasn’t long before we would find out that Salu herself is a teacher. She is one of few on the island entrusted to formally instruct the children of Orchid’s future with their native mother tongue, Tao. It is a dying language, as Salu suggests, since Tao is dwarfed by the prevalence and, by causation, the practicality of Chinese. And with Tao children increasingly on phones consuming globalized media, the Tao tongue serves merely as an afterthought.

Salu now speaks to us in a calm, assertive, and mentoring tone. It isn’t difficult to imagine Salu as a teacher. Patiently, and with a warm smile, she gets us to speak in Tao, as if we were in one of her classes. Meticulously, she dissects our pronunciations and corrects them in piecemeal, with the other elders now joyfully chiming in as well. She praises our tones as more accurate than even that of today’s Tao children. Nowadays, Tao children are taught, first and foremost, Chinese from a young age. “Their first teachers in kindergarten are main islanders from Taiwan, and they are only able to teach in Mandarin. So our children’s Tao are heavy with accents, and imbued with the habits of spoken Chinese.”

Here I am, lounging in an Iraraley gazebo with Tao children. They wondered curiously where we were from. One of our most treasured memories on Orchid was engaging with a group of children in the night market, awkwardly dancing together while beaming smiles and enthusiasm at each other.

It has been a battle, generation over generation, to retain their language. Salu expands on one of HeiNiu’s second nightmares in further detail: when the KMT party first took over power, all Tao men and women were forbidden from speaking anything other than Chinese. Anyone caught speaking their native tongue would be forced to wear sashes around their neck in public humiliation, on its fabric in loud calligraphy: “I spoke my native language”.

This problem is not unique to the Tao. The ousting of the Indigenous languages is held true across all tribes in Taiwan, and although the modern day Democratic Progressive Party has initiated astoundingly forward-thinking policies mandating Indigenous education — including requisite mother tongue classes — for its aboriginal populations, it could be a case of too little, too late. Salu does praise the modern government for prioritizing indigenous education. She especially appreciates being able to take the Tao children out into the fields, “I teach my kids how we plant taros and yams.” After all, these are the staples of their ancestors. Some of her colleagues also teach the children fishing, their traditional earn for keep. If no one will teach them even the basics like this, the methodologies would be forever lost. With the education reforms being brand new and barely a few years under its belt, the net gains on the preservation of culture remains at large. It is likely not enough.

Salu warns the drain on culture will hit heavy and fast. It is difficult to access the island, so the Tao’s culture is considered one of the better preserved ways of life in Taiwan. This also compounds in the other direction. “Once our children grow up, they settle down away on the main island for better opportunities.” When people leave the island, they don’t usually come back, and every departure is a compounding cascade causing the slippage of a culture facing extinction. It is one more person that used to know how to build traditional houses, gone. One more person whose family knew the land and soil so well for farming, gone. One more person that knew the exact Tao word for an elusive concept, gone. It doesn’t help that those that remain on the island have little else options but partake in the booming tourism industry.

There is only one high school on Orchid Island, and according to Salu, the subjects the school board vastly prefers to inoculate students with are those specialized in tourism, cooking, and hospitality & management. In other words, the kids are taught the trade and skills which would allow them to survive most effectively in a commercial-leaning environment. Most of the locals see it as a boon. There used to be no high school on Orchid, and teenagers would have to be separated from their families in order to travel to the main island for a high school education. Nowadays, they can stay home, while also learning to help the island survive and thrive.

The downside? The island leans heavily into mass tourism, and there could be some oversight when it comes to protecting the environment. When Alssa and I had decided to be good samaritans and help pick up garbage on our way to snorkeling, the walk along the volcanic alcoves of Orchid yielded three full garbage bags of plastics, styrofoam take-out boxes, fishing equipment, and an assortment of other junk. The litter was endless — although, realistically, the junk had also probably floated in from the rest of the Pacific. In another snorkeling trip, we both witnessed Tao snorkeling guides leading en masse groups of tourists on ropes in single file. We observed underwater as they approached some towering corals. Mind you, most corals look to be already suffocating, wilted away, and dying, yet the guides mindlessly jammed their fins into the corals in order to stand up — the tourists followed suit. In another instance, I watched a Taiwanese (at least not Tao this time) scuba diving instructor forcefully pull a shrimp out of its nook with his hands to showcase to the other divers. When we mentioned these anecdotes to Salu, she was not surprised. Most locals (incl. Taiwanese businessmen) here are taught to sell their own land as a tourist attraction, with income being the primary motivator: “Kids are taught how to run food vending businesses.” They are not really given alternative perspectives, or even incentivized, for sustainable business practices.

There is a very real opportunity for responsible ecotourism here. In the ideal world, it would be a Tao initiative.

After dropping off our contributions to Kasiboan (咖希部灣), a non-profit recycling centre built by the Tao and run by volunteers.

Before we depart at the end of the night, Salu gives us a warm blessing from God and fondly recalls her memories of Canadians past. According to her, twenty odd years ago, some Canadians visited Orchid Island and decided to help anglicize the Tao language with Roman characters. The bible was subsequently romanized in the Tao vernacular. Being a devout Catholic, Salu emanates gratitude to Canada. Beyond the surface, it was another angle with which the language and culture of Tao could be passed on. In that moment, something within me yearned to be able to contribute in some meaningful way, just as my compatriot had done once upon a time. As we leave, I feel a warmness and connection to Iraraley. There is a calming, matriarchal energy here not felt in other parts of the island. Truthfully, you would be hard-pressed not to find a familial connection with the Tao anywhere on the island.

Echo: of family business

Since arriving on the island — even before meeting HeiNiu — we had been possessed by a wondering curiosity about one of the most remote townships of Taiwan. Perhaps this enthusiasm to learn manifested itself in our behaviour — I’m not quite sure — but the Tao, like HeiNiu and Salu, generally seemed happy to open up to us. That is not to say this was privileged information we were getting; most of what I have divulged on so far can readily be found on the internet. But we also do know that that additional effort to pull us aside and spend just that extra bit of time with us was not for nothing. It rather felt substantial. A matter of sharing — a value deeply rooted in their culture. They weren’t venting to us either. It was as if they have been preaching all along, acutely aware of the challenges faced by their own brood today, but no one was listening. Perhaps not even themselves. This was most evident when we fortuitously spent a night barbecuing under the stars with Auntie Echo’s family.

Auntie Echo is a timid, gentle, and warm woman, with a velvety soulful smile sporting a blue visor cap. She diligently runs the 蘭嶼反核bar, or the Lanyu Anti-Nuclear Bar, with her husband. It is a small, homely cafe that sells tropical fruit shakes, alcoholic beverages, and small snacks. The cafe, as one can surmise, is anti-nuclear themed. Banners, posters, photographs, and memorabilia adorn every nook of the humble establishment, documenting the historic struggles of the Tao against the nuclear threat. Nestled just a bit inland from the ocean, one can lounge in the feet-only patio area, which is draped over in bohemian fabrics, and stare into the endless blue. Auntie Echo and ourselves exchanged pleasantries as we spent the day in her cafe.

Photographs of anti-nuclear protests as found in Auntie Echo’s Lanyu Anti-Nuclear Bar.

We had rolled up at lunch time, posted up in the small cafe with our laptops, and begun working away at our remote jobs. Alssa, being a feisty English teacher, speaks to her students in an energetic, purposeful, and attention-grabbing tone. Naturally, this piques Auntie Echo’s curiosity, whom at the time was still working away behind the bar (she was on solo duty that day). When she comes over shyly inquiring, she tells us she had always wanted to improve her English. Now that she had a professional English tutor and a Canadian digital nomad in her establishment, she could finally get some good practice in. We happily obliged. It was another opportunity to go deeper. “如果我想問客人今天他們怎麼啦,應該怎麼說?” — ‘if I wanted to ask my guests how they are doing, how would I say that in English?’

The patio area of the Lanyu Anti-Nuclear Bar, draped in fabrics and overlooking the Pacific.

Although Echo had to continue working the cafe and serve the patrons that scattered in throughout the day, she insisted that we stay as long as we would like. More than that, when dinner hour struck with no available food options around (including her closed kitchen), Auntie Echo was more than happy to serve up two more traditional Tao meals for us. It was an exceedingly kind gesture, and from the beginning to the end, we felt like Echo’s own nephew and niece.

At night’s end, when Echo was closing up shop for good, she observed that we were still working away. She happily offered that we stay until we were done. All that was asked of us was that we switch off all the lights, shut the door close behind us, and make sure the cafe feline does not make an attempted escape with us. As she left, she warmly let us know that she will just be next door with her family, in case we needed her. When we finally packed up our bags for the night, we obligingly fulfilled good stewardship of her space. It was only the least we could do after all the hospitality we received. Immediately outside, we were beckoned over by Echo’s family. Off in the distance, a group of Tao were sitting outside around small plastic tables and chairs. “Come have a drink with us!”, they yelled. Never one to turn away spontaneity, we careened ourselves into the unfamiliar.

We walked in on a rambunctious birthday bash for one of Echo’s nieces, a woman around our age, whom runs a homestay right next door to Echo’s cafe. Around the table gathered a slew of family members, including Echo herself: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, uncles, aunties, nephews, nieces, cousins, babies, family friends; all in high spirits, enjoying spirits, and barbecuing on a small charcoal grill an endless array of finger foods. One woman, a family friend, whom those at the table had dubbed the Tao “Whoopi Goldberg”, was a particularly fiery, if not hilarious soul. She threw herself onto everyone in conversation, and in particular, took a special interest in us. With all emotions on her sleeves, she would explain the celebration, give us a biography of everyone around the table, and then tearfully declare us the honoured, special guests, “You are very lucky to witness this occasion.” It was an interesting, if not slightly over-the-top designation. It wasn’t until after, when one of the nieces explained to us, that we would understand the full context: it would be the first time the family had gathered together like this in a long time.

After the seniors of Echo’s family left the party, the space was backfilled by the juniors and their family friends. All were extremely lovely, hospitable, fun people.

The family itself had experienced a tragedy not long ago, and one of the reasons they were gathered like this was not only for the birthday, but because the circumstances necessitated everyone to be back together. It was indeed a momentous occasion, made even rarer since many in Echo’s family had emigrated out to the main island for better opportunities. Those that stayed on Orchid worked in the hospitality & tourism sector, and had been overwhelmed by this season’s particularly heavy, pandemic-driven traffic. Even when business wasn’t good, there was always reason to continue searching for better ways to make ends meet. The family, for better or for worse, was preoccupied with the modern struggle.

Many of the family members work in the Jiranmilek (or Dongqing 東清) night market on a nightly basis. One visit to the Dongqing night market during the high season would make anyone understand — it is a circus. Echo’s husband himself, a tremendous entertainer, spins up painstakingly-made arts and crafts in his stall when not helping Echo out in the cafe; while their daughter runs the hostel that we happened to be staying in (a magical fact that brought all of us even closer). The birthday niece (that runs the homestay next door to Echo’s cafe) tells us she has not had breathing room since the beginning of the season, and everyone in the family worries deeply for her fatigue levels, especially having recently given birth. Yet, all had gathered back here, at home, on their land — their birthright. You wouldn’t have suspected all this context underneath an otherwise fun-loving people thoroughly — and I mean thoroughly — enjoying themselves.

This was the Tao way.

Video: Echo’s husband performing for the family.

Awakening

And although part of the underlying reason for the celebration may have been somber, the energy around the table was nevertheless festive, joyous, and pure-of-heart. One tragedy rekindled many more lives.

It was as if they were listening again to the heartbeat of their culture. The nightmares, the past, present, and future struggles notwithstanding; the pulse never wavers. It yearns for reconnection, and the Tao, one way or another, always find themselves.

I found the story of Echo’s family to be an oddly striking parallel with the Tao as a people, as described by HeiNiu and Salu. Did the family, or the Tao people, ask for any of these burdens before empires past encroached on their indigenous sovereignty and brought on the enmity of a modern struggle? They are nevertheless thrust into a combat for their soul.

The Tao’s story is that of a delicate struggle balancing tourism, ensuring the survival of their culture, protecting their homeland, safeguarding the environment, and somehow, between all this, finding their place within the ceaseless tide of globalization. One thing is for sure though: there is no easy solution in a complex environment with many stakeholders.

But it necessitates first, willful listeners.

The Tao are not mere bystanders. They are a beautiful people steeped in rich history, culture, and context. And if there is anything I have learned from them, it is to never stop maintaining that exuberant, jubilant attitude for life, even with so much at stake.

The sun may set on the island, but it will never set on the spirit of the Tao.

A giant THANK YOU must first and foremost be given to Alssa. She is my partner, my human hard drive, my translator, and my enthusiasm machine. Without her, none of this would have been possible, including all of our interactions with the Tao. Second, to the wonderful folks on Orchid — ayoy. Your island is a blessing. Continue to fight the good fight. I hope that I have given your island the full justice it deserves, and that I did not misspoke, misrepresented, or misled in any way, shape, or form. If I did, I sincerely apologize. And finally, to Milly. The pup that never gave up.

Hey! If you actually made it this far into my story, then thank you from the bottom of my heart for your consideration, patience, and love for reading so much of my work. Words cannot express how much I appreciate it.

They say ‘writing = clear thinking’, so I am on my own journey to crystallize my thinking (and thus my writing). If you enjoyed this story, you can find more of my work on Medium here. I also occasionally make long form blog-style posts on Instagram here. You can also find me blabbering on Twitter here. Finally, be sure to visit my website.

Did you have any thoughts from this exposé on the Tao and their home, Orchid Island, that you would like to share? Please do! :-)

If you like this content, please consider buying me a coffee!

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I write for the future of web3. Comms at ChainSafe.

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