Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I guess I could be forgiven for not giving much thought to Taiwan's Aboriginal population. Here in Taipei, overt signs of Aboriginal culture are pretty sparse, apart from Aborigine-made goods in touristy gift shops and a market in Wanhua that sells Aboriginal food. A sizable proportion of Taiwan's population has some Aboriginal heritage, but only a tiny minority actually self-identify as Aborigines. (Rather like Native Americans in North America.)

Aboriginal cultures - plural, as there are several tribes - are not Chinese. It's not even descended from Chinese culture. The Aboriginal languages (of which there are several) are not related to Chinese; they're much closer to Tagalog and Indonesian and other Southeast Asian and Polynesian languages.

The Saisiyat are an aboriginal group of central Taiwan, and every two years they have a festival called the Pasta'ai. Full information on the legends behind the Pasta'ai can be found here. The Pasta'ai was held this past weekend, and we were determined to attend.

We traveled by bus from Taipei to the town of Jhudong, southeast of Hsinchu. (On a map Jhudong is an unimpressive little dot; when we got there we found a fairly sizable community with big chain stores and a decent market and everything.) We met up with the couple whose homestay we were staying at, and they gave us a lift to the town of Wufeng, where the Pasta'ai is held.

This is the sort of view you can expect to see around Wufeng.

First order of business was paying the (small) entry fee, then having Saisiyat elders tie a big blade of grass around my upper arm. And another around my camera strap, to protect from evil. Some people got it tied around their head; it seemed to be the Saisiyat elder's decision where exactly to tie it. (Both of my blades of grass loosened and fell off long before the evening was over, but no one else thought anything of it, so I didn't either.)

The big gathering place before nightfall. That covered area is where food and drinks are going to be sold in a few hours; it's also where tired dancers will rest.

The same area after our Saisiyat dinner of fish soup and fried tofu.

(From this point on some of the pictures were taken by Jenna using my camera, not me.)

The first of the Saisiyat dancers come out.

Dancing continued on like this for the rest of the evening. The smaller group of dancers created percussion effects by swinging tambourine-like straps they had hanging from their backs.

Most of the sizable audience passed the time by chatting and socializing. There were many spectators with some Aboriginal heritage, but there were also many non-Aboriginal Taiwanese people. And there were more Westerners concentrated in one place than I have ever seen before in Taiwan so far out of Taipei.

I hate to ruin some people's romantic notions of the beauty and mystery of ancient traditional ceremonies, but most of the attendees spent the evening (a) eating such foods as fried chicken and barbecue sausages, and (b) drinking excessively. Millet wine is considered a specialty of Aborigines, and several home-brewed varieties were available; they ran the gamut from good to vile. (Taiwan Beer was also available, for anyone who didn't want millet wine.)

An old man sat by me who had clearly had too much to drink. He kept trying to make conversation with me, although his speech was so incomprehensible that Jenna and I honestly had trouble figuring out what language he was speaking (the fact that there were five or six languages he plausibly could have been speaking didn't help.) He also tried to pull me up to dance with him.

Eventually the old man got up and ran drunkenly towards the dancers. He was forcibly led away by security. I suspect he may have ended up in one of those places set aside for tired dancers; they were probably also intended as places for people to sleep off their drunkenness.

More pictures of the Pasta'ai.

People selling Saisiyat clothing at the Pasta'ai.

Shortly after midnight, the dancing was opened up to all, Saisiyat and non-Saisiyat. Hordes of people descended from the stands to link arms and dance clumsily. We participated for a few minutes before giving up. Our hosts were clearly tired, and so were we. We walked for about twenty minutes from the Pasta'ai site to our hosts' van, which we rode in for another half hour or so through twisting mountain roads. Our hosts, fortunately, had not drunk any alcohol.

Our hosts were an older Aboriginal couple, though they aren't Saisiyat (we think they're Atayal). They speak Atayal (or something) to each other and are not native speakers of Mandarin, though they speak it fluently. They operate a very nice homestay near Wufeng, and they also sell Aboriginal souvenirs like clothing.

The view from the homestay.

Various homestay animals. The puppies are all skinny but seem to eat a lot; they're all apparently from the same litter despite looking very different. The cats are better fed; the black and white cat doesn't like people much but the orange kitten is very friendly and affectionate.

Jenna posted more pictures and commentary of the same trip over here.

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