Cover Story :


By Cheryl Robbins Translated by Sharon Yang
Photos provided by David Greenberg, Rachel Chiou, Malas, Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines and Taiwan Folk Arts Museum.

For thousands of years, Taiwan was the exclusive domain of the Aborigines. With the arrival of the Chinese 400 hundred years ago, some of the tribes were gradually assimilated, resulting in the loss of many traditional customs.

Today, however, there are 10 recognized aboriginal tribes in Taiwan and, in recent years, there has been renewed interest in preserving their arts and culture. In Taipei city and county, there are plenty of opportunities to explore indigenous culture, including aboriginal museums and exhibitions, shops, restaurants and festivals.

Probably the best place to start is at the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines (282, ChihShan Rd., section 2; tel: 02-2841-2611; hours: 10 am-5 pm Tues-Sun, closed Mondays; general admission NT$150), located across the street from the National Palace Museum. Another good venue is the Taiwan Folk Arts Museum (32, YuYa Rd., tel: 02-2891-2318; hours: 10 am-7 pm Tues-Fri; 9 am-7 pm Sat-Sun, closed Mondays; general admission NT$100) in Peitou. Shung Ye is a relatively-new museum, founded in 1994, but is the first in Taiwan completely dedicated to the island's Aborigines. Its mission is to preserve Taiwan's indigenous culture and enhance understanding among the different ethnic groups.

This museum is divided into four floors. In the first-floor entrance area, interactive computer programs provide basic information about the Aborigines in Chinese, Japanese and English. The second floor features miniature and life-size models of aboriginal dwellings and a village meeting hall. Also on display are pottery, baskets, hunting tools, weapons and musical instruments. The third floor includes exhibits of aboriginal costumes and ornaments, while the basement area describes the Aborigines' belief systems. There are also short films in the theater that introduce aboriginal culture, weaving, pottery and songs and dances. Most of the exhibits and films are in English and Chinese. There are also English guided tours that can be booked in advance. Call the museum for information and reservations.

The complex that now houses the Taiwan Folk Arts Museum was built in 1921 and served as an officers club for the Japanese military. When war broke out in the Pacific, this is where Japanese kamikaze pilots came for "R & R" (rest and recreation) before carrying out their missions. In 1984, it became a private museum devoted to the collection and display of objects related to Taiwanese folk customs and Taiwanese aborigines. The aboriginal exhibits area features a variety of clothing and accessories. This area also displays earthenware pots, pottery figurines, utensils, house posts and lintels, weapons and baskets, as well as a canoe. All of the explanations are in English and Chinese. Next to this museum is a small gift shop selling a wide range of aboriginal handicrafts.

Wulai is probably one of the most visited destinations in Taipei County, thanks to its plethora of hot springs and beautiful hillside scenery. However, it is also home to the Atayal tribe. The Atayal tribe is probably best known for its weaving and embroidery. Traditionally, a woman's social position and skills were evaluated by the quality and complexity of her weaving. Since Wulai is now such a popular destination, much of the aboriginal culture has been diluted, but there are still a variety of shops and attractions to explore.

Wulai is more or less divided into two areas. The first is Wulai Street which features a variety of small restaurants serving aboriginal delicacies, such as sticky rice served in a bamboo pot and venison. One good place to try traditional Atayal barbecue is at 48, Wulai Street (Tel: 02-2661-6133). There are no seats as everything is sold for take-out. At meal times, people line up sometimes for nearly an hour. Fortunately, it is easy to pass the time as the owner grills meat, such as wild boar, on a stone slab grill using rice wine as flavoring, while hungry customers and passers-by look on. An order costs NT$100. For a sampling of other aboriginal restaurants in Taipei City and Taipei County, see this month's Restaurant Roundup.
There are also a number of shops selling mochi, a favorite aboriginal dessert made from glutinous flour and filled with red bean, peanuts, taro root or sesame. This area can become very crowded with tourists on holidays and weekends.

Wulai's second main area is around the Wulai Waterfall. From Wulai Street, take the Lan Sheng Bridge. From this bridge, Waterfall (PuBu) Street veers off to the left. Along this street are several attractions, including the Wulai Aboriginal Culture Village (31, PuBu Rd., Wulai Hsiang [township], Taipei County; tel. 02-2661-6635; 2661-6633). This cultural center is owned and operated by local Atayal residents and features aboriginal handicrafts and dance performances. At the Chiou Chang (Chieftain) Cultural Village gift shop (5, PuBu Rd., Wulai Hsiang, Taipei County; tel. 02-2661-6551; 2661-7725), it is possible to watch a staff member weaving complex patterns on a manual loom.

In February and March, the trees along Waterfall Road and Huan Shan Road (off of Waterfall Road) are adorned with cherry blossoms. For the Atayal tribe, this is the start of the millet-planting season and ceremony. Those responsible for leading the ceremony and their family members visit their fields before dawn. They spread millet seed while facing the rising sun and cover them with soil. Food offerings are buried near where the seeds are planted. Also, during the cherry blossom season, the Taipei County government holds a month-long festival with aboriginal music and dance performances, weaving classes and aboriginal cooking classes. For dates and information, contact the Taipei County Bureau of Aboriginal Affairs at (02) 2968-6898.

A great aboriginal handicrafts shopping destination is Malas (83, GungMing [KungMing] St., 1F, Danshui Town, Taipei County), located just a stone's throw from the Danshui MRT Station. Owned by Nabu, a member of the Bunun tribe and managed by Kacaw, a member of the Amis tribe, this store sells items produced by aboriginal craftspeople. Malas has its own design department to develop items that preserve aboriginal motifs and meaning but, at the same time, are modern enough to be accepted by the general public. These new ideas are then sent to workshops in aboriginal villages to be produced. The finished products are then returned to Malas, where they are retailed in its store, and offered wholesale to outlets islandwide.

According to Nabu, the purpose of Malas is to bring aboriginal culture to the masses and to allow aboriginal artists to earn money while remaining in their villages. Most popular are smaller items such as bracelets and earrings. However, there are a number of embroidered bags, the now-very-popular bandana caps, clothing, statues, dolls and wall hangings. There is also a selection of books (mostly in Chinese), as well as aboriginal music CDs, some of them self-produced by Malas. If people would like to know more about aboriginal culture, the store¡¦s staff is more than willing to answer questions.

Taipei city and Taipei county offer a variety a ways to learn about the island's indigenous peoples and their cultures, making northern Taiwan a great place to enjoy aboriginal museums, restaurants, stores and festivals.

Special thanks to the Wulai Hsiang government office for information on Wulai and to the National Museum of Natural Science for help with cover photography.