Lin Yi Chun

Marketing Director of Aboriginal Marketing, Taiwan.

Seeking new life for aborigines through cultural creations

01 2015 | Issue 1

Lalaban is the tallest mountain in Shin She village in Fengbin township in Taiwan’s eastern Hualien county. It is the landmark fishermen of the tribe look to when they return from fishing. The Kamalan indigenous tribe live in the foothills of Lalaban. In the 1990s, the old women of the tribe started to teach young women to resurrect the tradition of weaving with banana leaf fibres.

Banana fibres are pulled from the bark of banana trees. After cleaning and drying, the fibres can be used for weaving into materials. This, together with the more common tradition of weaving with ramie plants, is traditional craft unique to the Kamalan tribe.

But with the development of the coastal highways on the east coast of Taiwan, industrial machines have replaced traditional crafts like weaving with banana leaves. People are also leaving the area because of better transport links. This traditional craft is dying out with the old women of the tribe. It wasn’t until a Japanese visitor came to the area about two decades ago to investigate the history of the craft, that the local tribespeople realised their traditions have disappeared.

Later, the Kamalan tribespeople in the village established a new banana leaf weaving workshop, using Lalaban as its logo and guiding spirit to breathe new life into this important cultural heritage. The old women always say to young people that they don’t care about their culture and have forgotten about their ancestors. Of course, no one will spend time today making waterproof clothes out of banana leaves. But the workshop has revitalised an old tradition, producing items like environmentally-friendly chopsticks, namecard holders, iPhone cases and so forth, narrowing the gulf between tradition and modernity.

Ethnic culture may not be a popular trend globally, but it nonetheless is able to produce a ripple effect. For example, the idea of updating traditions for modern times, as the Kamalan have done, hasn’t spread like wildfire around Taiwan, but they’re also not the only ones to do it.

Under the threat of globalisation and mainstream culture, more and more minorities are thinking how best to pass on their culture by tapping into the wisdom of their ancestors. More pertinent for Taiwan’s aborigines, however, is how to make a living everyday, with about 80% engaged in agriculture.

Taiwan’s aboriginal communities face similar problems to other rural villages. Infrastructure is poor, jobs are scant, and many young people move away leaving old people and children behind and sucking the life out of these places. Economic weakness exposes a lot of negative social problems, and many are stuck in vicious cycles. Is it possible to link a resurrection of indigenous culture to the degeneration of these aboriginal areas?

In recent years, some young people have started to return to these villages to try and make a living. In addition to using resources like their surrounding environments, they can also make use of the wisdom and wealth passed down by their ancestors, in the form of agricultural products and handicrafts.

If a cultural heritage isn’t just sitting as an artefact in a museum, it’s continuing existence needs to be built on an economic foundation. People need to think about how to build a market with steady demand for these products to create a sustainable economic lifeline for villagers. It may even help create new jobs to attract more people to go back, breathing new life into these villages and their culture.

A determined group of people are trying to find out whether cultural creations can indeed help revive Taiwan’s aboriginal villages.