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A Glance at the Amei
Taiwan’s Aboriginal People Struggle to Preserve their Culture
By Antonio Graceffo

In a hyper-modern Tiger economy, on the downside of a technological and economic boom, it is hard to think of the concrete covered, silicon empire of Taiwan as the home of nearly half a million indigenous people. But the Amei, Taiwan’s largest tribe, is faced with the difficult challenge of fining a balance between isolation and extinction.

On a solo bicycle trip around Taiwan, I stopped at a Catholic Church, near Suao, on the island’s East Coast. The door was locked, so I poked my head in a window where I was surprised to see a number of notice boards written in Latin script, but which I couldn’t understand. The only logical explanation I could come up with, at the time, was that I had stumbled onto a Catholic church servicing the large number of Philippinos working in Taiwan.pic1

An ancient woman came out to greet me, speaking a language I could not understand. I asked if she spoke Mandarin, but she just shook her head, “no,” which had been a fairly common occurrence on the East Coast, where people were speaking a language I had just assumed was Taiwanese. Having no other choice, I continued in Mandarin, and asked for the priest. “Priest” she recognized. Her face lit up, and she led me around the house, presenting me to a fat, dark skinned man, in civilian clothes, working on the roof of a house.

The man, who introduced himself as Father Steven, spoke perfect Chinese, and when he heard about how long I had traveled, he invited me to spend the night. Pushing my bicycle I followed him behind the large, wooden European style Catholic Church. A courtyard opened up, revealing a huge common building, at the center of the compound, which was a thatched house, reminding me of a native American longhouse.

The Priest greeted all of the dark-skinned workers in the same strange language the old woman had spoken.

“What language is that?” I finally had the courage to ask.
“It’s Amei.” Said the Priest. “We are all Amei Catholics in this village.”

At that moment, I felt like an idiot. All of the people I had had trouble communicating with on the East Coast must have been tribal people. Stupidly, I had attributed their darker skin, larger bodies, and strange language to the fact that they were ethnic Taiwanese.

After I had showered and set fire to the socks I had been wearing for the last several days, I went out to join my new friends. The courtyard was full of tribal people, talking and laughing together, while they made repairs to the church and the longhouse. Both men and women, all chewed beetlenut, and the women chain-smoked huge, fluted cigars. The younger ones were fluent in Mandarin and switched back and forth, first talking to me, then translating for the older ones.

Father Steven came out to the courtyard, showered and polished, for dinner. We all sat at two long tables, which accommodated the entire twenty or so people. Father said a prayer in Amei, just as he told me he said the mass in Amei on Sundays. Although the people seemed to be happy and carefree, they always had an eye on Father Steven, following his lead, to know when to eat, when to talk, and when to pray. When his plate was empty, they were quick to refill it.

The food was outstanding, including a lot of raw fish and wasabi. As much as I enjoyed it, I wondered if this were a traditional Amei dish, or something that had been absorbed into the culture during the Japanese occupation of the island.

Much has been written about the Christianization of tribal people and how this destroys their culture. And, to an extent, this is the case. But with these Catholic Amei, I had the definite feeling that the way they lived now was not dramatically different from the way they would have lived if the twentieth-Century hadn’t encroached on their world. Father Steven took the role of tribal chief and headman. He advised them on their problems, and settled their grievances with one another. The fact that he was an ordained, Catholic priest was incidental.

Also, living together in a community, centered around a large common house was probably typical for the tribe. And, of course I was benefiting from the fact that they shared their meals, which is how most tribal people lived. Generally, it is not until people learn about money that they become materialistic and individualistic. Tribal peoples, which I have encountered in North America, Central America, Thailand, Cambodia, and Taiwan, practice communal ownership and sharing, but within certain guidelines, which prevents laziness and moocher-ism.

Surrounded by 22 million Buddhists, I felt an immediate connection to these unique people who I had never encountered before. Because we were both Catholic, we shared a certain commonality. The commonalities I shared with my Taiwanese friends were Chinese language and Kung Fu, which were both learned. I was born Catholic. It is a much deeper feature of my personality. Being able to share this very private aspect of my life with people I had met on an Island in the Taiwan Strait, thousands of miles from Our Lady of Lord’s Parish, in Brooklyn, was very special.pic2

I wondered if Catholicism was holding the tribe together, rather than destroying it. Aside from the language and culture, the Catholic Amei now had religion as yet another barrier that separated them from the predominantly Buddhist Taiwanese. On the reservations, the aboriginal people lived in close fellowship, but that was somehow artificial. These people, however, were living normal lives, working and going to school, but still living in community with one another, and keeping a tribal hierarchy.

Hanging on the wall of the longhouse there was a cross, made from an aboriginal crossbow. Right beside it, there was a Taiwanese flag. I wondered just how Taiwanese these people felt. And even further, how surprised would they be if officials from the Mainland told them they were subjects of China. I think it would be a hard sell.

When we had finished eating, Father Steven told me his story. The church was founded forty-one years earlier by a Swiss missionary, who spoke fluent Amei, as well as Chinese and Taiwanese.

“He is the one who died in the room where you are sleeping tonight.” Father Steven told me proudly.

“I am honored.” I said.

Father Steven was sent to live at the church at the age of three. He studied with the old priest, until, eventually, the priest sponsored Father Steven to go study at the seminary in Taichung. When the old priest died, three years ago, Father Steven took over the mission.

“This is my home. I was raised here.” He said, with pride. “But now, all of the young people go away.” He lamented. “There are no jobs here, so they go away to find work.”

Until recently, there were no universities on the East side of the island. Now there were some limited degree options, but the universities on the west side of the island had a much better reputation.

“The clever young people go away to study. But what could they do with their degree here?” He asked throwing his hands up. “So, they stay in Taipei or Taichung.”

The East side of the island was so beautiful that, it would be hard to leave. I could, however, understand trading natural beauty for the money and lights of the capital or Taichung. But even money wouldn’t coerce people to live in the concrete blight of industrial Kaohsiung.

“Now, only old people live here.” He concluded.

I told Father Steven that I had heard that the aboriginal people had suffered under the military regime. There had actually been pogroms to stamp out the language and culture.

“Oh yes.” He agreed. “But, things are much better now.”

In recent years, the Taiwanese government had instituted a number of programs to preserve and even promote aboriginal culture.

“Things are better.” He repeated. “But, here on the east coat, the economy is bad.”

All of the industry is in the four major cities, on the west side of the island.

Seventy percent of Taiwan’s population lived in the 180 KM strip of land, on the west coast, from Taipei to Kaohsiung. So, all of the industry and all of the good schools could be found in that same area. Ridding my bicycle on the East coast, it was nearly impossible to find either a McDonalds or an ATM machine, the two symbols of modernization.pic3

“Now, most people left on the east coast are aboriginal. When our children go away to the city they fall in love, and marry a Taiwanese.”

The half-Taiwanese children will grow up in a modern, industrial Taiwan, where countless hours of additional classes at bushibans, and preparations for the highly competitive high school and university entrance exams will leave no time to learn about their aboriginal heritage.

“If all of the young people move to the cities, who is left here to change things? The old people and the underachievers.” Most of the time, surrounded by his flock, Father Steven seemed extremely happy. But when he talked about the future of the tribe, the despair was clearly written on his face. “The population gets smaller and smaller. So, there are less, not more, services.”

A boy, of about fifteen, was listening intently to our discussion. Wanting to get a young persons perspective, I asked him about his school.

“It is thirty kilometers away.” He said, on a down note. The commute was long, extending the already over-long Taiwanese school day. And, of course, he didn’t live near any of hi classmates. So, it was difficult to maintain friendships.

“We have six hundred students in the school.” He said, answering my question.

“There used to be over a thousand.” Interjected Father Steven.

“The teachers are all Taiwanese, and we only speak Chinese at school.”

“The young people are losing the language.” Said Father Steven.

Even the young boy who had grown up in the Catholic commune, although he understood the tribal language perfectly, he preferred to speak Chinese.

“The culture is dying too.” Added Father Steven. “In the old days, all of the houses around the church were full. Now, we are less than twenty people. We used to sit, long into the night talking. But now, the young people don’t speak the language. And, they would rather watch TV or use the computer, than hangout and talk to a bunch of old people.

While we talked, the old women were busy rolling beetlenuts in white paste and leaves. They were chewing the nuts like champions, and smoking cigars, while the men all smoked cigarettes. A woman carried a large pitcher of strong alcohol mixed with natural fruit juice. After Father had drunk, she filled a glass, and handed it to me, expecting me to down it in one gulp. I handed back the empty glass, and she filled it for the next person. Was this aboriginal sharing behavior or some strange mutation of Catholic Communion?

“I am Pasteur at six churches.” Father explained. “This is the biggest one, and my home. The smallest one only has four people.” he laughed. “Everyone is gone. You see that house?” He asked pointing. “It is empty now. And so is that one, that one, and that one.”

In all, nine houses surrounding the church were unoccupied.

Father showed me an Amei Bible, written with a Latin script, which had been developed by a Catholic priest many years earlier.

“People miss the beauty of Latin.” Said Father, who had grown up in a pre-Vatican II church, and thus had been taught the ancient language of the Catholic religion.

“The Latin language is 100% phonetic. So, anyone can learn it, easily.”

I laughed, thinking of all the difficulty Chinese language gave me. Once again, I wished that the whole world would abandon their writing system and adopt Latin script.

One of the arguments against Romanization (converting to Latin script) has been that it is a foreign system, and thus, destroys the local language and culture. But in the case of tribal people, such as the Amei, their language had no writing system. So, by adopting Latin, they were preserving the language on paper. And, now, textbooks and dictionaries could be developed to help teach the language to the children. Recently, many government schools had added courses in tribal languages, as well as, Taiwanese, all of which are taught using Romanization, which was originally developed by Catholic priests.

Time and time again, in countries around the world, I have seen that tribal people are faced with a fatal alternative. Option one, they can assimilate into society, learn the national language, attend schools and universities, and get jobs in the city. If they chose for assimilation, all of the young people will be gone from the village, and the village will die out. The children will marry outside the tribe, diluting the bloodline. The traditions and language will not be passed on to the generation which is only half tribal. And, the next generation, which is only a quarter tribal may know absolutely nothing about their heritage. What they do learn, will be from history books, and they will probably feel no connection to facts, and photos of half-naked savages found in dusty old volumes.

The other option is to force their children to stay on the reservation, to prevent them from learning the local language, to ban television, computers, and modern technology from the village, and to keep their children out of school. By doing this, they preserve the bloodline. But, they condemn their children to a life of abject poverty, and make them outsiders in their own country.

What is the answer?

Father Steven and his followers tried to find a happy medium, keeping the children close to the tribe until it was time for them to attend university. At least this way, there were a few young people around, to give the tribe life. And, when they left for the city they would bring memories of the language and traditions with them. But, when Father Steven and the others in the village grow old and die, and the fifteen year-old boy I had met, moved to Taipei, became an IT consultant, and married a Taiwanese girl, that would be the end of the tribe. And all that would be left would be dictionaries and textbooks, written in Latin script, and photos of half naked savages in dusty old books.


copyright © Antonio Graceffo 2005