Taitung's treasures by the sea

Taitung's treasures by the sea

As cars whiz by before us and with the roar of the Pacific Ocean at our backs, one of the most powerful men in Taiwan's aboriginal Puyuma tribe is being scolded.

I do not understand the language but the gist is clear. He, the stupid man, clucks a remonstrating woman as she gesticulates at his head, has left back home the most critical item for the ceremony.

I look around. Everyone - young, old, men, women - is wearing a beautiful crown of colourful flowers on his or her head.

The man, a former headsman of the Kasavakan village - childhood home of Taiwan pop star A-mei - shrugs sheepishly as he shepherds me across the road to where a raucous outdoor feast of chicken, beer and local rice liqueur is starting.

It is tomb-sweeping day to remember the ancestors who first landed on Taiwan "a few thousand years ago", way before the Han Chinese did, says headman Haku Dumaradas, 73.

And the idea behind the flower crown is a simple one: In paying respects to one's forefathers, one must look one's best. And what better way than to display nature's gifts on one's head?

Indeed, the entire county of Taitung is not shy about flaunting its string of natural gems - ocean, mountains, beaches, lakes and parks.

Located on Taiwan's south-eastern coast and a five-hour train ride from Taipei, Taitung is known as Taiwan's "back garden".

The county is among the farthest from the busy cities in the north and is on the side of the island that faces the blank blue expense of the Pacific Ocean, as opposed to the bustling west coast near mainland China where immigrants land.

Left relatively alone, the 3,515 sq km county is less developed than other parts of Taiwan and is sparsely populated.

Buildings are rickety but charmingly painted the cobalt blue of chemistry experiments, while a public bus lackadaisically trundles along every hour or so. Visitors drive or cycle along the coast on bicycles with the Taiwanese flag fluttering behind.

There is no factory, industrial park or skyscraper in this part of Taiwan. Instead, pebbled beaches stretch on endlessly, set against mountains. The aboriginal people, who comprise one-third of the local 230,000-strong population, carry on with their traditions, from old trades such as fishing and farming to a matrilineal lineage system where husbands take their wives' names and daughters inherit the family property.

At the Pisilian village of the Amis tribe where we stayed one night, Mr Fosay Sapiat, 57, is washing corals - "doing as told" by his wife Amoy Sapiat, 57, the village's administrator.

He laughs as he says: "We, men, don't have any property. The women take care of things while the men run about."

Asked for his original last name, he turns to his wife. Ms Sapiat furrows her brows. She does not remember either.

Still, change is on the way. Some younger women take their husbands' names now due to the influence of the Han Chinese, says Ms Sapiat.

Following some lawsuits, property by and large is fairly divided among all offspring. The villages have been shrinking as young people seek job opportunities outside the county, in cities such as Kaohsiung or Taipei.

Tribe leader Lai Yai, 67, frets about how the number of households under his charge has dwindled from its peak of 1,000 plus to 400 today. Half the population is either old people or children. This is why he favours building more factories or hotels to "bring back our young".

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