In early May, we took a short trip to Pongso no Tao (Lanyu) as part of Dr. Hsinya Huang’s graduate seminar, Pacific Cultural Production. After a two-hour ferry ride from Houbihu Harbor to Kaiyuan Harbor, we were greeted by the island’s looming fog-shrouded mountains. Our host, Syaman Lamuran and his wife met our group and drove us to their family-owned Lamuran Guesthouse (蘭嶼飛魚浪民宿) in Iratai (Yuren Village).
Flying Fish Heritage and Relations
Along the way, we were greeted by the sight of racks and racks of flying fish lining the roads and the smell of drying fish carried by the ocean breeze all over the island. These are indications of the deep cultural significance that the flying fish have to the indigenous communities of Tao people. Not only is the Flying Fish Festival their most important tradition, their relationship with the flying fish also shapes the Tao people’s mentality and way of life.
The Tao calendar divides the year into three seasons, determined by the activities and life cycles of the flying fish: rayon, the flying fish season when men go out to the sea to catch the flying fish; teiteika, the end of the flying fish season; and amiyan, the winter season when men wait for the flying fish to return. Rayon takes place approximately from March to June, when migrant flying fish follow the Kuroshio Current past Lanyu. During this season, the indigenous community of Lanyu solely hunt and eat flying fish (and other migrating fish), in order to give local fish species the chance to rest and replenish. Most of the flying fish caught during this time are sun-dried, smoked and preserved to last until the end of the fall season. This nine-month-long event is broadly defined as the Flying Fish Festival, throughout which many rituals, ceremonies and taboos are practiced in unison to the flying fish migration.
Historically, the movement of the flying fish also constantly reshaped the migratory route of the island Indigenes. Tao people are part of the seafaring Austronesian indigenous, thus due to annual/regular movements among the islands, the islanders conceive of an extensive, communal body of solidarity following the pathway of the current. As Tao people feed on the flying fish and center their rituals and calendars on the movement of the fish, both human and fish have traversed the Pacific, deterritorializing the ocean. The flying fish return every year, inspiring the islanders’ will to survive and serving as the fountainhead of their fighting spirit. The fish—indeed, the very waves—carry memories of Tao ancestors.
Though the Tao people no longer migrate, the flying fish that are featured in every meal are a living memory of their heritage. Our first meal on the island at 珊賜小嗑廳, where we got a taste of the amazing local cuisine, was no exception. The restaurant is a cozy establishment where the owners chatted with us about the food while they cooked in the kitchen. The star of the show was the deep-fried flying fish, and other courses included a flying-fish-egg omelet, sautéed flying fish eggs with vegetables, and flying-fish-egg sausages; as well as taro stems and other root vegetables that are staples in the Tao diet. We also got to enjoy some homemade fermented lemonade and tea jello. The walls of the restaurant were beautifully decorated with a collage of postcards, posters, maps and knickknacks of Lanyu.
For dinner we had flying fish soup and sautéed flying fish at海岸線風味餐廳, after which we got a chance to chat some more with local residents. One of these special hosts was Shu-chen Chen (陳淑貞), a teacher at Lanyu Senior High School. She shared with us some interesting remarks on her teaching philosophy, explaining that she tries to break the mainstream mold by teaching the high schoolers through a localized perspective. For example, her biology class handouts start with a local legend of flying fish. The passage tells the tale of an old man who caught one of two flying fish. He originally cooked the fish with other seafood, but fell ill after eating it. The flying fish tells him in a dream that he must respect the fish by cooking it as its own dish. Ms. Chen goes on to teach concepts like biodiversity by using the species of flying fish and local plants as examples—continuing to pay homage to the flying fish and the Tao heritage.
We also got a chance to sit down at his home with the renowned Tao author, Syaman Rapongan, and his family. Though fishing is a job exclusively for men in Tao culture, cleaning the fish is a task where everyone pitches in. When we arrived, Syaman Rapongan, his wife and his son had just finished hanging up fresh fish in his yard, and there was even a huge bowl of fish eggs on the table. Previous batches were stored in a backroom, where we got a peak of the fish being smoked with longan wood. Syaman Rapongan explains that traditionally the fish would be smoked after being sun-dried, which gives it more flavor; though he laments that less people practice this nowadays. Syaman Rapongan’s family upholds the traditional ways of living with the environment, and he has recently been passing the knowledge down to his son.
In the trip to Pongso no Tao we witnessed how flying fish are the evidence of Tao people’s cultural lineage. Flying fish unite the generations of Tao people, carrying the collective memories from the ancient and beyond the future. Far from simply being a source of food, the flying fish share a connection of kinship with the Tao. They are a consistent reminder of the Tao people’s cultural heritage. The annual migration of flying fish unites the human and non-human, the Pacific community, and the Tao people. They carry the Tao people’s cultural history on their wings; and the Flying Fish Festival likewise reflects the community’s environment-oriented cosmology and continuation of tradition.
Tatala Aesthetics and Values
Almost as much as they are recognized for their connection to flying fish, the Tao people are well-known for their tatala, fishing vessels that are assembled from various types of wood without any nails, and traditionally decorated with red, white and black carvings. They cultivate forests and plant trees (Mi mowamowa), leaving the lands to their offspring as an invaluable inheritance. Forest timber is harvested from the interior mountains for their traditional boats, and the wood is selected and ranked as appropriate for building decorative (Mivatek) and non-decorative boats. Using their adroit boat-building skills (Mi tatala) and incorporating their rudimentary knowledge of waves, the Tao produce streamlined carriers of traditional beauty. They anticipate that their boats will become good friends with the fish. The Mi tatala, like waka in Maori’s vocabulary, bespeaks a symbolic order of the Tao’s intimate relationship with the ocean. Their assembled boats become the medium for significant connections between the Tao, the sea, and their blood relations in the sea.
On our trip, we were fortunately given the opportunity to see the trees that the tatala were built from. Syaman Rapongan’s son, Si Rapongan, graciously took us on a small hike to their family’s ancestral forest lands. He and his father had recently built their first tatala together, and he was able to share with us some of the boat-building knowledge he learned from his father. The entrance to the forest was just outside of their village of Imourod (Hougtou) and though we could see a few tourists on the main trails, Si Rapongan soon led us off the beaten path, through a dry riverbed, to a small clearing where it truly felt as though we were the guests of the ancient towering trees. He shares with us the process of tatala building, pointing out a few of the trees that make up different parts of the assembled boats. He also tells us that carrying the heavy lumber down from the mountain instead of conveniently using wood from their backyards is a symbol of diligence, one of the Tao people’s most emphasized values. He also talked about the importance of remembering where the traditional family lands are, as they can only use the trees that belong to them and were planted there by their ancestors. The ideals of respect and continuation are also present in tatala-building—each time they cut down a tree, they must thank it and grow new trees in its place.
We saw some of these traditional assembled boats soon after we arrived, when our host, Syaman Lamuran, took us on a brief tour of the island. He explained some of the carvings on the boat, pointing out the recurring symbol for “eyes”. He also explains that the placements of the symbols are specific to different Tao communities, thus they could always differentiate which tatala belonged to their village. Along with the many rituals, the Tao have a number of taboos that are observed during the Flying Fish Festival. We were told not to ask fishermen about their activities before they go to fish at night for fear of alerting the fish of their arrival, and to be cautious when visiting the beach or seaside during this time. They also warned us that it is taboo for women to touch the tatala, not because they are lesser in Tao culture, but because men are responsible for fishing while women are in charge of cultivation. Thus, though women are not allowed to touch the boats, they are involved as equal members of a household in deciding to make a tatala and they also provide the taro used in the completion ceremony.
Before a family decides to build a tatala, the women must confirm that there will be enough taro for the completion ceremony. This is a testament of a family’s unity, work division and connection; at the conclusion of their work, they must simultaneously bring together the fruits of their labors and bless the tatala that will provide for them in the future. We got to visit Sinan Rapongan’s taro fields, where she talked to us as she tended to her plants. In Tao culture, growing food is the women’s job, thus Sinan Rapongan is responsible for overseeing all of her family’s taro and yam plantations. She tells us that these hearty vegetables are the Tao people’s main source of starch, and are meant to give workers the energy they need to work all day. Sinan Rapongan is very down to earth, though toiling in her many fields every day seems like a Herculean task to us, she still firmly counsels us to be thankful for the food that God gives, and never get angry when He provides plentiful fish and crops. As we leave the plantation, Sinan Rapongan turns and says goodbye to her taro, again showing the Tao’s connectivity and respect for non-human things.
Earlier in our trip, we were very lucky to hear from Syaman Rapongan as well, who not only is a famous writer and advocate for the traditional Tao lifestyle, but also an extremely skilled tatala craftsman in his village. As we gathered on the beach and admired the tatala he and his son built together, he fittingly gave us a lesson on the traditions and cultural continuation of the Tao. He shares some of the tribal fishing knowledge, telling us that all fish, winds, moons and tides had an individual name in the Tao language. He also shared his childhood memories of waiting on the beach for his father to return from fishing at night. Syaman Rapongan also points out a tagagal that overlooks the sea; these are gazebos traditionally used for observing the tides and resting with friends after work, but were misnamed by outsiders as “發呆亭” (a derogatory name that means “idle staring”). He laments the seemingly inevitable loss of traditional practices as the modern tourism businesses on the island grow, and fewer of the younger generations stay behind to pass on the old ways.
The tatala are truly a vessel of Tao culture; though at first glance they are simply decorated fishing boats, every step of their crafting process speaks of centuries-old tradition and values. One of the stories they told us was about how their ancestors painted the boats with black charcoal, red clay and white shells. Though the ocean would quickly wash away the colors, the Tao people of old simply kept on repainting. The labor required from both the men and women to successfully launch a single tatala tells the entire story of the Tao people’s attitude towards life—they believe in hardwork, are deeply respectful of the land, and have pieced together a beautiful cultural legacy to pass on to their children.
Island Space and Time
Apart from the tatala, Syaman Lamuran took us to several significant sites on our tour around the island, and he tirelessly told us story after story about each location. On Lanyu there are six main Tao villages, separated by slight cultural variations and unique geological markers. Iratai, where we were staying, is located on the west side of the island, between Yayo (Yeyou Village) to the north and Imourod to the south. On the east coast of Lanyu is Iraraley (Langdao Village), Iranmeylek (Dongqing Village), and Ivalino (Yeyin Village). We also learned that each village has their own separate council, thus each village also has varying levels of integration into tourism. For instance, when we visited Iranmeylek, we saw that they even had a mainland-style night market and a tatala-building-experience business.
We also stopped by a school, a church, Kasiboan (a waste awareness center), the nuclear waste storage site, and two old Kuomintang monuments. Unfortunately, since we arrived on a Sunday, almost everything that wasn’t outdoors was closed; but thanks to our guide, we got a detailed background about several of the sites. One that I found interesting was an abandoned Kuomintang podium, where the early government used to show propaganda to the locals. Also, everywhere we went, we saw goats roaming freely around the island. Syaman Lamuran explains that the goats belong to different families but are free to graze as they please; people take great care not to hit them; thus in a way they are the “traffic lights” of Pongso no Tao.
Our main destination on the tour was the Taipower nuclear waste storage site in Longtou, near the very south of Lanyu. Syaman Lamuran points out the Tao’s natural landmarks in the area—Longtou Rock, a fishing bay below and Little Lanyu in the distance—and the nuclear waste storage site is situated ominously in the center of these. The site was built by the Taiwanese government in the late seventies, as a temporary storage location for nuclear waste since Lanyu’s location is relatively isolated. However, this was all done without local knowledge and they originally named it ambiguously as “Lanyu Storage Site.” By 1982, the site was at full capacity and became the permanent home for 97,672 barrels of radioactive waste. The local residents’ protests are evidenced all over the island, in wall paintings and anti-nuclear banners. We even saw some trash art left by a group of Norwegian research students who stayed on the island for a month and worked with local schools to create reminders of the waste issue on the island. As Lanyu doesn’t have a waste disposal site, the trash accumulated from the growing tourism industry and brought in by the ocean tides has simply started to build up and pollute the formerly unspoilt natural environment. These sights were truly a stark contrast to their surroundings, and a sobering reminder of the costs of our modern conveniences.
Before we left for our ferry home, we visited a few more places around Iratai and Imourod. We all decided to eat at Rover (蘭嶼旅人) in Imourod, which Si Rapongan told us was the best bar in Lanyu and it also serves brunch. Its location overlooks the beach, and they also make amazing yam smoothies. A few of us decided to walk around and we saw Sinan Rapongan, still hard at work in her taro fields. She recommended that we get taro ice cream (雯雯芋頭冰) at a local souvenir shop; which turned out to be delicious. We had also planned to visit a bookstore (在海一方獨立書店); however, it was unfortunately closed for the day. When we got back to the guesthouse, we also visited Syaman Lamuran’s father’s workshop again for some souvenirs. Syapen Lamuran is a pastor, but he has a workshop for some miniature tatala he crafts from wood or discarded buoys and fishing net floats.
Although we learned a lot during our trip, it was still quite short and there is so much more left to see. As one of our classmates mentioned, the island felt like a constant loop through space and time; a place that feels like it will teach people something new each time they pass by, and stir up memories they had originally forgotten. Though the road around the island is always the same, it is somehow ever-changing, and even transforms those who traverse it. As we left Pongso no Tao, it felt like we had not only taken a part of the island with us, but also become a kind of island ourselves, connected by the sea to one another.
Pacific Connections and Encounters†
Following the trip, our class took inspiration from everything we learned, saw and experienced and combined it with our studies of Oceanic literature to make a poetry collection. Our themes included oceanic connectivity, environmental awareness, tradition remembrance, cultural continuity, and so on. Then, on June 16th (Taiwan time), we held a virtual seminar⁕ to present some of our poems, academic revelations, stories and even a few songs. We were very fortunate to have Syaman Lamuran join us as well as a few professors from NSYSU.
Syaman Lamuran also invited a last-minute surprise guest to our event. When we were in Pongso no Tao, I recognized his clothing and some guesthouse decorations to be from the Pacific Northwest, where I used to live. Upon asking, he explained that he had visited Seattle previously as part of Tao delegation to participate in the Canoe Journey event; and more importantly, to see two tatala that had been sold across the ocean in the late 1970s. I found his story about piecing together this transpacific history very interesting, and decided to write a poem about it. After hearing my presentation, Syaman Lamuran invited one of the key parties involved to come and share more about the two tatala. Mr. Michael Jacobson from Seattle was the person who saved the tatala from a warehouse of discarded restaurant decorations and donated one to the Burke Museum of the University of Washington; it was very enlightening to have him share more of the tale.
In conclusion, I found the trip to Pongso no Tao truly inspiring and I believe we all took away a lot from it despite only being there for two days. I think the trip drove home many of the lessons we learned from Dr. Hsinya Huang this semester, through the works of Epeli Hau’ofa, Teresa Teaiwa, Robert Sullivan, Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, Aka Niviâna, Craig Santos Perez, Linda Hogan and more. Though we celebrate the uniqueness of our cultures, we also share a certain commonality that connects us, from island to island, all the way across the seas. After this experience, I feel that through our participation in Pacific cultural production, we have somehow become a part of the greater Oceania story.
Connection is a recurring theme in Pacific literature. Writers and poets map out literary routes, exploring connections to nature, to the past, to culture and most of all, connections to the ocean which connects the world. As Hau‘ofa suggests, things should be seen in totality, and the Pacific Ocean can be seen as a “sea of islands” (31). At the start of the semester, it was not as easy for us to grasp this concept of the ever-expanding Oceanian community. We later found that this archipelagic web was something that should be understood through experience. Like Perez writes in one of his poems, his encounters with maps gradually expanded his concept of boundaries, and brought him to realize the deep bonds between Austronesian islands. “I examine the map closely, navigating beyond the violent divisions of national and maritime borders, beyond the scarred latitudes and longitudes of empire, to discover the cartography of our most expansive legends and deepest routes” (Perez 2017).
Through the oceanic passages, commonality is found. While Perez depicts the notion of removing borders through the recognition of shared ancestry, we are reminded of our place in this community through the simple experiences we had on this journey. The way the Tao people connect to the sea and the things around them somehow brings back the islander spirit in us, which was long-forgotten but undoubtedly essential. Things like the value of diligence, sincere gratitude for food, the telling of stories and even the calm moments of looking at the sea, all felt like important reminders of ideals that everyone had been taught but may have lost in the more modernized worldview. It is as Syaman Rapongan writes of the older Tao seamen, “the ripples made by the ever-shifting surface of the sea are like the folds and patterns of their brains” (｢海面永恆波動的波紋宛如他們腦海裡的腦紋｣); explaining that memories resurface with each ocean wave, and are likewise present in our blood. It is surprising how Teaiwa’s words could now resonate with us: “We sweat and cry salt water, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood” (qtd. in Hau‘ofa 41). The ocean in us is always there yet had been ignored, and it is revived through our realization of commonality.
Though we often forget it, our homeland, Taiwan, is no less a Pacific island; and as such we should see ourselves as a part of the sea of islands, rather than distance ourselves as if we were independent from the rest of the world. As we rediscover ourselves as people of the Oceanian community, we should realize a responsibility to have empathy and understanding, and a necessity to hold ourselves accountable for the consequences of our actions and the plight of our neighbors. “Into the new age the waka glides… we are united by culture, by psyche, of our cultures, our closeness even in this age turned against the sacred” (Sullivan 46). And the restoration of humanity and connection is by no means limited to Oceania, it is a mission to be shared by the entire world. In our online seminar, we talked about another kind of responsibility, one to pass on any story that we’ve been told. In doing so, we give the words of our cultures the power to ignite change, as myths and legends once did. As Jetn̄il-Kijiner writes, “My father told me that idik—when the tide is nearest an equilibrium is the best time for fishing. Maybe I’m writing the tide towards an equilibrium, willing the world to find its balance” (78).
† This segment was written by Ysanne Chen, “I” is used here to reference her personal experience.
⁕ Pondering the Pacific online seminar from June 16th, 2021: https://youtu.be/aodHCH108IU
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