Death of the Tao 9

It starts by hopping a train from Taipei in northern Taiwan to Taitung in south-central Taiwan. This is followed by a shuttle bus (or taxi if you don’t have any local friends to tell you that there is a shuttle available) from the train station to the boat terminal. If you planned ahead, you would have been sure to arrive in time to catch the one and only boat going to your destination. If not, you’re stuck going to another island from which, hopefully, you can hop a different boat to get to where you are going.

The Japanese classified Orchid Island (Lanyu)as a protected ethnic preserve when Formosa and its satelite islands were a province of Imperial Japan. That classification was enforced even after Japan ceded the island at the end of World War II and remained in effect until it was removed in 1967. Because of this, the Tao culture is widely considered to be the best preserved among the Taiwanese aboriginal tribes. Since 1967, there have been varying levels of headcount restrictions on travel to the island, but how strict those restrictions have been vary widely from year to year, administration to administration.

Last I was there it was one boat in the morning from Formosa or a connecting boat from Green Island with sporadic flights with Daily Air who operate small prop commuter planes out of municipal airports such as Songshan Airport in Taipei.

Why was it protected as an “ethnic preserve”? Because that’s where the Tao (???) make their home. And there are not many of them left. In total, the Taiwanese aboriginal tribes make up about 2% of the total population of the country, or about 500,000 people. Of that 500,000, the Tao make up less then 1%, about 3500 people. While the total aboriginal population of Tawan is growing by about 10,000 people annually, the Tao population has stagnated. Chances are that by the time my children are old enough to explore the world on their own, they will only be able to visit Lanyu as a memorial to the proud Taiwanese aboriginal tribe that lives there. Can’t find much about them on the Internet? Try searching “Yami” (??), a misnomer by which they are more commonly known, even amongst other Taiwanese. In fact, while browsing though the National Taiwan University’s photographic archive (thanks to David Reid for the link) the word “Tao” is nowhere to be found, but the misnomer “Yami” returns half a dozen images, including the banner image for this article.

The most obvious characteristic of the island, and the one that hit me right away, was the lack of orchids…on Orchid Island. In fact, there is a stunning lack of any sort of vegetation, just some very small family farming plots on the few areas deep enough to plant anything and some native short grass everywhere else. There are goats, though. Lots of them. Running free. I think it’s safe to assume that’s where there the orchids went…with the goats.

The most obvious characteristic of the Tao population that has made their home on Lanyu for over 800 years, and this one took a little while to sink in, is the disproportionatly high number of the elderly then to the young. This was answered with a simple question to a local: There is no economy. The island has no natural resources from which to sell/exchange/barter for the population’s daily needs. While there are small farm plots, there isn’t nearly enough airable land to cultivate and provide enough food for everyone and so they must buy food, materials, and other items from neighboring islands. For this reason, many of the adults of earning age choose to move, often with their spouse and children, to the larger cities on Formosa for work. This allows them to support their parents back home. Of course, once resettled on Formosa, they blend into the greater population as do the small pieces of culture they bring with them.

The elderly are nearing their end, the youth are resettling out of practical necessity. Maybe the girl in the photo above, the only young child I saw all day, will stay. Perhaps she’ll take over her parents business…a small café near the ferry terminal, a business catering specifically to tourism, which is slowly growing.

But of course increased tourism brings it’s own issues.

About Brian

Brian Q. Webb is a photography enthusiast from Los Angeles, California who spends most of his time in Taipei, Taiwan. He is especially interested in street photography as well as large format portraiture and pinhole photography. He also likes to shoot lifestyle portraiture and occasionally acts as an agent for foreign newspapers wanting event coverage in Taipei. He was also on the staff of deviantArt and is co-founder of PhotoMalaysia, the largest photography community in that country.

  • Craig Ferguson (@cfimages)

    Excellent write up.

  • Brian

    Thanks, Craig… nothing better to do on a typhoon day. 😀

  • David on Formosa

    Yami is not really a misnomer. Yami is the name of the language the people speak, Tao is the word for people in that language. A more linguistically accurate spelling of Tao is Dawu. I hope I can visit there one day. It must be an amazing place.

  • Brian

    @David, by “misnomer” I mean a common misuse of a name. Yami is the language, Tao is the tribe. Yeah, “Dawu” would be a better approximation and would also save some confusion…I’ve already fielded a few “like yin-yang?” questions. “Tao” actually means “the people” and has the same meaning in other languages from groups related to the Tao, like those living in the northern Philippines. This is also one thing that makes them unique within Taiwan’s aboriginal cultures.

    It’s very small, but there’s a lot to explore. It’s one place I want to return. I’m hoping that next year’s Crossing Bridges (where groups of photographers from the largest online communities in Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Malaysia) get together they will come here. Since I’m a co-founder of and live in Taiwan, it would be up to me to do the primary travel itinerary… perfect excuse to plan a trip there. 😉

  • Teo

    Thanks for sharing; fascinating stuff. My mom lived on Lanyu for a while in the 60s, doing social work with the Yami. I should find the time to visit. In the archive, if you search the Japanese term for Yami (???) or even Chinese for ??, you get a lot more material.

    Did you take more photos?

  • Brian

    @Teo Was she responsible for that large cross adjacent to the “cave of 9 holes”? 😆

    I took more photos, but there were a couple of problems:

    1. I brought only Tri-X…in August. I shot it at EI200, but that was still to fast and I ended up overexposing a lot of things
    2. I was part of a small tour group and was forced to play keep up so I really didn’t have much time to photograph (they all did quick dP&S shots of each other in typical Asian “two finger” style, then moved on).
    3. I like talking to people. :(
    4. That’s one reason I really want to go back…more photos!

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  • Brian

    This article is about a aboriginal tribe in Taiwan, not that guy.