Aboriginals offer glimpse into island's rich cultures

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 October, 2010, 12:00am

Taiwan is considered one of Asia's best kept travel secrets and one of its most fascinating aspects is its aboriginal culture.

The Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines in Taipei offers one of the best introductions to the island's indigenous cultures.

Established in 1994, it is dedicated to promoting understanding between different ethnic groups through research, preservation and the explanation of core aboriginal values.

Founded by philanthropic tycoon C F Lin, the museum originally comprised his personal collection of aboriginal artefacts. Its main displays introduce the natural environment of Taiwan's indigenous people, the utensils they used, their clothing and personal ornaments, and their ritual objects and religious life. Films help explain the subject further and a special exhibition room showcases regular expos designed to broaden visitors' understanding of the island's different cultures. In November 2002, the city government converted the former police quarters in Beitou into the Ketagalan Cultural Centre. The centre features many exhibition areas, devoted not only to the Ketagalan tribe, but to all of Taiwan's indigenous groups. Regular traditional song and dance performances take place at the centre, which also includes research facilities, a library and conference rooms.

Hilly Wulai township is home to the indigenous Atayal tribe. Like many of Taiwan's indigenous villages, Wulai is located amid beautiful surroundings. Both the Nanshi and Beishi rivers run through the area, and Wulai is probably best known for its natural hot springs and the resorts that have sprung up near it.

The area's chief attraction is Wulai Street, which contains the Wulai Atayal Museum, marked by a stone carving of an Atayal warrior over the entrance. This museum is devoted to the history and culture of the Atayal tribe, including the traditions of weaving and facial tattooing.

Atayal women were especially adept at weaving, creating complex patterns using a simple loom. Only women who were accomplished weavers were able to have their faces tattooed, which was regarded as both an indication of entering adulthood and eligibility for marriage. Male Atayal had to prove themselves on the battlefield to receive this honour. While facial tattooing is no longer practised, the museum contains many photographs of these tattoos, and there are other exhibitions detailing the traditional dwellings of the tribe, and the local ecology.

Wulai Street also features a number of indigenous restaurants, including the popular Taiya Popo, which serves such dishes as seasoned rice steamed in bamboo tubes, freshwater fish, and a mixture of raw pork, rice and salt that has fermented for two weeks, while bottles of millet liquor are also available.

The restaurant next door, Taiya Shifu, specialises in desserts, particularly millet balls filled peanut powder, red bean paste or sesame paste.

For a unique souvenir, Yuli Taki, a member of the Truku or Taroko tribe, has created Taiwan's first successful indigenous brand, which she named after herself. The products incorporate traditional woven patterns of the Truku, Atayal and Amis tribes into handbags and accessories, such as wallets, keychain holders and name card holders. She works from her store on Minsheng East Road, where she designs new products and also creates a series of hand-painted stone pendants, suede wallets and other items.