A Day With the Tafalong Amis Tribe: History, Food, & Culture

Taiwan Observer recently had the honor of experiencing some of the most treasured traditions of the Tafalong community, as arranged by MyTaiwanTour.    

The Tafalong community of the Amis tribe, the largest of the 16 officially recognized indigenous tribes in Taiwan, is primarily based in Guangfu Township of Hualien County, which neighbors the Guangfu River and the Mataian Settlement, another Amis community. Hualien is home to the largest concentration of indigenous people in Taiwan – namely, 200,000 of the 500,000 indigenous individuals scattered across the island; 5,000 of the 140,000 Amis tribesmen inhabit the Tafalong settlement today. The Tafalong community is among the oldest of its kind, its history stretching back some 2,000 years. Their folksy trademark handicrafts, ranging from vibrant textiles and pottery to exquisite wood carvings and bamboo work aside, the Tafalong people are famed for their cultivation of katepayi, or red glutinous rice – a crop exclusively grown in this region.        

The Tafalong’s ancestors – also known as the “Taibalang,” a reference to the area’s abundance of white crabs and verdant rice paddies – originally hailed from the Fengbin Township in Maogong Mountain, roughly 23 kilometers southeast of Guangfu. According to Tafalong lore, they settled at Guangfu at the Sky God’s urging. In other accounts, their relocation was prompted by the rapidly swelling population and the exhaustion of arable land. 

The Tafalong cherish the roots of their people just as they nurture the roots of their beloved crops. Once upon a time, as the legend goes, there lived a pair of siblings: a boy named Pilukalau and his sister, Marokirok, who resided in a land called “Karara.” Their peaceful lives in this little parcel of paradise, however, were disrupted by a ghastly flood that swept away all things in its path. The quick-thinking siblings managed to save themselves by launching themselves into a massive wooden mortar in the nick of time. 

The currents carried their makeshift boat to a place called Tsatsulaan. It was here that the siblings eventually bore 12 children – six boys and six girls, whose descendants were the forefathers of the Vataan, Bunun, and Atayal tribes, as well as a subgroup of the Amis known as the “Nanshih Ami.” Meanwhile, two other sets of siblings made their escape from the flood in similar fashion. The first brother-and-sister pair, Tsihtsih and Patorau, who found refuge on a floating wooden partition, wound up in Amanlai. Lutsi and Lalakan from Kalapanapanai, distraught by the drowning of their other sister, drifted eastward to Tsilayasan. The two daughters of Lutsi and Lalakan were the progenitors of the Tafalong and Kiwit clans. 

Tejamatsan, the literally glowing daughter of the gods Majau and Tsinatsinau, is said to have been the direct cause of the flood. In other versions of the story, Tejamatsan was not born to deities, but rather was the youngest daughter of a fourth-generation Tafalong family. Whatever the case, both Kodunkun, the god of thunder, and his brother Kalawatsan – the sons of the sea god Pansajan and the goddess Rijar – were resolved to make the breathtakingly beautiful maiden their bride. Majau and Tsinatsinau initially accepted Kodunkun’s proposal on their daughter’s behalf, their wedding scheduled to be held in five days’ time. Kalawatsan, who wanted Tejamatsan to himself, implored her parents to revoke their blessings, but they stood firm in their decision. Enraged yet undeterred, Kalawatsan proclaimed that he would, one way or the other, wed their daughter in two days. 

True to his word, Kalawatsan arrived in Tsilayasan 48 hours later. Tsinatsinau scrambled to find a hiding place for Tejamatsan, stashing her in remote caves and deep in the mountains, but the inextinguishable beams of shimmering light that radiated from her daughter’s body rendered all her efforts futile. Kalawatsan soon found her and whisked her off to the east. Three days later, Kodunkun came to Tsilayasan, and upon learning about his missing fiancee, flew into a rage and conjured up a violent flood.    

Our first stop was the Guangfu Wild Vegetable Market, which features the most diverse assortment of edible greens in all of Hualien. Every stall, each manned by a Tafalong local, was stocked with freshly-picked leafy greens and seaweeds, a rainbow of herbs and spices, and gourds of varying shapes and sizes. Certain vegetables such as the bitter gourd – bright green, somewhat lemon-shaped fruits covered in curious goose-pimply bumps – and the tire bitter gourd, reminiscent of miniature green pumpkins that fit in the palm of your hand, are only grown on Tafalong fields. Also for sale in at least one stall were mesh produce bags pulsating with dozens of tiny frogs.

Our guide was kind enough to teach us a few essential phrases in the Tafalong tongue, so that we could better interact with the indigenous vendors. “Nga’ayho,” we learned, is Tafalong for “Hello,” and “Aray” Tafalong for “Thank you.”

Next, we headed to the Tafalong Red Glutinous Rice House, where pre-prepared cooking stations, complete with pots, portable stoves, cooking utensils, and bamboo baskets filled with garden-fresh vegetables and ingredients awaited us.

Once we’d scoffed down our glutinous rice ball treats, each of which came with a distinctive savory punch, we made our own chili sauce and were each given Tafalong-style pompoms attached to some yarn to decorate our jars with.

We were then instructed on how to make our own salty pancakes from scratch, which we later stuffed with boiled greens, salted pork bits, and a healthy helping of other toppings and seasoning. We wrapped our rolled pancakes in ginger shell leaves, tied it together with bamboo husks and fuschias, and continued onward to our next stop. 

We were brought to one of, if not the foremost Tafalong landmarks: the Kakita’an Ancestral House – a charmingly rustic, one-room structure fashioned out of rattan, wood, and bamboo, and crowned with a thatched straw roof. We even had the privilege of having Ms. Ko herself – a 59th-generation descendant of the Kakita’an family – show us around. In 1921, the Japanese authorities asked that the Kakita’an remove the dried, sun-baked heads that lined the roof, to which they complied; the heads were buried by a nearby hut. The house was officially declared a historic site in 1935. 

Alas, the original structure was laid to waste by Typhoon Winnie in 1958. Seven ornamental panels, which featured carvings of the glowing daughter, the primeval flood, the customary headhunting practices, and other Tafalong traditions were salvaged by an anthropologist named Liu Pin-hsiung, who had them delivered to the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica for safe-keeping. These panels were only returned to their rightful owners in 2003. The reconstruction of the ancestral house, based on the 1940 sketches of  a Japanese architect, Chijiiwa Suketaro, started in earnest three years later.  

Images courtesy of TELDAP

A delectable feast complemented by bottomless shots of rice wine, followed by an enchanting dance performed by an ensemble of lovely Tafalong ladies with infectious smiles, as well as a toron-making (pestle-pounded sticky mochi) session completed our experience. 

Throughout the history of Taiwan, the indigenous communities of the island nation were made to endure centuries of unchecked abuse and neglect at the hands of the Dutch, Chinese, and Japanese colonizers – and yet, they persevered. Still, despite the increasing positive publicity surrounding Taiwan in recent years, these resilient indigenous tribes are often left out of the equation, which is, to put it bluntly, a downright shame, for they are an indispensable part of Taiwanese culture and heritage. It is therefore imperative that we do our part in helping to preserve and promote the precious and irreplicable cultures of our indigenous populations.  









Ghost Festival’s Eve in Keelung: Hungry Spirits, Parades, & Burning Boats

Taiwan’s time-honored traditions and phenomenal festivals account for a great part of the island’s charm. If you’ve lived here long enough, you’ll know that the locals pull out all the stops when it comes to celebrating their heritage – from the colorful cornucopia of candy for sale and the deafening blasts of firecrackers during the Lunar New Year to the dizzying pilgrimage processions, fabulous costumed parades, riveting drum sets, and enchanting dances and acrobatics, among a slew of other performances at the Mazu International Festival. 

The Hungry Ghost Festival, or the Zhongyuan Festival, one of the most spectacular and anticipated events of the year, is no different. The Keelung Zhongyuan Festival was the first of its kind to be officially listed as a “national heritage asset” in 2008. 

Last week, Taiwan Observer had the privilege of joining MyTaiwanTour on a trip to Keelung to experience their take on Ghost Festival’s Eve.    

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

For starters, a “hungry ghost” is a spirit that has been doomed to an eternity of torturous starvation as punishment for their wickedness on Earth. Referring to them as “ghosts,” however, is considered poor form. They prefer to be called “Good Brother,” “Good Sister,” or presumably, by gender-nonconforming spirits, “Good Friend.” 

The Taiwanese version of the underworld, or “diyu,” has often been compared to Dante’s nine circles of Hell. Diyu consists of 10 dians, or courts, each realm guarded by its own judicial king. Upon death, all souls descend to Diyu and are put on trial in these courts. The duration of their stay and the types of retribution inflicted upon them as they graduate from one court to the next are determined by the severity of their sins. 

Not only are those who lived honorable lives exempt from punishment, they are given the option of choosing between a golden or silver bridge – the first of which takes them straight to Buddha’s paradisal kingdom, where they will be forever liberated from the shackles of mortal life, and the latter to the Jade Emperor’s realm to be crowned a deity. The excruciating journey of damned souls, on the other hand, culminates in reincarnation, specifically as vermin, beasts of burden, or humans destined to live a life rife with extreme hardship and misfortune.    

Our first stop was the Grand Salvation Altar, also known as “Chu Pu/Zhu Pu Altar” (主普壇).  The first permanent shrine dedicated to the celebration of Ghost Month was erected during the Japanese colonial period in 1929 in what is now Zhongsi Road, but it was relocated to its present-day location at Zhongzheng Park in 1971 to alleviate the inevitable traffic jams -both vehicular and human – that arose when the festivities rolled around. 

For some context, Ghost Month began on August 19th this year, the first day of the seventh lunar month. Ghost Festival’s Eve occurs on the 14th day (September 1st), and the Ghost Festival itself, celebrated on the 15th day, took place on September 2nd. The ghosts are due to be chased back to Diyu on September 16th, the first day of the eighth lunar month.    

According to Buddhist lore, one of, if not the original hungry ghost was the mother of a monk named Maudgalyayana (AKA Mulian), who was sent to the underworld after her death, where she was relentlessly tormented for her excessive cursing, devouring dog meat, and various other misdeeds. He made regular food offerings to his mother, but the cursed woman’s throat had been whittled down to the width of a reed stem. What’s more, whatever she attempted to consume instantly turned into flames. 

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The faithful son begged Buddha for his mother’s freedom. Buddha initially repudiated his pleas, citing the magnitude of her wrongdoings, but the pair ultimately found common ground. Buddha agreed to open the gates of hell and allow the underworld’s hungry ghosts to roam the mortal world for a month. In return, the living were to perform a series of rituals and hold an extravagant feast for their ancestors and wandering souls on the 15th day. You will often find Western dishes among the food offerings in Keelung, which are laid out for the French soldiers who perished in the port city during the Sino-French War (1884-1885).                  

The temple, normally a regal, but plain red-and-white structure with multi-tiered golden-yellow roofs, was adorned with vibrant panels, miniature puppet stages and displays complete with beautiful hand-painted backdrops, and brightly-colored banners bearing the names of the festival sponsors. Red lanterns lined the path leading up to the altar, meant to guide the spirits to the shrine like illuminated breadcrumbs. Bonus side quest: find the hidden Totoro.

The festival is hosted and its public rites performed by one of the 15 Keelung “kinship associations” – long-established fraternities typically composed of members that share the same surname – every year. This year, the honor fell to the Lianxin (United Clan Family), who splashed out a whopping $5 million NTD for the altar’s decorations alone.  

The burning of joss paper, or “spirit money,” is another integral Ghost Month ritual. Following our trip to Chu Pu Altar, we headed to one of the oldest joss paper shops in Keelung, run by a lovely lady who has been in the joss paper business for three decades. The age-old establishment is a one-stop shop for all your worshiping needs, stocked with incense sticks, candles, stacks of ghost bills available in different currencies, elaborate paper ships and lanterns fashioned out of spirit money, and even pre-packed boxes of clothes and paper cutouts of cell phones, hair and make-up kits, jewelry and other accessories, and so on. 

Ghost Month traditions also come with a lengthy list of taboos. Meat (mostly pork), rice, noodles, unpeeled fruits, tea, rice wines, and assortments of cookies and treats are some of the most common food offering staples. In Taiwanese culture, however, bananas, plums, and pears must never be served, as each fruit is a homonym for “greet,” “you,” and “come,” respectively, and in doing so, you are openly inviting the hungry ghosts to overstay their welcome. You will also want to delay construction projects, avoid moving into a new home, and refrain from whistling at night, lest you become a pied piper for evil spirits.     

After dinner and a leisurely stroll through the night market and harbor, which was decked out with giant lanterns of animals and fabled figures and creatures from local folklore, we joined the swelling crowds on the sidewalks of the main roads for the preliminary event: the parade. Some spectators and journalists who were particularly committed to getting a good view huddled at the balconies of nearby buildings and climbed atop the roofs of underground passages. Although the parade this year was considerably downsized for COVID-related reasons, the procession of ornate floats – dressed in fresh flowers and a rainbow of LED lights, and blasting curiously lit tracks (from EDM to old pop songs) – was still a highly entertaining experience.

Our final stop of the night was the Badouzi fishing port. As tradition dictates, king-sized water lanterns built in the shape of old-style houses, each filled with ghost money, are set ablaze and launched onto sea. These lanterns are the living’s way to extend invitations to the underwater spirits, namely shipwreck victims and fishermen lost at sea, for the grand feast at Chu Pu Altar. These invitations are to be sent out before 11PM on Ghost Festival’s Eve. 

Each lantern, emblazoned with the name of each Keelung clan, were carried down the slope by a group of its members, who were wearing color-coded uniforms and sashes, then passed onto the lantern launchers, kitted out in helmets and life jackets. The dazzling display was set to fireworks. Fistfuls of money were hurled into the air, raining on the water like confetti.

They say that the farther your lantern floats, the better your luck will be the next year.  









Tiny Trains, a Giant Buddha, & Dinner and a Show! Kaohsiung! pt.1

The glorious sunlight immediately made up for the dangerous two hours of sleep I barely managed to squeeze in the previous evening. Or it could have been the two macchiatos I downed en route to Kaohsiung; we may never know. What I do know is that the transition from the glum-faced, umbrella-toting early birds of Taipei to the sea of sunglasses and parasols in the sunny southern city was a sight for sore eyes. The equally sunny disposition and informative narration of Gordon, our delightful MyTaiwanTour guide, was a fun bonus.  

Our first stop following the roughly four-hour bus ride was the Pier-2 Art Center in Yancheng. Past the curious collection of cartoonish statues, which included curvy fisherwomen, boxy-torsoed construction workers, and a fully-transformed Bumblebee were old buildings tricked out with murals, and warehouses converted into museums and seasonal exhibition spaces. Tourists posed with surreal scrap metal sculptures scattered across the old train tracks. Photographers turned into contortionists, angling for that perfect shot.    


When the rest of our tour group arrived, we headed over to Platform 8 ⅖ (cute) in the Hamasen Museum of Taiwan Railway. We hopped aboard a pint-sized light rail train, modeled after the trams of the Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit, and zipped around the miniature tracks. Yes, it was every bit as awesome as it sounds.


A tour of the railway museum came next. Among its nifty displays was a life-size replica of a train carriage interior and an interactive one-seater rail bike that you could pedal around a short strip of tracks installed in the corner of the room. The centerpiece of the permanent exhibit, a sprawling hall inhabited by an exquisite scale model of the island, did not disappoint.


The craftsmanship and attention to detail were on another level. Illuminated toy trains disappeared into mountain tunnels and glided past colorful buildings, billboards, and public squares as thumb-sized animatronic civilians pumped water and hung up their laundry. There were teenie chickens pecking the grass, for crying out loud.  

The tour was paused for a filling lunch at the Jhan-2 Warehouse, which was stocked with a variety of restaurants and kiosks vending everything from artisanal crafts and souvenirs to maxi pads. We then set off for the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Museum, a sacred treasury erected to enshrine a tooth from the Sakyamuni Buddha himself. Leading up to the Fo Guang Big Buddha was a long, white path – a reference to the Great Path to Buddhahood – flanked by the Eight Pagodas and neat columns of flower shrubs and other greenery. The glinting bronze Buddha was even more striking up close.  


We were asked to put our cameras away during the tour of the shrines. The relief carvings, engraved into fragrant wood and jade slabs, as well as the statues spotlighted in each shrine were sights to behold – in particular, the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and the Reclining Buddha fashioned out of white jade. Smiling staff members seated by the entrance of each shrine handed us flower pots that we then placed on the altars as offerings for the deities. In the Golden Buddha room, which featured a wall housing some 6,000 white Buddhas in separate niches, were Dharma Advice Boxes. Visitors knelt before these boxes, quietly submitted a question, and fished out words of wisdom printed onto paper scrolls, available in both Mandarin and English.  


We later reconvened at the Starbucks in the Front Hall, boarded our bus, and proceeded to Shunsian Temple. This was the venue for the main event: the Neimen Song Jiang Battle Array.

MyTaiwanTour hooked us up with great rooms at the Yixian Service & Event Center, according to TaiwanGods, “the most famous five-star pilgrim’s hostel in Taiwan.” Once we were all settled in, we made our way towards the temple square. Performers and guests located their seats in the mass of round tables, ready to dine bando (banquet) style. We feasted upon a blur of seafood platters, an assortment of meats and vegetables cooked in various ways, and broths, capped off with, of course, a plate of fruit.

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The banquet was complemented by vibrant song, drum, and dance numbers prepared by the eight competing schools. The school spirit demonstrated by these institutions, among them an elementary school, was infectious. What’s more, the diversity of the performers was a breath of fresh air.

All in all, an appetite-pleasing and emotionally gratifying end to an action-packed day.

Looking to learn more about traveling in Taiwan? Check out Taiwan Scene. Also, book a custom tour with MyTaiwanTour to make the most of your trip!

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