Scott Ezell is a writer and artist living in California and Asia. He is the author of Petroglyph Americana and the chapbook Hanoi Rhapsodies, and is the editor and coauthor of Songs from a Yahi Bow. His new memoir, A Far Corner: Life and Art with the Open Circle Tribe, explores indigenous Taiwan through immersion in a nonconformist community of musicians and artists.
Then and Now: Indigeneity in Aboriginal Taiwan
A dozen years ago when the old chief died, his wife reached over and closed his eyelids, then took a gulp of Wisbih, an industrially-produced liqueur laced with caffeine and herbs that tastes like bubblegum, and told a relative to pour a shot for me. A few days later I held a shovel in my hands, and with the men of the village hefted earth onto the chief’s grave beneath a spattering rain, burying his body and his songs. In this Amis aboriginal community, a man’s singing voice was considered a measure of his character, and the chief’s rendering of traditional songs expressed a luminous connection between this people, their place, and their past. At the funeral a one-armed chaplain looked up at the sky as a five-piece brass band in baby blue sailor caps played the gospel tune “I Ain’t Got No Home.” The chief’s grandchildren, the youngest about five years old, had come from cities with their parents to attend the funeral, and seemed as distraught from having to shake too many strangers’ hands as from their inchoate sense of loss.
This event happened during my residence from 2002–2004 in Dulan, an Amis village on a remote stretch of Taiwan’s Pacific coast. The Amis elders, along with a community of aboriginal artists engaged in the recreation of a tribal identity within the terms of contemporary society, are the subject of my book A Far Corner. Now, ten years after my departure, I am back in Dulan for a three-month artist residency, in a house on the flank of Taiwan’s coast range, a few miles north of where I built a driftwood recording studio and produced an album of ocean songs for a local record company.
During my absence, friends told me Dulan had undergone drastic changes. I was often in southwest China and Laos in these years, and in those places “drastic change” means the razing of villages and towns, the displacement of millions, and the construction of massive dams and urban centers. From that perspective, I imagined the gorgeous and undeveloped coast I’d known would be buried beneath a row of fifty-story resort hotels.
That has not happened. The coast here remains naked and raw, strewn with driftwood and stones, and large-scale commercial tourism development has been stalled by local protests. Still, the intra-community and inter-generational relationships that unified the community have eroded, and A Far Corner documents a moment in Dulan’s trajectory that is probably gone forever, a point of equilibrium between tradition and modernity before it slid forward, leaving some of its wholeness behind.
Dulan has gone through the predictable stresses of an indigenous community subject to increasing external pressure. A migration of urban professionals and exponentially increasing tourism (ironically catalyzed by the attention brought to Dulan by aboriginal artists) have led to gentrification and a 500 percent increase in land prices and rents. Real estate speculation is common, and commodification of local culture has reduced many formerly bohemian artists to de facto servants of the mainstream tourist industry. The terms of individual and collective life for the indigenous community seem to be compressed by these factors, such that minor personal conflicts and differences become amplified in this place where people are fundamentally “home,” and do not consider it an option to leave—like a stone in one’s shoe, small frictions may become intolerable over time, and have resulted in fissures in the community.
Dou-dou, an Amis artist and one of the central characters in A Far Corner, recently said to me, “Back in the day we had nothing but time. We still have nothing, but now we don’t have time either.”
Despite a decade’s changes, the Amis call-and-response song circles and traditional dance still sometimes recohere. The songs of this oral culture seem to me to be like Heraclitus’s river—with no recorded form or reference, there is no way to step into them the same way twice, nor any concept of doing so. As with recitations of the Bagre documented by Jack Goody among the LoDagaa people in Ghana, they are not repetitions of a fixed model, but are recreated living and alive every time they emerge from one’s throat and tongue. The songs resonate in bodies that are also like rivers, also never the same way twice, not the same as they were yesterday or ten years ago, and yet the songs form a continuum across the arc of time, from the chief to us, from the “traditional” past to a perhaps more fragmented present. The current moves through generations, and however the cultural, physical, or economic landscape has changed, the river continues to flow, at least for now.
A few days ago, I drove on a borrowed motorcycle through the village to visit the old chief’s wife. The concrete courtyard was empty, but standing there I remembered when half the village had gathered around a bonfire roasting a wild boar and illuminating the chief leading song circles in the night.
The chief’s son Akira offered me a chair, and his mother joined us from the house. She had just turned eighty, and was nearly blind from cataracts, but she held her hands out and embraced me warmly, welcoming me in her sing-song Mandarin, and called me Rekal, the Amis name she bestowed on me the first time we met.
We sat around a folding card table, and I gave them a CD of the Dulan elders singing their traditional Amis songs, which I’d recorded six months before the old Chief died. The Chief’s family had either lost or never received a copy of the recording, so when we played the CD it was like exhuming a time capsule, the old Chief’s voice emerging from beyond the grave, malleable as warm gold as it swung in and out of delicate falsettos.
The old chief leading the Dulan elders in a traditional Amis song; Fall 2002, recorded by Scott Ezell
The chief’s wife accepted a betel nut from the pack I brought, augmenting the supply beside her in a woven basket. She drank coarse rice wine from a plastic cup, while Akira and I drank canned beer. I thought the chief’s wife would be struck with grief when she heard her husband singing, already gone so long, but instead she was elated, and sang along with the recording, pointing out the other singers as she recognized their voices. At times she stood up from her chair and swayed her arms and body into the rhythm of the Amis dance. Instead it was I who could not keep from crying, as if years and change and mortality were welling up and out of my eyes. I was overcome with the humility of being woven as a strand into the fabric of the lives of these people I love, and of their culture and environment, of fulfilling some small role of connection.
Listening to the chief’s voice emerge from the past through this fixed medium was like receiving a sacrament from a gone time. The old chief’s wife, with betel nut juice staining her mouth blood red, held my hand between her large, warm, meaty hands and said, “Rekal, you are back, you are back, where have you been so long? My husband is gone, my husband is gone, I’m so glad that you are here.”