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December 6, 2010

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Taiwan's Tsou restore cultural pride

OVER the years, the exciting opportunities offered by Taiwan's big cities have lured many indigenous young people away from their homes in the mountains. But as Guo Likun discovers, the tide is now turning and young folk are returning to their culturally rich tribal lifestyles.

The high mountain is green, the gully water is blue, the girls of Alishan are as beautiful as the streams, the boys of Alishan are as strong as mountains ..."

Many Chinese, enchanted by this Taiwanese indigenous folk song, used to visit mountainous Alishan in southern Taiwan hoping to glimpse the girls of Alishan, not realizing that most of the region's young had left for better jobs and the prospect of a more exciting life in the island's cities.

Kuatu 'Akuyaana, 25, from the Tsou ethnic group, returned to her hometown last year, after completing college education at the Taiwan College of Physical Education in central Taichung and working for years in a beverage store there.

Numbering barely 5,000 people, the Tsou, which inhabits Alishan, is one of the ethnic groups native to Taiwan.

"Like many other Tsou girls and boys, I used to be obsessed with urban life, but now I've come back," says Kuatu, while giving a tea art performance for visitors to Yuyupas, a Tsou cultural tribe park, in Leye Village in Alishan Township, Chiayi County.

"Finding jobs has become pretty difficult out there in the cities, but Yuyupas provides us a platform to showcase our culture, find our identity, and most important of all, a stable salary," she says.

Established in June 2010 and covering an area of about two hectares, Yuyupas is located at about 1,200 meters above sea level in the mountainous Alishan area and is surrounded by extensive tea gardens.

Originated from the Tsou language, Yuyupas means "very rich."

Together with Kuatu in the park are more than 60 Tsou young people.

"My older and younger sisters also work here," Kuatu says.

Yapsuyongu Tiakiana, head of Yuyupas, says to attract youngsters to return to their hometown, the Tsou set up a cultural innovation industry association four years ago which then established the park.

"In the past, many aboriginal people migrated to the cities. Now, tourism and related businesses have helped reverse this tide. Being tribal is once again a matter of pride for the young," he says.

"The park creates a new model for developing tribal tourism. It's just like a thread. It links and revitalizes almost every aspect of the Tsou lifestyle, including agricultural production, tea tree plantation, leather crafts, traditional singing and dancing," he says.

He explains that the park's restaurant offers Tsou food which brings vegetables grown by the Tsou to the visitor's dinner table, and several small stores there sell local tea and coffee products, as well as leather crafts produced by a total of six Tsou tribes.

"The park is the Tsou people's craft studio and farm, and a base for their cultural innovation," Yapsuyongu says.

Earlier this month, an original two-hour outdoor performance by Tsou youngsters debuted in the park.

The production was inspired by "Impression Liu Sanjie," a large-scale outdoor performance masterminded by famous director Zhang Yimou. The production had revived traditional Tsou nose flute playing and ritual dancing, previously barely seen by non-Tsou people.

Kuatu says each member in the park has three specialities on average. "For example, I can give tea art performance, do some gardening work and at the same time sing during our performance."

Tsou tribes were hit hard by the devastating Typhoon Morakot in August last year.

Yapsuyongu says: "The people are in dire need of a peaceful and stable life with a house to live in and good income to pay for their children's education. But apart from ensuring survival and economic development, we also aim to pass on and revive our endangered culture."

Presently many Tsou young do not know much about their tribal heritage and cannot speak the Tsou language, although some, like Kuatu, can understand it.

"I'm trying hard to learn my language. It has become a must for me now," she says in standard Mandarin.


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