Erenlai - Nick Coulson (聶克)
Nick Coulson (聶克)

Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.

出生於英國西南部,海邊的天堂為Torbay。目前在台灣的街上,公園,廢墟尋找世界之荒謬與世界之美,努力盡量在各方面跳脫框框。透過我們的游牧空間「洞」我們不斷地用藝術與行動來挑戰早已僵化的體制。

Thursday, 04 March 2010 00:00

Black, red and gold: harmony in Jogja

There tends to be a higher level of social cohesion in societies where there is near uniformity on religious beliefs. For example if everyone thinks that stealing in any circumstances is wrong; then stealing in any circumstance...is wrong. If a new or reformed version of a different religion comes along and claims that stealing is ok, so long as it's stealing from the rich to give to the poor, then we have a Robin Hood dilemma. Various other examples of moral uncertainty often lenick_baliad to arguments, hatred, unneccesary death, religious repression and conflicts. Alas in the modern, globalised world we are confronted with this dilemma; most communities are becoming more religiously diverse, and this trend shows no sign of reversing. And thus the neccesity of progressive, deeper interreligious dialogue, understanding and diplomacy.

Indonesia is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. Although its over 80% Muslim, there are huge communities of Hindus, Protestants, Catholics, Bhuddists and various indigenous Animist religions. That said, Indonesia is no panacea of religious and cultural harmony, indeed there are many inter-religious and inter-ethinic conflicts ongoing, particularly in the regions further from the centre; however, beneath the questionable reputation abroad, and a sputtering of regional conflicts, there are many admirable examples for other parts of Indonesia and much of the world of how to be united by diversity and plurality with loose common aims of development and peace. Some examples in Indonesia also demonstrate to sceptics the universals present in Islam which allow for a very tolerant framework based on a few less disputable religious values.

The ever popular tourist destination Bali is one example of traditional Hindu culture, which whilst being an integral part of the Indonesian republic maintains a large degree of autonomy from the national government on cultural and religious issues. Huge amounts a of unique cultural resources, accompanied by the help of tourist dollars Bali Island has maintained a strong self-identity and a wealth of cultural resources.

Yogyakarta

nick_yogyakarta2[dropcap cap="T"]he culture of tolerance in Yogyakarta or "Jogja" as the locals call it, is particularly strong. The pillars in the Emperors palace in Yogyakarta represent the three colours of the different major religions which have greatly influenced Yogyakarta and Javanese culture: The Black, Gold and Red symbolise the harmony and synthesis in the old Javan kingdom, of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism respectively. Jogja is also full of Muslim, Christian and non-affiliated universities, some of them even have their own institutes focusing on inter-religious dialogue, and though other regions aren't always as successful as Jogja at realising a multicultural friendly environment, Jogja sits in the middle of Java as a symbol of a freer, more harmonious future. In fact the only beliefs not so welcome in Jogja are the fundamentalists and anything that tries to make the citizens conform, such as those that apply restrictions on quotidian religious and creative freedoms. Differences are welcomed with interest.[/dropcap]Due to its role in the formation of the Indonesian republic, Jogja was granted a degree of autonomy during the repressive Suharto era (1965–1998). Therefore it found itself assuming the role as the comparatively tolerant liberal hub. The tolerance doesn't just stop with the religious freedoms and it fully embraces various cultural influences and modern arts, preferring to add depth, character and variety to its heritage. If one searches around Jogja just looking at the walls, bridges etc, it nevernick_yogyakarta3 takes too long to notice the political murals and the sheer energy put into expressing ones creativity in this city. The activist, artivist energy, has been providing education and civil resistance through art around the city and activities in the surrounding areas as well as up and down the country where integration isn't always so strong (often with villages or towns divided specifically on religious grounds, usually muslim/christian) from the times of the great poet Rendra standing up to the New Order up until the present day.

Though it is not always the case elsewhere in Indonesia, in Jogja not only does religion fulfill a role in maintaining social order, but it is also a place of abundant intercommunity dialogue. The poor seem relaxed and without bitterness and everyday actions are filled with a set of moral distinctions which tend to be easy to follow. Furthermore their is a sense that they all are all children of God, who through various social and economic backgrounds have adopted slightly different paths in search of the ultimate truths; that there are also universal 'goods' present in all the major religions here.
 
 
 
Thursday, 25 February 2010 14:03

Elo Progo: Kusno in wonderland

The Eloprogo Art House is an artists retreat in Yogyakarta province, Indonesia. Its a mystical place overlooking a holy river, which lies but a five minute ride from the great Borobudur Temple, an awe-inspiring wonder of the world. http://eloprogoarthouse.com/

I entered through the gates protected by the great dragon gods, the first thing I saw was a huge statue of a women's face, strangely I found it somewhat comforting, this face was the link between this magical world and those in the magical kingdom above who protected it. A holiday resort for gods who wanted a human holiday! I continued past the marauding chickens, and an old one-legged farmer muttered some incomprehensible words as he smoked his home made kretek, as big as a cigar, slowly twisted his head around his neck and pointed in that direction. As I continued through I heard the sounds of harmonica's, djembes, a guitar and powerful voices enchanting the woods. I had come upon a feast, a banquet, four people we're dancing on tables, had I gone back in time?!

A female seductress dressed in black recanted her pains, and a human/beast of a madman screamed and tried to attack, though controlled and held back by his master. 'saya mau setu Kretek, Kusno?' I could do anything 'mau bir?' And I drunk and sang and screamed through the night, kretek after kretek, beer after beer...and its six o clock. Eat. Eat like there's no food tomorrow (there isn't, not until 6 o clock anyway). One of the men told me to come along with them we went through strange windows, small rooms filled with colours and shapes then we were led down some winding cliff stairs through the snake infested forests and down to the magical river. At first I was shy, but then following everyone elses cue I ripped off all his clothes and jumped in to the river, massaging myself under the rapids, feeling just as I had done when I emerged from mine mothers body, so pure, so clean, so natural that I would never wear clothes again and then something came into sight...a baby...a baby on the side of the river, and when I saw this I knew, this was perhaps a new prophet, he had a mission to deal with the new evils which were coming. I was struck by an intense headache and collapsed to the ground as I blacked out. I woke up in a deep hole ...

 

 

Wednesday, 10 February 2010 19:36

What is still sacred?

Celebration in Crisis? As we approach the first Chinese New Year of the twentytenty's. The Chinese Diaspora is in a prolific period of evolution. Its festivals also appear to be in a process of evolution. Chinese New Year is becoming internationalised on a scale close to that of Christmas. [/dropcap]With these evolutions come new challenges, new identity issues and new soul searching. Indeed the true value of Christmas has long been questioned annually, the commercialisation of the ceremony, its newer function as a stimulant to heat up the economy in the midst of winter, lifting economies out of recession and lifting the mood of the people. Indeed, Christmas and CNY have a lot of similarities:

[dropcap cap="T"]he east is red, the west is red. Is there enough red dye in the world or will our stocks of red Christmas hats, red fireworks, red lights, red Santa’s, red envelopes, red banners ever be depleted? Santa's overworked elves have growing bags under their eyes, reduced holidays; rising fuel costs stops new machinery being installed, running out of resources but the kids keep asking for more, so the parents keep asking for more and Santa has got to provide more, because his constituents no longer embrace the concepts of moderation and austerity, the constituents want more, the constituents always want more, but the elves underground keeping everything going are really, REALLY tired, their joints are red and close to collapse..[inset side="right" title="Beast"]Santa's overworked elves have grown bags under their eyes[/inset] And there are new competitors on the field; billions of pounds of lights, explosions fly over from the central kingdom. The New Year Beast (年獸) is faring no better than Santa in the East And as one gets closer to the New Year you can here his cries from the mountains surrounding Taipei as he looks over the city, over Taipei 101: "This used to be my domain, now they encroach further, now the river runs red all the way up to my mountain abode. I fear the red more than anything, red banners with spring couplets which spread propaganda that deny me, which decry my ending; and the kids, the kids who used to be so delightfully cute, so delightfully edible; I used to eat the kids, now the kids are all armed with their bazookas of light, these fireworks of artificial joy; the streets are getting redder the kids are getting fatter and the fat cats are getting fatter and everyone is taking a bite out of me. They don't even pay me due respect, they eat more food as escapism from their uncomfortable family gatherings, feeling naked, as the computer screen that acts as a shield no longer separates and protects them from reality."[/dropcap]

As broadband and facebook reach all corners of the world it gets more and more difficult to find the last few patches of real human interaction in our virtual world. The annual visit to your grandparents, became your biennial, became your triennial visit home, became your annual telephone call, became your biannual msn conversation and electronic Christmas card. Technology and society evolve faster than the human mind is ready for. Christmas trees, mince pies, Easter eggs hunts, turkey, Yorkshire puddings, present opening, the red arrows became a mere figment of our past memories and we sink into nostalgia. Are we the generation of fast food, fast love?

So what is left of our celebrations? WHAT IS STILL SACRED?! ...What was ever sacred?

There are however a few sacred corners which continue to exist, which will always exist, some last untouched portals, a wonderland for romantics. Openings in the woods, green fields, strawberry fields, meadows, riversides, beaches, abandoned mines and openings in the rainforest, and other mysterious natural places...and with the decline in everyday interaction have come new fields of interaction...the rave party, which in its modern form engulfed the UK, and was an escape from escapism, a place to connect, to celebrate direct human interaction, to promote our visions and our relation to nature, the loud, thumping music acting as the catalyst for social inebriation. In addition to all the places in nature, it overtook the citied extending to car parks, even places of worship such as the 'Rave Masses' from Sheffield all the way to California. And in these rave settings there was liberation from social codes, the philosophy of dance was endorsed as an expression of inner feeling, less focused on the outer aesthetic, allowing a sense of belonging that transcended through language, creed and colour. The act, the will to, the entrancement in dance; from shamanic rituals, to rugby war dances, to students who would spend months feeling, exercising and enjoying the music; the communication, the meditation, the appreciation, the art of living in the moment.

And what of the origins of these raves? The latest manifestation of the rave I attended was a small post New Year car park party in Taipei, named Tiger Hunting and inadvertently a fitting celebration of my 24th year (and other youth born in the year of the tiger). And whilst culturally these raves of neon lights, fluorescent backdrops and marginalised youth seemed a million miles away from the family gatherings at New Year and Christmas, they essentially remain intimately linked to the original spirit. A celebration of lunar phenomenon, family (albeit non-biological) and adrenaline rushing dance. This year on the 21st of June at around 11.28 Greenwich meantime, is the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. And as the religious and pagan festivals since the beginning of recorded history we will see then some of the most vibrant manifestations of the rave. Furthermore it is with these winter and summer solstices and the equinoxes that we see the innate call to festivity, to celebration, that cannot be separated from human essence.

The winter solstice that precedes the belated Christmas and the birth of Christ is a day of celebration even for many pre-Judaic religions. Centuries ago, since the dawn of astronomy and even before, albeit a little less accurately, people would celebrate winter solstices. A rebirth, as the hours of daylight gradually begin to increase, the worst is behind and everything’s better from here on out. Like the Chinese spring couplet 一年復始萬象更新 (with the start of a new year everything commences anew), with a milestone of a new beginning comes new opportunity and allows one to relive everything as a new experience, and if we extend this, every day, and every breath, can be lived as a new beginning, a spiritual renewal. Every moment is different, whilst at the same time everything is continuous. This may be seen as a rapid period of evolution in our festivals but we can never put a stop to the perpetual manifestation of the festival. What is true remains the same. People will continue returning home for Christmas and CNY. And perhaps the most pure form of religion is that of experience; thus the will to dance, sway, shake, slide, twist, spin and jump is evidence that ceremony is still alive.

The soul-searching is in vain because the ceremonies will always remain, because the revelation lies in our very nature and the festivals are merely the formulisation of human experience, the phenomena of the stars, planets and solar systems and that (him/her/it) which operates these phenomena. Homo erectus, prehistoric man, the Incas, the Celts: they all danced in the forests, and then they danced on the grass, on the deserts, around the fire, on the mountains, on the beaches. We dance in the forests, on the grass, in the deserts, on the mountains, around the fire, on the beaches; and generations onwards will also dance and celebrate, because it is sacred.

The wild man is more beautiful than the knowledgeable man. Experience is sacred.

 

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 20:57

The passing of the New Year Beast

Nick shares his first experience of Chinese New Year and also recalls the origins of one of its main rituals: the throwing of firecrackers.

Monday, 30 November 2009 00:00

Performance Klub

Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta Province in Central Java, Indonesia is a city of artists, which contains an exceptionally rich and varied architecture, painting, graffiti, tattoos, dance, puppetry and religious heritage. Thus there are a disproportionate number of artists and activists centred in and around the cultural capital. On May 27th 2006, the region was struck by an earthquake which devastated the region. The considerable destruction impacted heavily on the minds of locals and in turn changed the course of one of the world’s most unconventional art festivals. It is in Yogyakarta, three years after the earthquake that I discovered a group of performance artists, entering the eye of the storm, had used their art and their passion, to contribute to the physical and spiritual reconstruction of Gemblangan village, at the epicentre of the earthquake.


Performance Klub
Established in 2003 by Iwon Wijono, a renowned painter in Yogyakarta, the group has organised and performed at a total of four ’Perfurbance’ festivals, each focusing on a different social, political or humanitarian topic. Perfurbance #1 dealt with the issues surrounding unbridled urbanization, #2 was centred on the commercialism of education, #3 was the spiritual renewal described below, and #4 focused on global warming and environmental issues whilst experimenting with impromptu group performances exploring how artists could collectively interact with space and spectators. Furthermore all of the Perfurbance festivals attributed special importance and respect to the traditional arts and artists in each place. They also attempted, sometimes successfully sometimes not so successfully, to engage the community in the issues they were focusing on, in the hope of leaving a lasting effect, thus truly use their art for a greater good.

With the impending environmental crises, there exists no lack of new issues to throw themselves into, and PK now have plans in the works for their Food Forest Cultural Centre, their biggest project yet. The FFCC is a huge and complex initiative intended to create sustainable energy to produce food using a variety of natural methods, to give free seeds that it grows to the poorer farming communities, and eventually to set up a free school to teach and train those who might emulate Food Forest in future projects.

Inspiringly, the plot of land chosen for the project was the home of the late W.S. Rendra, one of the most famous poets in Indonesia and also a dominant figure of modern Indonesian theatre, being the first to bring aspects of traditional Javanese culture to theatre. The man, who was imprisoned for his bravery in standing up to the Suharto regime, was a pioneer for activist, subversive artists, who claimed: "I wanted to introduce something new: causality. ... I wanted people, particularly politicians who were becoming increasingly dogmatic, to be able to think analytically." Daughter of the late Rendra, Rachel Saraswati (see Rachel’s performance), is now also Project coordinator and Festivals secretary for Performance Klub. Rendra became the patron of an unrestricted, free and socially engaged artistic community of which the tradition continues now with groups like Performance Klub, often still fighting for the maintenance and extension of the comparative freedoms they have enjoyed in recent years.


Perfurbance #3 - Spiritual Renewal
The festival ’Spiritual Renewal’ (Pembaharuan Spiritual) was held in Gemblangan Village, Bantul Regency, Yogyakarta province in 2006. Thousands died following the May 27th earthquake and Gemblangan Village where the festival was held, was the area worst affected, and the symbolic epicentre of the quake suffering the destruction of up to 90% of the village buildings and the loss of many, many lives. Performance Klub actively involved themselves in logistic aid from the day of the earthquake and following that helped educate the villagers whilst promoting their local traditions. In their search for ‘Spiritual Renewal’ they would raise their own awareness of the villagers’ culture and exchange artistic ideas.

Throughout the time building up to the performances, the artists conducted seminars, discussions and workshops. The topics ranged widely: from emergency relief, organic farming, food production and alternative education, to attitudes of political ideology, social customs, community self-help, mutual assistance and spiritual values; all the while respecting and developing traditional practices. For example whilst educating on health and nutrition they also introduced Sugiyanto and his herbal drinks as a source of alternative, local medicine.

At the same time as attracting a host of voluntary international performance artists from over a dozen countries, they also enlisted the support of, and mobilised the local peasant associations. When it came to the five days of performances, the artists performed on stages, in cattle fields, on intersections, in houses, by the river etc, and used a variety of different forms of expression to communicate different meanings. Rachel Saraswati used satire to highlight the identity struggle for Indonesia in a globalised world. She dressed in trash and sat in a bathtub singing the national anthem ’Indonesia Raya’ whilst her colleagues raised the American flag. Bruno Mercet from France responds with his body to the movements of small sculpture made of pliable material, to display how people have been enslaved by small objects. There were many more acts and, not to be outdone, the local villagers also performed some of their own superbly colourful traditional dances which invoked supernatural beings and other music and indigenous rituals.

For those who participated and masterminded Perfurbance#3, it was a real bridging of the gap between the theory and the practice of performance art; a bringing together of art and real life issues. Jan Cornall, a performer from the US, commented "how extraordinary that a village community and international art community would find that they spoke the same language - the language of spirit, the language of the heart" and Reza, performing for the first time, said "The village itself became the performance art, where there was no boundary between the artist and audience."

In a village in the heart of Indonesia, some went away with less inner demons, some went away with new spouses, but it seems that everyone went away with their spirits renewed.

 

Monday, 30 November 2009 09:47

Socially Engaged Artists in Yogyakarta and Taipei

Before going travelling to Indonesia in September 2009, I had felt that I was loosing a lot of faith in the world of art which I was beginning to perceive as lofty, rhetorical, but generally detached from the masses. In a twist of fate, in Yogyakarta, Central Java, I stumbled across a treasure chest, and within it I discovered a group of socially conscious and politically concerned performance artists, called ’Performance Klub’. When hearing about their international Perfurbance#3 festival I was reinvigorated with enthusiasm for art. Inspired by the explosive activism I met in this country relatively new to political freedoms, I returned to Taipei in search of what similar manifestations I could find.

So what makes a socially engaged artist? How prevalent is social and political art in these two countries? What differences are there between socially engaged artists in Indonesia and Taiwan?
Socially engaged art can refer to social and political causes, social work or spiritual healing; it can be a way of empowering the disempowered and including the excluded and it can achieve radical and remarkable transformations through the use of creativity and social consciousness.

Yogyakarta

Two of the organisers of Performance Klub, Rachel Saraswati and Tim O’Donoghue, introduced me to a festival, Perfurbance#3, held in Yogyakarta.It was the most pure example I have come across of artists committing to a community in a time of great material and spiritual suffering and producing real benefits. It was touching to see a collaboration of artists from different cultures with different motivations coming together. Two of the performers at that festival, and one of the three couples which were formed in Bantul, are now living in Taiwan. I also caught up with Mickey Huang and Lewis Gesner three years after the event.

Taipei

In Taipei, I found people using film to bring attention to social and political issues. Alfie Chen established a group called ’Guerrilla Movies’, which at first was a way of allowing his work to exist and survive and of expressing social phenomena. Later on Guerrilla Movies started giving other first time directors the chance to have their work seen and to get some useful feedback. He refuses society’s pressure to give up one’s dreams and ideals. Also we show the young female director Pinti Chen’s documentary on domestic violence. Pinti and two of the interviewers in the film, Huang Yuling and Chen Rujun, students of National Taiwan University’s social work department, look back on the film and the project they undertook. Another student from the same department, Yang Zijie, reflects on the past movement to save Taipei’s Treasure Hill. He discusses the role the academics and ’artivists’ had and should have had in the movement as well as bringing up some of the difficulties and considerations artists must take when engaging themselves in social movements.

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Sunday, 29 November 2009 00:00

Awaken your Inner Guerrillero

Here, Alfie talks to us about the movement that he founded: ’Guerrilla Movie’. Due to his upbringing in Nangang which was going through all the contradictions of a poorer area in development, his work is influenced by this upbringing and has an ironic and idealist flavour. His group Guerrilla Movie was originally set up to give his own films a chance to be shown and a chance to survive. Later, they used their experience to help other young and first time directors, who had neither the resources or following to be shown at bigger cinemas. They enlisted many cafes in a project - 1st Film Festival - which showed 30 first time directors’ films in cafes, which allowed their low budget filming, despite its lack of advertising to get some feedback. He refers to his group as ’Punks of Film’ who use ’cameras and lights to make graffiti and guerrilla warfare.’ When they all started using High Definition (HD) GM started using webcams. Its the act of making art and displaying it, not the medium that counts.

They want to keep their projects original, thought provoking and underground. For example, before they started showing the films in cafes, they would use more underground, alternative locations: they projected one film onto the underside of Banqiao bridge in Taipei, under which a part of the film had indeed been shot. To make the projection possible, they ’borrowed’ the local electricity by connecting cables from the streetlights. Then they drunk beer and chewed betel nuts along with the slightly confused locals as they watched their own film play.

Alfie avoids conventional forms of media for advertising, preferring to alternative techniques such as graffiti and blogs. Thus Guerrilla Movies would to the largest extent possible, not spend any money on these projects. Just doing whatever necessary to allow the films to exist. Of course everyone must do what is necessary to survive, but he feels the ’system of responsibility’ and ’overtime culture’ is excessive and reduces independence and the ability to think. People shouldn’t forget their ideals, dreams and give up all the things they wanted to achieve simply because society tells them that they should compromise and conform to the ’inevitable’ norms of society.


Wednesday, 28 October 2009 00:00

Poetry on Progo

While Cruising throught Yogyakarta Province on my rented Honda Mio, I came across Yoyo Jewe. Perceiving the Indonesian judicial system as rife with corruption, Yoyo, the former law student gave up a life of material benefits to dedicate himself to the arts. He now focuses on poetry, dance and performance. Here we are at an Artists retreat on the Progo River, near the wondrous Borobodur Temple. After some blissful nude swimming in the river, we decided to make and film a poetry performance on a raft. Here Yoyo reads ’The Secret of the Fruit’ in English. Accompanying on the harmonicas are Yasmi Setiawati and Rumah Seni...

Wednesday, 02 September 2009 00:00

Gleaning in Taipei

For eRenlai’s September Focus, Benoit Vermander uses the story of Hercules and the Hydra with Seven Heads as a metaphor for the global crises. In a personal reflection, one concept which I thought attacked several of the hydra’s heads at the same time was that of ’gleaning’.

I was inspired after watching French director Agnes Varda’s film "Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse." This touching documentary which reflects on a legendary old Jean Francois Miller painting ‘Les Glaneurs’ takes us on a trip across France to follow different modes of gleaning - from traditional gleaning at the end of the harvest, to urban gleaning which recycles garbage and waste, the victims of consumption. Thus, in the film, Agnes interviews people of alternative lifestyles (whether out of necessity or choice) where she incorporates concepts of non-waste, austerity, recycling and new age living and looks into French laws in a time of impending environmental crises.

Bringing this concept close to home, one year ago, Paris’ Musée d’Orsay lent the National Museum of History in Taiwan Jean-Francois Millet’s painting, Les Glaneurs (Gleaners). The image of gleaners collecting the leftovers of a harvest in times of austerity initially came across as boring and simple to my untrained eye. However, after watching a French film directed by Agnes Varda called ‘Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse’ (The Gleaners and I) I was inspired and began to understand the depth of meaning and present-day relevance of the painting in the age of waste and triumph of consumption. Suddenly, this was a work of art which captivated and re-instilled faith in our ancestors.

In the film, Agnes briefly focuses on Alain, an urban glaneur who feeds himself from vegetables and fruits left by grocers when markets end. Despite holding a Masters in Biology, he chose to live in a refuge, teaching French to immigrants living off the market’s leftovers.

Alain’s story inspired me in my research on gleaning in Taiwan, and in my personal lifestyle. I searched around my room, after almost a year of living here, and I noticed that it is rampant with gleanings. Though not all of the collections can be considered as ’gleaning for a better world,’ even in the more modern sense, they all fit into a rather waste-less and thrift lifestyle. Certainly, gleaning for reasons of short or long term poverty is as credible as gleaning out of principle. Furthermore I felt a revelation that it’s natural human and animal activity. We are the hunter-gatherers.

Thus from this point onwards, I’ll cover a series on different manifestations of a gleaning nature in Taiwan and Asia. From gleaning in its purest form - like a farm in Pingdong, Southern Taiwan which allowed neighbours and a neighbouring villages to glean from their own fields, due to the fall of beans prices, to more modern and urban manifestations of gleaning, where we see the ’shi huang’ people (拾荒者), the ’bottle collectors’ who pick empty bottles from the parks and the sidewalks often able to make a living. For example my spiritual home in Shida park, where under the watchful eye of the squirrel of hope who is leaping towards the sky, are various bottle collectors and recyclers of different forms who are the critical link in the journey of the Taiwan Beer bottles’ journey from the last remaining local newsagent in the Shida night market, to our mouths, through the recycling plant and all the way back such is their circle of life

Such examples remind us that alternative, environmentally sustainable lifestyles are available to us, and we will search out examples that could inspire reflection and action.

Thursday, 02 July 2009 04:50

Lumah!

An Ami tribe struggles for their right to home

In Taoyuan County, along the Dahan river (大漢溪 dahanxi), where the gentle flow is only somewhat interrupted by the distant rumble of the city, sits one of Taiwan’s smallest tribes: the Sa’owac (撒烏瓦知部落), of Taiwan’s Pangcah or Amis aboriginal people. This is the very border of urbanisation, where the so-desired modern life of mundane apartment flats, KTV and convenience stores meets the vast, beautiful mountain ranges which spread all the way to the eastern coast of Taiwan. The Sa’owac tribe came down from Hualien thirty years ago, when in maternal Pangcah tradition the ’Seven Ancestors’ or Pangcah women chose a scenic spot which they felt looked similar to their old home and the husbands dutifully followed on down. Since then, as the city encroaches further into nature, the Sa’owac tribe, as the river, has gradually become trapped between two evolving worlds. Yet here, I witnessed a mini-revolution of biblical proportions, a david versus goliath, a battle of underdogs against giants...

The completed rebuilding of their homes, on 20th June 2009, four months after their destruction, in defiance of the government and conventional wisdom on development, culminated in one huge party for the Sa’owac and one small step forward for the urban aborigine movement in Taiwan. The Sa’owac tribe were joined by a small amount of teachers, students, social activist groups, independent media journalists, botanists, and socially conscious civilians who had all been enthusiastically supporting the Sa’owac in different ways. Also present were fellow Pangcah tribes living along Dahan river: the Kanjin (坎津), who were facing the possibility of a similar occurrence and Sanying (三鶯), who had already suffered a similar plight and are in the process of rebuilding. The Sa’owac were given eviction notices in December, without consultation and then, on the morning of February 20th, before the distraught eyes of the villagers, the vehicles of destruction were sent in convoyed by police, laying waste to the Sa’owacs’ home. These actions would clearly break the UN charter on minority rights…if Taiwan were a member of the UN. In this particular case, the official reason given for the Taoyuan County Magistrate Zhu Lilun approving the destruction, was the Water Law (水利法). Other reasons suggested for the demolition were the renovation and extension of a riverside cycle route which would eventually pass through the village, dangerous terrain, tatty appearance and other political motives.

When the behemoth of economic development clashed with the indomitable spirit of the Sa’owac and their unwavering resolve for home, they exploded into a ceremony of traditional song, dance and comedy. The head priest stood rod-in-hand with shamanesque clothes, incanting, whilst below him, encircled by tribe veterans, a tribe elder chanted his pain and fury, as a dragon spews his fire. The wailing permeated into the audience leaving many in tears, or on the brink. - City, the friend who brought me and others who had been involved in the cause from the outset of the problems held back tears too. City, who’s normally calm and loathe to express emotion, said it had been a turbulent few months, an emotional seesaw; a melange of anger, laughter, melancholy and defiance. They had protested at local and central government offices, some had shaved their heads in protest and despite an average age of over sixty the villagers had lived in tents for four months! Now the tribe had begun to see City and the other helpers as children of the tribe. As their own! For my part, I felt an uncomfortable tingling sensation underneath my skin. It wasn’t inebriation, heat, or sleep deprivation...this was real emotion! Living in the student utopia for too long, I had long since lost sympathy for the narcissistic, self-pitying lamentations of those in the student bubble. The rhetoric was disillusioning; heralding causes I had no direct contact with left me feeling detached. Now, as nostalgia for the cause was awakening inside me, I realised the social value and the inspiration one can gain from direct involvement in other peoples’ struggles, visiting other peoples’ life stories.

The Sa’owac may not have Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai to protect their tribe from the heavy-handed invaders, however they do have the ‘seven ancestors’, a hearty determination, and impassioned supporters of the tribe. As one section on the program of events read, “Our rebuilt homes are all that we have, but we also have a history of defending and cherishing the tribe. Our ancestors left us with the special quality of self-healing and your power makes our will as strong as boulders”. As I finished reading the passage and looked up the speaker called out:

“Kanjin, are you afraid?”
“No!”
“Sanying, are you afraid?”
“No!!”
”Sa'owac, are you afraid?”
“No!!!”


After some further rallying in defiance, comedy and traditional songs, they convened with a final dance of unity in which everyone gathered on stage, hand-in-hand, rotating and converging inwards, whilst my unlearned self clumbsily tried to get the correct steps. Although in my own tradition I ended minus a sandal, I also had a great feeling of belonging...I remember, this is called community. We were united!

One of the most moving tribesmen was a 64-year-old named Kulas. Clearly emotionally fatigued, he has been working overtime to help support the tribe and fund the rebuilding effort. He was everpresent throughout the ceremony, singing and dancing with the vigour of a bull released into a field of cows during mating season. When I complimented him on his energy he replied: “We are full of energy because God is here helping me, giving me strength in everything I do”.

At the end of this emotion-filled day, as the white rice liquor flowed on, the singing grew louder and the tribesmen began to divulge their thoughts. Although I struggled to understand Kulas’s linguistics, the essence was not lost in his broken Chinese. The freedom of the Sa’owac to choose their home was being attacked; the wider implications would be an erosion of their culture. This feeling of loss; this longing for a home; the pain, the sweat and the tears are universal. I thought about my own home – to me it was cliff-jumping, exploring the meadows and camping in the woods, making tree houses, our secret entrance to the zoo, looking across the sea from the end of the pier wondering what was out there to explore. It wasn’t paradise, but it was home. Everyone has a slightly different understanding of home. In the Amis language, there is no distinction between home, house and family ("Lumah"). They are a part of the land they live on and the tribe they are with. One Taiwanese botanist who was also involved in the struggle told me they like to eat bitter vegetables and bitter pork because their strength comes from the bitter struggles of their ancestors which are implanted in the ground.

Since Chiang Ching-kuo’s economic reforms, up through to the incumbents under President Ma, the neo-liberal development dream has been imposed on the urban aboriginal tribes. As things stand, the Sa’owac tribe’s new houses are still illegal. However, from the ruins comes real hope for change and there is now a real chance they will be able to keep their new houses, after all an incredibly high percentage of houses in Taiwan remain illegal. Furthermore, this struggle had been full of imagination, inspiration, compromise and action.

Civilising missions should be contextualised - an ‘Amis-isation’ of development, a reclaiming of the commons allowing for cultural differance and spiritual needs. Will the economic behemoth continue to roll on unhindered leaving a path of destruction in its wake? Will unneccessary extra houses continue to be built, whilst prices are kept artificially high, leaving more destitute and increasing the rich-poor gap? Will the Sa’owac be allowed to continue living in the new homes they’ve been through so much to build? Will the government continue to talk about protecting aborigine rights at the same time as demolishing their houses on flimsy grounds of safety? Or will there be real consultation? Were we witnessing the maturing of the movement for urban aboriginal rights?

This is the Sa’owac! Some people choose tall European-style apartment flats, cement, constructivism, reservoirs, 7-11s, Nintendo Wee, widescreen TVs, huge financial buildings, railways through forests and riverside cycle tracks with tidy grassy banks (heaven forbid the illusions of the well-to-do city folk be brutally shattered by the eye-pollution of the slums).

They chose not to choose this; they chose something else… Home!’
’Lumah!’
 
(Drawing by Li Jinyuan)
 
Page 6 of 6

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