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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Dialogues with Mountains: Preserving indigenous culture in Taromak and Kelecung

By Wennie Yang
(1,400 words, 6-minute read) 

Let’s face it. Leisure travel feels like a distant memory at the moment. I’ve been trying to envision what a collective future means for destination hotspots in Southeast Asia, whose economies used to be propelled by foreign tourism. These thoughts were further spurred after attending a one-day online event called Dialogues With Mountains, hosted by Taipei-based cultural worker Gordon Kao, which featured two indigenous communities based in Kelecung in Bali and Taromak in Taitung County, Taiwan. 

Recognising the impact of the pandemic on communities dependent on mass tourism, Gordon, a former SEAΔ fellow who currently works in a sustainable travel organisation, roped in Aniek Puspawardani from Kelecung Village and Li-Yuan from Taromak to share about their respective rich cultures, based in two mountainous areas located about 3,500km away from each other.

  • Gordon Kao, Former SEAΔ Fellow gave a warm introduction standing in front of the entrance of Taromak village, Taitung, Taiwan

 

The event, which was part of the mini-Meeting Point 2021 organised by Mekong Cultural Hub, included house tours, handicraft workshops (we learnt how a betel nut leaf can be made into a container for a six-pack!), and vivid storytelling via a guided walk through the local landscape. The stories shared by Aniek and Li-Yuan introduced the audience (watching on Zoom) to the rich heritage and mountain culture of these two peoples, sparking discussions on the present and reflections for the future. 

It was great to be able to learn about these two communities that were both new to me. For example, the Taromak tribe is based in present-day Dongsing Village (東興村) in Taitung county, which used to be named Danan Village (大南村) by the Japanese colonisers. Coincidentally, the pronunciation sounded identical to the word meaning “big disaster” (大難) in Mandarin, which the villagers attributed to Taromak’s history of having gone through plagues and fires in the past. 

Here are some of my other learnings from the dialogue. 

Cultural preservation beyond day-to-day rituals 

Prior to this session, I often categorised rural cultures as “indigenious” without investing time to understand their unique qualities. Although the need for heritage preservation stems from ensuring rituals (i.e. culinary skills, praying habits, dialects, farming techniques, handicrafts) are sustained for the future, I learned that it was deeper than that – it was foundational to pass on moral systems and guiding principles of their ancestors, which were believed to be beneficial for the next generations. For example, both Kelecung and Taromak were surrounded by rich mountain sceneries, which as a result, had nurtured the villagers’ priorities to always focus on coexisting with nature. 

  • Li-Yuan began his tour with a praying ritual.

 

Li-Yuan began his tour with a praying ritual, using betel nut and alcohol at the entrance of the village as a way to cleanse away bad spirits that were brought by visitors. He shared that there is no conflict in religion/faith, that everyone can connect with their spiritual figures and honour the cleansing in their own ways as long as they recognise the connection with the land they find themselves on. As we followed the camera through the fields of Taromak, Li-Yuan became a walking encyclopedia, demonstrating his expansive knowledge of identifying different plants for their specific purposes.

  • Li-Yuan folding a leaf to serve as a packaging box for food.

 

“Wild vegetable or vegetable – if you know you know. It will no longer be wild if you know it. Nature has already prepped all the food needed for our survival, but differentiating it between industrial products and wild products limits the connection with nature,” stated Li-Yuan as he folded a leaf to serve as a packaging box for food.

Li-Yuan expressed his concerns about the missing link between consumers and food sources in the current state of industrialisation, which has led to overconsumption since everything is readily accessible in markets. I found myself thinking about how food delivery and (mandatory) takeaways have become part of our daily lives, and reflected on the environmental impact of excessive packaging.

As the organiser of Kelecung Project, which marries ecological resilience with tourism through empowering locals, Aniek had plenty to share about the effects of tourism in Bali. She presented an ‘expectation versus reality’ picture of Bali. For example, while the industry has brought job security for locals (up until COVID), the rapid development has led to land banking by investors in the coastal areas – that is, the buying of land for the purpose of profit. (85% of the land in coastal areas is owned by investors.) It has also led to diminishing farming traditions as younger villagers pursue hospitality jobs, and a lack of water access for rice paddy fields as the resources are directed from the dam to infinity pools and spas in resorts. Her sharing was saddening – certainly from where I am in Singapore, we have been complicit in these developments with each budget flight we take for our weekend escapes. 

  • Aniek’s presentation on media portrayals vs realities of the situation in Bali.

 

Resilience and care in the community 

Taromak is the largest indigenious community in Taitung county, and it has a turbulent past including being subjected to plagues, fire, forced eviction, and colonisation under the Japanese occupation. Its history has nurtured resilience in the villagers’ spirits, and they collectively share responsibilities within the village and prioritise taking care of one another. 

  • The messenger symbolised protection for fellow villagers and the butterfly represented the ability to travel freely and pollination.

 

Standing in front of a wall mural depicting children running at the school field, Li-Yuan explained the history of messengers who had to deliver important news on foot during crisis and disaster. The tradition has evolved in the present day, where youths are trained to become sprinters in a three-year programme. Those who are qualified and deemed worthy for the role will get a butterfly tattoo as recognition. This was a heartwarming discovery, and served as a contrast to how our current access to technology had made us less accountable for our expressions and behaviours online. 

  • Aniek demonstrated how offering boxes are made every morning

 

Aniek demonstrated how offering boxes are made every morning before the first meal of the day, consisting of rice, eggs, beans, tofu and vegetables. The containers are made from banana leaves stitched in two layers with different flowers representing different religions and offering to the gods. If there is a celebration, up to 100 boxes need to be prepared and placed around the house by the women of the residence. This spiritual practice demonstrates a collective respect for Mother Nature and ensures food security is achieved for everyone in the community.

Gradual change in the community

Although tribal culture still exists within a patriarchy, I learned that efforts are being made to shift the power dynamics within households. While the man in the house serves as the primary decision maker, Aniek’s Kelecung Ecovillage movement has empowered housewives to organise sustainable homestays to counter the impacts of mass tourism. While not an outright feminist movement, the gradual contribution of the women in this community, whether through preparing food or providing tour guide services, help to shape their motivations to align towards collective actions. This reminded me of the concept of “building a solidarity practice” mentioned in Meeting Point 2021 which I wrote about in a previous essay. The act of caring for each other comes from an organic, grounds-up approach, which was proven to be more effective in the long run. “As long as we have good motivations, the future will be bright,” Aniek cheerfully stated.

Mass tourism has presented economical, ecological, and cultural tradeoffs for both Kelecung and Taromak. The entire session left me with a strong desire to reevaluate what it means to be a tourist and a cultural worker. What can we leave behind from our travel experiences? Have we been sensitive to the needs of communities that we visit? How much culture are we actually preserving when we “document” local sceneries through Instagram? Aniek and Li-Yuan’s personal sharing also called into question our consumption habits and prompted a reflection on our carbon footprints when we decide to book our next flight — whenever that may be. Dialogues with Mountains was certainly insightful, and unearthed parts of the rich histories of both Kelecung and Taromak. The rest remains to be discovered, through ongoing partnerships between the communities, cultural workers, and intermediaries.


Dialogue with Mountains was organised by Kao Chieh (Gordon), Chang Juny and Zheng Fly as part of a programme of mini-Meeting Point 2021 on 17 July 2021, presented by Mekong Cultural Hub.

Wennie Yang is an arts manager and finance administrator from Toronto, Canada with general management experiences in the not-for-profit arts sectors spanning from Toronto to Singapore. After graduating with a BA in Accounting & Financial Management at the University of Waterloo, she further completed a MA in Arts & Cultural Leadership at LASALLE College of the Arts.

This article is sponsored by Mekong Cultural Hub.

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