Wong How Man
Ali Shan, Taiwan – 9 December 2011

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Early Tsou man with teeth knocked off (circa 1930). Anmo of the Tsou people today. Ritual house recreated today in Ali Shan. Thatch-roofed home of the 1930s. An Da-ming’s face has a shiny copper-tone to it, just like his cousin An Xiao-ming, whom we called by his nickname Anmo. Whether such tan skin came from long exposure of working under the sun or was their natural complexion I could not tell. Strangely, both men’s wives have much fairer skin though they too share their load of chores in the field. For Shu-yun, wife of the former, it is their tea farm, whereas for Hui-ling, Anmo’s wife, their field of crops and vegetable. The men’s features are more robust, with eyes sunken below the brows, high nose lines and cheek bones.

Both are of the Tsou minority of Ali Shan, deep inside the mountains of Taiwan. The Tsou has a population of barely 5000 individuals and are indigenous to the island. Under the Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, followed by over half a century of the Nationalist rule, many of the traditions and customs of the Tsou people were eclipsed. First to go was the old tradition of head hunting by the Tsou, once a proud occupation of the Tsou warriors against intruders or when faced with outside threats. Dutch and Portuguese explorers and early settlers described such “barbaric” and horrifying behaviors in their encounters with the Tsou. Today while recounting such acts by his ancestors, Anmor spoke with no sign of inhibition or regrets. Instead I could almost sense an air of pride in his tone.

Momentarily, Da-ming squinted, his face showing all the lines over his nose and forehead. He began shaking his head slowly from side to side. I balked with disappointment as I measured his facial expression. He was pouring hot water over a tiny pot of tea we had brought from Hainan Island for him to try. Da-ming is the perfect person to test and judge this tea from the wild tea trees growing along foothill of the Wu Zhi Shan Mountains of central Hainan. An Da-ming preparing tea while Anmo and wife looks onAfter all, he is known as a local tea connoisseur with the superior tea from his farm winning many accolades in very highly regarded yearly contests in Taiwan. Behind him, hanging high up the walls, were several large wooden award plaques for Best in Show or First Prize distinctions. Against the wall on the ground were numerous more similar inscribed tablets.

“You must not simmer this tea too long, as it will taste bitter,” the consummate of tea tried to be diplomatic. I sensed that he didn’t like the flavor as he spit out the remaining tea in his mouth into a nearby ceramic pot. So much for comparing one aspect of Hainan with that of Taiwan.

Today Dabang, a small town of maybe 500 or some inhabitants, is the center of Tsou activities and administration. Deep inside the hills and valleys of Dabang, Anmo told me some stories regarding the Tsou. “As fierce warriors, we used to kill everyone who came near us. Hunting for enemy’s heads was a sign of heroism and bravery,” said Anmo. “Legend has it that we killed so many that heaven put a spell on the number of Tsou people prohibiting us from exceeding 10,000 so that we would not decimate the rest of the population,” he added.

Anmo’s account of the monkey roaming around Ali Shan has another origin. “There used to be lots and lots of monkeys in the mountains around Ali Shan. When the Tsou people went off into the field to farm, large groups of monkeys would raid their homes, eating everything and making a mess of the place. One day, the Tsou decided to take revenge and make an end to this nuisance. They intentionally left out some strong liquor they made from rice. The monkeys came again, leaving behind a rampage while drinking all the wine. Intoxicated and drunk, they were lying around all over the place as the Tsou people came home. The Tsou killed them off in droves, one by one until they were all dead,” Anmo told of the horror killing and decimation of the monkeys.

“One female monkey, deadly drunk ended up sleeping inside a rolled up straw mat and survived the massacre. When she woke up and saw all her companions killed, she quickly sneaked away. This single surviving monkey was already pregnant and later gave birth to a family of monkeys, thus providing a reprieve for today’s remaining group. But today there are again more monkeys than us Tsou,” Anmo noted as he finished the story. “Many such legends were handed down to us by our village elders,” said Anmo.

Anmo in national costume with traditional bow and arrowsAs Anmo was speaking, his wife Hui-ling suddenly bent her head sideway as if listening to something in the jungle. “Hear that?” she asked. “That is the sound of a Hui Su, or flying squirrel, gliding from one tree to another with a swishing noise,” she pointed out to us.“They come out after dark, like the many bats around here,” she noted with a smile.

As we walked out into the night, I saw two fireflies dancing in the distance. I hurried over and using my hat, caught one to have a closer look. Anmo came up to me, took the firefly and turned it around. Seeing two florescent glows on its tail, he said, “This is a male as females only have one light.” During this time of year when the weather turns cooler there are few fireflies. But during the summer, Anmo assured me that the night sky is filled with them like dancing stars.

The next morning, I was wakened early by the single cockatoo Anmo kept among his half dozen hens. After a simple breakfast of home-made glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaf, Anmo took me on a walk around his farm property. Tea, vegetable, fruit trees and some tomato grown on trees, called “mato”, are the main crop. As we walked he occasionally used his long knife to cut off bushes along the path.

At one spot, he pointed out a bamboo cross on the ground. “This is to signify a nearby wild beehive that belongs to me,” said Anmo. “The first person to spot a hive marks the area like this, and others respect that as his property,” added Anmo. Honey from such bees is considered of superior quality to domestic bee honey. At a low lying tree, Anmo climbed up and took down from a branch an abandoned hive. Breaking it into two halves, he showed me the interior of the hive. The wild bees construct their hives with tree bark and inside are many levels of loft-like structures built with beeswax. “Elders told us that if a hive is high on a tree, that area is better protected and unlikely to be hit by storm. Whereas lower hives means the site may be more exposed to wind and typhoons,” he explained some of the wisdom of older folks gathered from long experience.

Ground crossbow with arrow holderAt home, Anmo showed me a few Tsou artifacts he has collected over the years. Of particular interest and pride to him is a set of bow and arrows. Outside his modest house, he demonstrated his archery skills by targeting a bull’s-eye made from straw. He also showed me a long bamboo stick with a string attached. At the end of the string is a wooden piece. Swinging it creates a high pitch swishing sound that scares away birds flocking their rice field during harvest season.

There are a few boars which live and roam around the area. Traditionally Tsou people hunt these wild pigs. Anmo showed me how a harpoon like spear can be used to hunt boars. The sharp metal piece has reversed spikes to stay inside the animal once the penetration is successful. A steel wire keeps the spearhead from the pole made from hard wood so as to obstruct the animal from getting away when caught in between forest trees. A hunter would keep long lines of boar jawbones and skulls of other prey in their house to display their bravery.

Today only a local Tsou collector, Wang Yong Hua, still has a large collection of Tsou artifacts, the most impressive being a crossbow-like ground trap to hunt wild game. The nose flute, like those used in Hainan Island by the Li People, can no longer be found. The Tsou however uses them as a pair, playing them with both nostrils, unlike the Li who use a single bamboo on one side of the nose as flute.

Shi Kwong-jiang, better known as Ah Jiang, worked in Taipei at a sailboat and speedboat company as a woodwork carpenter. In 1996, he returned home after a big storm hit his village. Trying to rebuild his home, he made use of his skills and turned a dilapidated site into a very creative home, making use of a lot of logs and trunks in the forest. Today his home has been turned into a hostel with several small stone and wood houses. On any weekend, folks from the city come here to enjoy the fresh mountain air and quiet ambience of Ali Shan.

Betel trees of Ali Shan foothillChatting over a fireplace emitting sweet fragrance of the “Niu Jiang” wood, Ah Jiang proudly told me about his creation and the next small house he plans to build with a loft to hold up to seven guests. We discussed the unique language of the Tsuo, which is not the same as any of the other seven indigenous tribes of Taiwan. “The only strange thing is that we all use the word Bidu for the numerical word seven. That is the only common word, even the same is used among some dialects in the Philippines and Indonesia I was told,” said Jiang.

Anmo, our guide and host, is extremely proud of his Tsou heritage. After retiring from military service where he served on the island of Jinmen opposite Xiamen of the mainland, he came home to Dabang to build a new life. Two years ago, he married Hui-ling and together they tried to make their farm into a unique home, reviving some of the tradition and customs of the Tsou. “My dream is to construct ancient thatch-roofed houses and offer those as lodges to outside visitors to relive the style of our glorious days,” said Anmo with a smile of confidence. “For now, I am learning as much as I can from the elders, the stories, the ancient practices, and their way of life,” said Anmo.

Finally I could not help and asked him, “So are you going to knock out two teeth next to your front teeth, just as the Tsou men and women used to do a couple generations ago?” Both Anmo and his wife Hui-ling looked at me and shook their heads wildly, “No, no, no way. I don’t think I would go that far back,” they answered simultaneously with a big smile on their faces.

As I left Ali Shan and headed down toward the plain, I saw countless busloads of Mainland tourists along the way. Since the easing of cross-strait travel a couple years ago, there are thousands of tourists arriving everyday, and Ali Shan seems to be a must-go place. As I have just visited Hainan before coming to Taiwan, suddenly a strange thought flashed by my mind. Had Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 chosen to retreat to Hainan instead of Taiwan, the scenario would be totally different today. Taiwan would likely be liberated by the Communist early on. Today the Taiwanese would become part of the flock of Mainland tourists visiting Hainan. That indeed would be a reverse of fortune. For that alone, perhaps Taiwanese should have something to be thankful for.