Orchid Island: battleship of the Tao
The island is by the sea, and the sea by the island
Our island is a tiny, motionless ship
– On the Island (based on Tao myths), Chen Li
Ducking into the Dornier 228, a 19-seater plane with low ceilings and no overhead compartments, we squeezed down the narrow aisle and edged into our front row seats. I sat just ahead of the portside propeller, watching intently as it spun into motion with a rattling crescendo that sent the smell of aviation fuel through the cabin. The two pilots were almost within arm’s reach, scanning a checklist and preparing their manual instruments for takeoff.
Lanyu, literally Orchid Island, was less than 30 minutes away – 65 kilometres off the Taiwanese coast and roughly a hundred from Mavudis, the nearest Philippine island. This was the homeland of the Tao, a seafaring indigenous tribe that migrated north from the Batanes eight centuries ago.
The island’s northwestern tip eventually appeared in the window, now streaked with tiny needles of rain. Shrouded in banks of fog, walls of volcanic rock rose abruptly from the sea, covered in a lush carpet of foliage. We touched down on a small runway, right by the edge of the foaming ocean, and turned toward the airport building. Decorated with traditional motifs, the three-storey structure greeted us with the enlarged prow of a Tao canoe.
By now, the propellers had stopped churning. We hopped across the fold-down stairs and walked a few steps towards what seemed to be a staff entrance, where the ground crew ushered us into a small corridor. Unsure, I looked up at the sign just over our heads, its arrow pointing downward: “BAGGAGE RECLAIM AREA”. Moments later a tarpaulin-covered pickup truck reversed into the open doorway, and we grabbed our bags amid the frenzy.
Shaokang, the young proprietor of our homestay, was just beyond the sliding glass doors, waiting for us with a small whiteboard coloured in red and blue marker. “You speak Mandarin, yes?” He smiled in relief. “I was afraid you couldn’t!”
As soon as we turned out of the airport road I gently asked Shaokang if he was a Tao. At first glance his features were not too far off from a mainlander, but an earthy complexion and the structure of his lower face suggested otherwise. “Yes, I am a běndìrén – a native islander. We call this place Pongso no Tao, the ‘Island of the People’.”
On the way to Imorod, or Hongtou village, Shaokang gave us a word of warning. “When you see the canoes, take photos of them from a distance. Don’t go up close and touch them.” He used pèng, the word for “bump”, and it conjured up associations of disturbing a natural, unwritten order. “Only the fishermen who use these boats are allowed to touch them.”
The Tao, I had read, are painfully aware that many Taiwanese view them as oddities. Previous tourists had the habit of wandering uninvited into their homes, half-buried to protect against the region’s typhoons. Shaokang hinted at this when we sped past the Tao cultural centre by the end of the airport runway. “There’s a show-house at the centre – you can visit it for free. But elsewhere, traditional houses aren’t open for viewing.”
The misty drizzle had evaporated by the time we reached our two-storey homestay opposite the health clinic at Imorod. The sun poured light into the puddles on the asphalt, and lone men stood mending their nets in the shade, preparing for this year’s flying fish season.
Shaokang had taught us two basic phrases in ciriciring no Tao, but he seemed almost shy or reluctant when I asked him directly. “Hello” was àkokay, and “thank you”, ayoy, with emphasis and an upward inflection on the second syllable. Later that day we learned the phrase for “goodbye”, or meikunan, and these three expressions would prove invaluable on a four-hour circumnavigation of the island – my first experience aboard a scooter.
With Bama at the helm, his expert hands and feet trained from years of experience in his native Indonesia, we barrelled down the island’s ring road. The wind blew on our faces, raising a smile as we cruised past striking rock formations, flocks of free-roaming goats, and groups of women toiling in the taro fields, donning wide-brimmed hats under the fierce midday sun. Occasionally there stood a brightly decorated church, emblazoned in the same white, red and black patterns of the Tao canoes.
These structures were a legacy of the postwar years, when the Taiwanese opened up the island to Western missionary activity. Father Alfred Giger, a well-loved Catholic priest from Switzerland, came ashore in August 1954, and Canadian Presbyterians also had a presence around the same period. Today the Tao are majority Christian, painting the cross on their distinctive canoes and dotting the landscape with places of worship.
One of these we discovered by chance, intrigued by the sight of a metal cross glimmering in the darkness of a mountain cave. This was the main chamber of Ji-Karahem, or “Five-hole cave” in Mandarin, and we had arrived shortly after noon on Easter Monday. Walking in, I imagined the service that would have been held here just 24 hours before: a pastor and his congregation, raising up a chorus in Mandarin and ciriciring no Tao, their voices echoing off the moisture-laden walls. Above our heads the towering roof dripped with beads of water, releasing them in deliberate, fat drops like rain in slow motion. It was this moment, more than the crashing waves and the mist burning off the sheer volcanic cliffs, that captured the raw beauty of the island.
Eventually we stopped for a late lunch at a seaside café in Dongching village (Iranmilek), where the proprietor beamed at our greeting of àkokay. “You both speak the language of Lanyu?”
“Oh, only a few phrases,” I replied apologetically.
Our chosen spot was a wooden bench in the corner, behind a display shelf crammed full with handicrafts: purses, canoe-shaped key chains, carvings of the endemic scops owl alongside an array of crosses and pendants. A selection of English songs played over the speakers: Robbie Williams’ Better Man and then Taylor Swift’s infectious You Belong With Me. Bama and I sipped tall glasses of iced tea sweetened with sugar syrup, munching on a basket of garlic bread, followed by a generous plate of salad drizzled with Thousand Island and – much to my surprise – homemade fish and chips. The entire scene could easily have been a backpacker’s den in Southeast Asia, except for the fact that our only company was a quiet group of Taiwanese visitors, fresh from a round of snorkelling.
Previous visitors had described Orchid Island as feeling “more Filipino than Taiwanese”, although Austronesian tribes had occupied Taiwan long before waves of Han Chinese immigration drove them into the hills. The Tao, I realised, were more Malay in appearance, resembling the maritime peoples of Southeast Asia. Wondering how they would perceive my Indonesian companion, I gestured at Bama and asked the smiling proprietor for her opinion. “Do you think he looks like an islander?” She thought carefully for a moment, reading every inch of his face as we waited for a verdict. “His eyes are similar to ours.”
Bama’s appearance would pique the locals’ curiosity several times throughout our stay, from the gas station attendant to the ground staff at the island’s airport. “Your friend… does he speak Mandarin?” I shook my head. “He looks like a native… like one of us.” And then, a sudden grin would cross their faces, perhaps in acknowledgment of their shared humanity.
Travelling with Bama, I was reminded of an insight shared several years ago from an English friend who had been volunteering in Hong Kong for the summer. Blond-haired, blue-eyed and six-foot-four, Phil spoke about putting on a “Chinese face”, wishing he could shed an outsider’s skin to connect with his hosts on a deeper level. I felt much the same way on parts of Orchid Island, knowing that my appearance could easily be a barrier in each encounter with the local Tao. Especially in the western village of Yeyou (Yayo), I had the keen sense that my presence – not Bama’s – was intrusive and perhaps more than a little unwelcome.
But the islanders’ mistrust and suspicion were well-founded. It wasn’t just the waves of inconsiderate tourists who treated them like specimens in a human zoo; the Taiwanese state had also inflamed Tao residents by using their island as a dumping ground for its undesirables.
On the approach to Iranmilek we spotted a long, blackened and overgrown ruin running along the main road. Through the exposed strips of concrete, rows of metal bars covered the openings, streaks of rust amid the remaining traces of jade green paint. I surmised that this was a wall of an abandoned prison block, and further research that night would confirm my suspicions. From 1958-1979, roughly 2,500 convicts were sent from the Taiwanese mainland to serve out their sentences, watched over by retired Kuomintang soldiers.
Then in 1977, residents were told that the government would build a cannery to provide jobs, equipped with a new harbour at Longmen near the island’s southern tip. What they didn’t disclose was the fact that it was merely a ruse for a nuclear waste dump, storing material shipped from Taiwan’s three active nuclear power plants. The first barrels arrived in 1982, and by the time the islanders discovered the true nature of the ‘cannery’, it was already too late. Today the ‘Lanyu storage facility’ houses over 100,000 drums of radioactive waste, and although shipments were halted in 1996, concerted campaigns to get them off the island have had little real effect.
Near the end of our four-hour scooter ride, the nuclear waste dump came into view, occupying a lip of land at the foot of a verdant, crumpled ridge. Several long rows of innocuous-looking sheds, half-buried as though a perversion of the traditional houses, were built into grassy terraces dropping down towards the ocean. I grimaced, noticing how a retaining wall was all that separated it from Tao fishing grounds and the coral reefs that fringed the island.
Pressing on through a swathe of rainforest, the drone of cicadas and other insects drowned out even the roar of our engine. Bama shouted over the cacophony, the wind carrying his message into my ears. “Did you know? They say a healthy forest is a noisy forest!”
We returned to our homestay to find my name scrawled on yellow card and our room key in the door knob. The main entrance downstairs – a pair of brown tinted glass doors – had been left unlocked, and after some investigation I realised we were the only guests throughout those three days on the island. But there was always good company to be had; evenings were spent with Shaokang, his newlywed wife Shanti and their two pets: six-month old puppy Geng Mei, about the same age as my family’s black Labrador, and the three-legged cat Xiao Bao Bei, “Little Treasure”.
Perhaps “little treasure” was also an accurate description of this island: largely neglected by Taiwan but fragile and wildly beautiful. That night the stars were out in all their finery, parading across the cloudless sky in an endless, slow-moving dance. Parked on the edge of the coast road, we craned our necks to take it all in, our breathing slowed by the constant sound of the ocean as it lapped up against the stony shore. From the comfort of our upstairs room the same, soothing rhythm was audible through a half-open window. In the darkness I closed my eyes, turned my head and fell asleep, happily marooned on the deck of a tiny, motionless ship.