What you need to know
Taiwan retains something truly special on its east coast. It would be a shame to lose it in a rush towards development.
The following article is contributed in response to suggestions from Taiwan’s Minister of Transport and Communications, Wu Hong-mo (吳宏謀), that the national high-speed rail (HSR) network could be extended eastwards to Hualien on the country’s relatively isolated east coast.
I live up high in an apartment building in Yilan County, northeast Taiwan. From large bay windows looking out into the countryside, you can see small concrete houses bobbing like seagulls among an ocean of rice fields. Beyond them lies the Zhongyang Mountain Range (also known as the Central Mountain Range), where clouds form in the morning over the peaks, like pillows enveloping the heads of lazy sleepers.
This natural beauty is endearingly contrasted by the intimate mosaic of my neighbors: Kids -- two to a bicycle -- cycling to school and laughing gossip back and forth; local breakfast restaurants, opened out of people’s homes, which supplement Yilan's single McDonald’s; and elderly men and women checking their rice fields for pests as nearby egrets assist by devouring snails and locusts.
The scenery reminds me of Dali, in China’s Yunnan Province, where I used to live and work. Rather than an ocean of rice fields, my home there looked out onto the alpine beauty of Erhai Lake.
A short bike ride away stood the city walls and traditional Bai-style houses planted into cobblestone streets, while to our backs loomed the Cangshan Mountain range, where a traitor is reputed to have led the Mongolian army to a secret path that opened the door to their conquest of Dali during the Song Dynasty in the mid-13th century.
The Mongolians had long since left, but in their place a new horde had ridden into town. Every day, tens of thousands of tourists arrived in Dali by plane, train and bus.
I was on hand to witness this influx begin in earnest -- just in time to see the future devour the past. There was no traitor to blame; in pursuit of riches, the city had betrayed itself.
The pain for those living in Dali didn’t come from the tourists, though they could be annoying. Rather it stemmed from the sense of watching the community and what it once shared, its commons, be stripped, deracinated and repurposed to serve capital.
Bai tenants were forced out by rent hikes, and their houses, built over decades by close-knit communities, refashioned as B&Bs and luxury hotels.
Erhai Lake, for centuries the jewel that encapsulated Dali’s beauty, was slowly turned into a noisy cesspool strewn with sewage and oil slicks from mega development and cruises. The amazing tributes to faith like Dali’s Christian church and pagodas were transformed from proud spiritual beacons into silent victims of narcissism captured in tourist selfies.
How refreshing, then, my experience on first encountering Taiwanese aboriginal culture. In my quest to build an Aboriginal Art Tour, I was put in touch with Sakinu, one of Taiwan’s most famed aboriginal writers, and the leader of the Paiwan Tribe in southeast Taiwan's Taitung County. I spent the following two days witnessing the ceremonial opening of the tribe’s longhouses, carved in their entirety, including the multi-ton totems hewn by aboriginal carpenters.
Sakinu, while interested in promoting aboriginal arts to a wider audience, didn't give a damn about the monetary potential proffered by my tour. “Those in the cities, they can’t build their houses, they can’t grow their food, they can’t hunt, what can they possibly teach us?” he asked.
His fierce pride and belief that culture was a set of values and skills to be taught rather than displayed differed so substantially from my experiences in places like Dali. He didn't’ give a rat’s ass how many wealthy tourists my company could bring; he only cared if they wanted to learn about his culture. So that day, I didn’t try to talk business, instead helping the tribe thatch the roof of the longhouse with palm fronds. We swapped betel nuts and beers in exchange for hearing stories from their childhood while telling jokes and exchanging knowledge about our cultures. No one performed that afternoon.
What happened in Dali is part of a plague of over-tourism and development that is ripping through Asia. Thailand has had to close its most famous beach due to over-tourism while local mafias collude with hoteliers to dominate beaches. Japan recently had to go war with Air BnB and is suffering from what locals call “Tourism Pollution” due to overcrowding and the monetization of its most sacred cultural settings.
The News Lens itself has featured stories about how in Vietnam’s Sapa (a place as ecologically stunning as Eastern Taiwan) a frenzy of development is destroying the nature and culture that originally inspired travelers to visit.
Eastern Taiwan has so far avoided this fate. The beautiful beach at Toucheng in Yilan is not encircled by foreign-branded hotels. The stunning cliffs of Taroko Gorge are free of outlets selling hippie pantaloons. The artisanal woodworkers, artists and restaurants in Yilan don’t have to worry about rents being raised and continue to hand-make their goods rather than flog factory-produced imitations.
The aboriginal tribes of Taitung don’t have to worry about land being bought out from under them to build guesthouses, or being replaced by hired dancers in inaccurate costumes swaying to Mandopop. The culture remains of and for the people.
The science-fiction author and futurist William Gibson once said, “the future is already here it is just unevenly distributed.” Leaning on those words, we can see where Eastern Taiwan’s future might lead by looking to its neighbors’ problems. To avoid these ruptured futures, Taiwan must choose developmental tools or standards that will lead to sustainable outcomes, albeit potentially less immediately lucrative ones. Based on my background in Asia and its travel industry, I have a few suggestions:
Testing for tourism
Just as one must take a test to become a citizen of a country, I would propose that testing could be initiated for tourists as a condition for their visa or permissions to stay within designated cultural areas. It’d be simple enough to initiate through an online platform and it would do a great deal to combat one of the main sources of “tourist pollution”: a lack of genuine interest. The act of studying for the test itself reflects a genuine desire to learn and understand another country or culture. I believe that for aboriginal culture in Taiwan, the most important thing to determine is if tourists are there to learn about their cultures, or as voyeurs looking solely for a performance.
This is not as outlandish as it sounds. Think of the online tests required by Taiwan’s national parks in order to obtain permits to climb particularly strenuous mountains.
Volunteering and potlucks
I don’t believe tourists mean to come across as conquistadors with iPhones, but currently most tourists interact with locals in a transactional nature … one where hierarchy and cultural differences naturally come into play as money is exchanged for services. This makes the relationship between most travelers and locals one that is alienating and transactional. But it doesn’t need to be. The relationship can involve mutual growth and discovery.
Activities like a potluck, a stay with a local family, or even volunteering to clean beaches and forests could all be included in itineraries or promoted by the government. This is one way of avoiding the fates of other Asian countries where a clearly antagonistic and alienated relationship develops between locals and tourists, not to mention the added benefit of actually helping the community you are visiting.
A new protocol
My last recommendation would be for capital to back up promises with guarantees. If businesses or investors say their cash will help develop the local economy, mandated targets must be set and met to achieve this. If they say there will be no environmental impact, mandate it, or better yet mandate that the developers must make annual contributions or improvements to the community. This discourages capital which is investing in bad faith and would lead to positive outcomes for the community over the mid- to long-term.
I started Asia Art Tours because I believe the arts are the best medium to reconnect people to the cultures and communities we have ripped apart. It’s why I’m trying to rehabilitate tourism in Yunnan and why I’m trying to connect travelers to master aboriginal artists like Sakinu.
As for why I choose to live in Yilan, I wake up every morning and enjoy rice fields, mountains, parks, canyons, and families that stretch back generations. Here there is still community. If the HSR is extended and capital floods in, I’ll watch from my windows as this unique fabric is replaced by identikit hotels, chain stores and performers. But the tracks are not yet laid and East Taiwan still has time to choose what its future looks like.
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Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)
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