Taiwan is a destination for many Filipinos looking for jobs and education. Like in migrant communities everywhere, the regions and subnational groups from which Filipinos in Taiwan come from are often unknown to most outsiders. But among those living here, retaining these communities are of great importance.

In early April I was invited by a classmate to join a group of Ifugao Filipinos for a small gathering in Taipei Expo Park. The purpose of the event was to celebrate Gotad, an Indigenous holiday of thanksgiving practiced by the highland Ifugao people in the northern Philippines.

“Gotad is a time when people temporarily cease their economic activities — mostly rice cultivation — to celebrate and honor deities and ancestors,” Armand Camhol told me. He is a PhD student in Taipei, an Ifugao, and was organizing an Ifugao Gotad workshop at National Chengchi University in Taipei that was supposed to have been held on May 6, but was canceled due to rising Covid cases. Though the workshop was canceled, an informal, smaller picnic at Taipei Expo Park took its place.

The Ifugao represent a small portion of the many Filipinos in Taiwan who come to work in factories, as day laborers, installers, and as domestic workers. For many, working hours are long, and days off are rare. Opportunities to gather are welcome.


Photo Credit: James X. Morris

Armand Camhol speaks about Ifugao customs to guests at the Ifugao Gotad picnic, Taipei. Barbie Bren Dulnuan, in a green mask, stands nearby.

Armand said that Gotad in Taiwan offers “a day of respite for mostly blue-collar and domestic workers from Ifugao to renew their friendships and usher in a better year for all, in Taiwan and the Philippines as well.”

Taiwan is a destination for many Filipinos looking for work and opportunities outside of their own country, but it’s a double-edged sword. Economic opportunities are better for some than they are in the Philippines, and many Filipinos are employed as factory workers or as domestic caretakers for Taiwan’s rapidly-aging population, one of the fastest-graying demographics in the world. But conditions exist where exploitation is rampant. Factory workers are forced to remain in dormitories where their wages are nickel-and-dimed away from fees that are added in. A general lack of privacy pervades those who live in dorms and homes of their employers, and days off are a scarce privilege. Domestic workers are virtually on call at all hours of the day, and only have a handful of days off each month. Such working conditions for migrant laborers in Taiwan have been a long standing cause for protests from both factory workers and domestic caregivers.

At the picnic at Taipei Expo Park, the Ifugao group members told me they didn’t know each other in the Philippines, and only got in touch when they arrived. When they hear of newly-arrived people from Ifugao, they invite them to join. The group only organized six years ago.

“We’re trying to create an Ifugao here in Taiwan,” said Armand. Far from home, and often socializing on their rare days off, they set their events in advance, using a group chat to coordinate with one another. Some meet weekly or twice a month, others only have the chance to socialize on a monthly basis or less frequently.

Another member of the group, Barbie Bren Dulnuan, has spent the past 11 years living in Taiwan. With a friend, she helped to found the Ifugao group in 2016.

“Our goal is to help one another in physical, spiritual, and monetary help,” Dulnuan said. Group support extends to helping one another when they are sick, or supporting members who have deaths in their family.

Barbie says the group also enjoys outdoor activities, which, she notes, helps to counter homesickness and work stress.


Photo Credit: James X. Morris

Attendees of the picnic included Ifugao living in Taiwan and guests.

With the pandemic still a factor in social life in Taiwan, no date has been set for a second attempt at the workshop. The organizers were planning to teach Taiwanese students the cultural significance of gong-playing and dancing for the Ifugao people.

“Gongs are an irreplaceable part of Ifugao culture since we use them for dancing and the latter constitutes part of our ‘language’ as a society and a nation” said Armand. Dancing is an integral part of Ifugao social life, and is a way for young people to meet.

“Every municipality has our own cultural dance,” Barbie said. The dances have variations from community to community. By learning them, social bonds are built. “We teach and learn individual dances in our town for us to socialize whenever we go to different towns in Ifugao.”

The dance that they teach their guests at the picnic in Taipei, myself included, is a common one. It includes movements that resemble the soaring and swooping movements of eagles.

“Our moves are like eagles,” Armand explained during the picnic. “So when we’re soaring high in the sky, we move our arms like this. And you see someone swoop down and go for the kill, and back again.”


Photo Credit: James X. Morris

Ifugao men talk about how to play traditional gongs.

To begin the dance, three of the men at the picnic began hitting the gongs with sticks and the palms of their hands. The gongs are smaller than what I was familiar with, shaped more like a bowl than a saucer, but heavier than I expected. The concave back side is hit with the stick, while the front is hit with the palms.

To participate in the dance we guests are all wrapped in traditional Ifugao blankets called baya-ong that feature red and black stripes with patterns interwoven. They are heavy for the hot Taipei spring weather, and some of the men wear these instead of their t-shirts.

I was handed a small cup of rice wine, it had a sharp taste due to its being roasted. Although rice wine is common throughout Asia, this is a brew specific to Ifugao.

The people of Ifugao value hospitality, and as a symbol of friendship, they shared their holiday with their invited guests, who, in return, sang, joined the dances, and made jokes. The food, in bountiful amounts, was lowland Filipino style, cooked with an influence of Spanish, Chinese, and European cuisine. Typical Ifugao cuisine is similar to that of Taiwan’s Indigenous communities.

Armand’s home is in the rural areas of Ifugao, he told me, and compares Taiwan and Ifugao: “While I have been to the mountains in this country where geomorphology and certain cultural practices are similar, reminding me of my home, in the end, this is not my home and my people are not here.”

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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