Highways and Roads: The Paiwan Corner of Pingtung

Several settlements in North Pingtung offer visitors insight into Paiwan’s indigenous history and many sights with spectacular scenery

  • By Steven Crook / Contributing Journalist

Everywhere I go, I always feel like I end up in a cemetery. This time, the cemetery belonged to an Aboriginal village in northeast Pingtung County. Sagaran, known to Chinese speakers as Koushe (口社), is dominated by members of the Austronesian Paiwan community, Taiwan’s second indigenous ethnic group.

Wanting to stretch my legs after a 90 minute motorbike ride, I parked at the exit of the village and set off on foot on a narrow road. Just as I had begun to savor the butterfly-rich forest to my left, the tarmac crumbled into a dense and somewhat chaotic heap of graves.

CEMETERY OF SECRETS

Photo: Steven Crook

There are several family graves in the small cemetery of Sagaran, and the most important family names include Chan (詹), Chang (張) and Liu (劉). These names are of course not remotely Austronesian. They were imposed on households in Paiwan shortly after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) took control of Taiwan at the end of World War II.

Taiwanese aborigines have been taking non-native names since the Qing dynasty. Subsumed by waves of Han migrants from China and often facing severe discrimination, some communities have chosen to disguise their ethnic origins.

During the last decade of the period of rule from 1895 to 1945 by Tokyo, many Aborigines were forced to adopt Japanese names. When the KMT arrived, these identities were dropped, and Han officials began assigning Chinese families and giving names to those who had none.

Photo: Steven Crook

As was typical of KMT governance, this was done arbitrarily and callously. Some indigenous communities struggled with surnames almost unheard of in Taiwan. So much for assimilation. In several cases, siblings ended up with different surnames, and some men were given different surnames than their paternal grandfathers. So much for the Han traditionalists who insist that bloodlines are of utmost importance.

In a few cemeteries – such as that of Wutai (霧台), 9 km east of Sagaran as the crow flies – the majority of graves are not marked in Chinese characters, but in the local Austonesian language, rendered in the Latin alphabet.

I scoured the Sagaran cemetery for romanized paiwan names and found several. Most intriguing of all was a tombstone that bears three languages: Paiwan, Chinese and Japanese.

Photo: Steven Crook

The five people buried there died between 1939 and 1980. Two children who died before 1945 are listed with their Paiwan and Japanese names, while three people who met their maker after World War II have Paiwan and Chinese names. (All dates of birth and death are given according to the calendar of the Republic of China.)

The tombstone itself looks almost pristine. I wouldn’t be surprised if it replaced the monolingual markers engraved in less pluralistic times.

TOURIST ATTRACTIONS

Photo: Steven Crook

Although I spent most of my time in Sagaran looking at tombs, I must mention a few conventional tourist attractions near the village.

After the cemetery, I walked to Koushe Waterfall (口社瀑布), a few hundred meters northwest of the village. This being the dry season, it was an unimpressive net.

The road leading to the waterfall, Shasi Forestry Road (沙溪林道), attracts mountain bikers and cross-country motorcycle enthusiasts. According to the Forestry Bureau website, it is currently possible to get a two-wheeler from the 0km point (just outside Sagaran on Highway 185) to the 23.5km point. Hikers, it seems, can go a few miles further.

Photo: Steven Crook

After driving northwest along Highway 185 for about 300m, I turned right onto an unnumbered road that forms the southern end of the Anpo Tourist Bike Trail (安坡觀光自行車道). This 12 km long cycle route connects the paragliding hotspot of Saichia (賽嘉) in the south with the Paiwan community of Cavak (also known as Cingshan, 青山) in the north, via two other Aboriginal villages I had planned to visit.

Unfortunately, none of these settlements are accessible by public bus.

Before reaching Valjulu (Chinese: Maer, 馬兒), I noticed a crooked cross, and a short detour took me to a memorial garden on top of a ridge. The view was great – another example of Taiwan dead being awarded top spots.

Hoping to find even better scenery, I climbed a nearby hill. Arrived on the other side, I found myself in the middle of an abandoned pineapple plantation. The surrounding land is between 100m and 200m above sea level – not so high that this tropical fruit cannot be grown commercially.

Standing among the pineapples, I activated the compass function of my smartphone and realized that the two cities I could see were Ligang (里港) and Cishan (旗山).

Like many other native settlements, Valjulu is a compact group of houses arranged on a slope. Judging by the condition of these dwellings, very few of which are more than two stories high, some households are far more prosperous than others.

Some of the walls in Valjulu feature colorful murals, similar to those I’ve seen in several other indigenous communities. I’ve always wondered: are these paintings painting projects for local artisans? Or are they responsible for ensuring that tourists are not disappointed by a lack of “local color” when visiting the Austronesian districts of Taiwan? And why do they always portray life as it once was (or how people once imagined it), and not life as it is now?

To reach Djineljepan (Chinese: Anpo, 安坡), the third of the four villages I went to see, I had to drive to Gaoshu Township (高樹) in the lowlands, then take local road 7 from Pingtung (屏7) ascending in Sandimen Township (三地門).

On the way, I had another “brush with death”. What at first I thought was a church of impressive dimensions turned out to be a complex containing mourning halls, an ossuary and a columbarium.

‘ECCLESIATIC BRUTALISM’

The grounds of the Pingtung Christian Sunlight Garden (屏東基督教日光園) are well maintained. As for its architecture, the words that come to mind are “ecclesiastical brutalism”.

On the hill inland from Djineljepan, just beyond an unfinished Presbyterian church, there is a bilingual sign for Beauty Mountain Walkway (美人山步道). I was ready for a short hike – but very quickly turned back as the trail was overgrown.

The section of local Pingtung 7 road from Djineljepan to Cavak is a joy to drive, and Cavak itself seemed a little busier than the other villages.

In the vicinity of Cavak, I finally came to a picturesque place that I first heard about in the 1990s.

Haishengong (海神宮; some bilingual signs in the area translate it as “Sea God Palace”) is a stretch of stream that offers gorge-like scenery, swimming holes, and a popular river-tracing route.

Online sources indicate that there is an entrance fee of NT$50 per person. When I arrived, however, the door was open and the ticket office was deserted.

On a cool, cloudy day, I saw no reason to hang around Haishengong. But I’m sure when the water level is higher and the temperature is in the 30’s it’s a nice place to spend a few hours. When it’s warmer, I’ll be back.

Steven Crook has been writing about travel, culture and business in Taiwan since 1996. He is the author of Taiwan: The Bradt Travel Guide and co-author of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai.

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