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By Paul Katz

August 8, 2010 marked the first anniversary of the Siaolin Village 小林村 tragedy, when torrential rains caused by Typhoon Morakot triggered a massive mudslide that swept this idyllic community off the face of the earth, taking 474 lives. Conditions one year later were eerily similar, with rain drenching the disaster site and another threat (Tropical Storm Dianmu 電母) lurking off the east coast (happily it did not make landfall). Southern Taiwan has suffered heavy rains during the past month, but there has been little destruction and loss of life (so far), unlike the terrible flooding that has ravaged so much of China recently, such as the Gansu 甘肅 landslides.

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The past year has been a time of profound pain and loss. Such feelings found expression in the Buddhist memorial ceremony held to commemorate the disaster, with tearful villagers making offerings such as betel nuts and rice wine to their loved ones to the accompaniment of scripture recitation rites. This being an election year, the rituals also attracted all three candidates running to serve as mayor of the new Kaohsiung Municipality (encompassing today’s Kaohsiung City and Kaohsiung County). Nonetheless, the focus rightly remained on the needs of those victims who survived.

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For amidst the grief has also arisen hope for new life. The first permanent housing project for some of Siaolin’s survivors, known as “Great Love Village” (大愛園區), was built by the Buddhist Compassion Relief Merit Society (佛教慈濟功德會) in Shanlin 杉林 Township (Kaohsiung County), yet only a few villagers have chosen to live there. More villagers have expressed interest in the second permanent housing project being constructed by the government, which is slated to be finished soon. These homes will be situated in the village of Wulipu 五里埔, located less than one kilometer from where Siaolin Village used to stand and also the site for the successful restaging of the annual Siraya Plains Aborigine 西拉雅平埔原住民族 ritual known as the “Siaolin Night Festival” (小林夜祭).

Most of the villagers, representing between 106 and 130 of Siaolin’s remaining 247 households, have continued to advocate for their dream of undertaking the rebuilding process themselves using land purchased by the ROC Red Cross in Shanlin. Their wishes went unheeded for many long months, with the government insisting that they settle in one of the two above-mentioned housing projects. Things finally came to a head in the days leading up to the anniversary, when villagers and their supporters started circulating a petition that appealed to the government to follow through on its earlier pledges to rebuild the village of Siaolin in a way that helped preserve its Plains Aborigine culture. They also staged a candlelight ceremony on the evening of August 8, with President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 and other dignitaries joining villagers in lighting candles placed in the shape of the Chinese character “home” (家).

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This time their dreams have come true, be it due to the legitimacy of their claims, the power of their rhetoric, and/or the fact that another round of elections is coming up. Following the ceremony, village leaders joyfully announced the good news: President Ma has promised to support a special rebuilding project that adheres to the villagers’ wishes. If land acquisition and construction processes go according to schedule, the new Siaolin Village should be completed in just eight months, and its Plains Aborigine culture will be preserved.

The road to recovery has been a long one, and there is still some distance to be travelled, but at least things now seem to be moving in the right direction. The fact that so much has been accomplished is a tribute to the spirit of Taiwan’s people, as well as the quality of this nation’s democracy, which, while far from perfect, does allow citizens to pressure their leaders to do what it takes to meet their needs.

Note: Many thanks to Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬 for providing the photos.

This is the final in a series of articles Paul Katz has written on the rebuilding of Siaolin. Read previous entries here.


By Paul R. Katz

Each of us can make a difference. It may not be easy, but it can be done; all you need is love, patience, and dedication.

One person who has made a difference is Hsiao Hsien-Ming 蕭賢明, who works for the Council for Cultural Affairs of the Executive Yuan (行政院文化建設委員會). Like so many of us, he watched in horror as the news came in about the village of Siaolin 小林 being wiped off the face of the earth. Moreover, as a father of three small children (Chemg is 12, Zoe is 9, and Zhi is 6), he felt the deepest sorrow for the numerous young lives that had been lost. Much has been done to help Siaolin stand up, and previous posts on this blog have described how the government and various NGO’s have contributed to various reconstruction projects (see earlier reports here, here, here, and here). Compassionate and caring individuals have done their share as well; Hsiao is one example.

It began shortly before Children’s Day (兒童節; celebrated on April 4 in Taiwan), when Hsiao’s thoughts turned to an image of the Siaolin Elementary School principlal standing in prayer on behalf of those school children who had perished. Profoundly moved, Hsiao decided to visit Siaolin and help its youngest survivors give voice to their thoughts in words, images, and especially music.

Hsiao arrived in Siaolin on the morning of April 4. accompanied by a colleague from the Council for Cultural Affairs, two students from Tainan National University of the Arts, village leaders, school teachers, parents, and representatives of the Association for the Reconstruction of Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine Culture (小林平埔原住民族文化重建協會), including Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏 and Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬. They all headed to the neighboring village of Wulipu 五里埔, where many of Siaolin’s surviving families now reside. There they met some of Siaolin’s school children and their parents, and explained to them how they hoped to make this a special day for the kids who were there, as well as those who no longer had a chance to take part.

Once everything was all set, Hsiao took out his clarinet and started to play for the kids, with some singing along and others accompanying on their own musical instruments. Together, they played a number of Taiwanese and Western classics, including “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (小星星), “Jasmine” (茉莉花), “Spring Breeze” (望春風), and “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心). The children also spent time making paper hearts and drawing pretty pictures on them as gifts for their deceased classmates. Sounds of joy filled the room.

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Yet there was also sorrow, as could be seen in some of the messages the children wrote to their departed friends:

“How could you leave us without saying goodbye?”

“I hope you can go to school in Heaven, and that you are doing well up there.”

“I miss you, I miss you so much. Do you miss me? I hope you are happy in Heaven, and that we will see each other again. Do you remember your nickname?”

“Here’s hoping they build us a new school soon. Wishing you joy up in Heaven.”

When the children had finished making their gifts, Hsiao and the other adults loaded the paper hearts as well as flowers they had prepared into a truck, and drove to the disaster site. There they laid the flowers on the ground in the shape of a giant heart, and placed the little hearts inside.

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Hsiao then played the clarinet again, performing the same songs on behalf of the children who had perished, all the while thinking that if his own children had been the victims he would have wished for someone to do something similar on their behalf. For it is parents’ love for their children that can help them bear such an immeasurable loss, and continue down the path of life.

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When the last notes had faded away, Hsiao and his companions prepared to leave, placing small stones on the paper hearts so that they would not easily blow away. As they drove off, Hsiao spotted a young couple and their small child walking past the monument to love on their way to some unknown destination. They stopped, gazed at the flowers and hearts, and then moved on, perhaps now with a more pleasant memory of a site that holds so much sorrow. May they never walk alone.

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Yes, one person can make a difference. And now we know what it takes . . .

Note: All photographs taken by Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬.


Paul Katz has previously reported on the rebuilding of Siaolin; see his earlier China Beat posts on the subject here, here, and here.

By Paul Katz

Just over five months have passed since the devastation wrought by Typhoon Morakot, and the survivors of the Siaolin Village 小林村 tragedy are coping as best they can with a lot of help from their friends, charitable organizations, and the government. However, the effects of the disaster still linger. Over 400 bodies of victims buried or washed away in the mudslide that followed hours of torrential rains will never be recovered, and there is not a large enough tract of arable land in the unscathed portions of Siaolin, or even all of Chia-hsien Township 甲仙鄉, to rebuild a community sufficient to house the 247 remaining households, meaning that the survivors have had to accept the reality of having “one village [scattered over] two locations” (一村兩地). Another touching story involves Siaolin’s children, many of whom still suffer emotional scars. The village’s school-age kids now have to attend class at various Chia-hsien schools, not knowing when or where Siaolin Elementary will ever be rebuilt.

Still, there is hope, and some good progress to report, with material reconstruction proceeding apace. Since last October, surviving villagers who had once crowded inside cramped temples have been living in temporary houses constructed by the ROC Red Cross in Shanlin 杉林 (a township in Kaohsiung County nearer to the Kaohsiung metropolis). More importantly, permanent homes are under construction, with some units now ready to move into.

The first permanent housing project, also located in Shanlin, has been constructed by the Buddhist Compassion Relief Merit Society (佛教慈濟功德會). Known as “Great Love Village” (大愛園區), this project is situated on 59.3 hectares of land and holds 1,500 housing units, built at a cost of NT$3 million per unit. Construction on these spacious and comfortable homes, complete with furniture, cooking utensils, and even plasma TVs, wrapped up on January 30, and the new units will be made available for 500 disaster victim households from Siaolin and other communities on February 11, just three days before the Lunar New Year. Approximately 70 Siaolin households are looking forward to setting up new homes in this village.

Work on the second permanent housing project, to be constructed by the government, is proceeding more slowly. These homes will be situated in the village of Wulipu 五里埔, located less than one kilometer from where Siaolin Village used to stand and also the site for the successful restaging of the annual Siraya Plains Aborigine 西拉雅平埔原住民族 ritual known as the “Siaolin Night Festival” (小林夜祭) (discussed in an earlier post). Construction on homes for 90 Siaolin households is slated to begin on March 1 and finish by August of the same year, but it is not clear whether the project will actually be able to proceed according to schedule.

And then there are the villagers who would prefer to do the rebuilding themselves, specifically 146 households who have petitioned the government to give them the right to join forces with the ROC Red Cross in purchasing farmland in Shanlin owned by the Hon Hai Precision Industry Company (鴻海科技集團). Some villagers simply want the chance to rebuild on their own; others have expressed concern that the standardized housing units in the “Great Love Village” will contribute to an erosion of their culture, with a few feeling disconcerted by reports claiming that smoking, drinking, and betel nut chewing will be forbidden. Their plans appear to be going nowhere, however, as both the local and central governments have declared their opposition to any such arrangement. Villagers remain in largely good spirits, however, and plans are underway for a special Lunar New Year’s Eve party at the ROC Red Cross temporary housing units:

The China Beat -- Rebuilding

In terms of cultural reconstruction, an important step forward occurred with the formal establishment of the “Association for the Reconstruction of Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine Culture” (小林平埔原住民族文化重建協會), founded by Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏 and his colleagues. The Association has set up an office in the ROC Red Cross temporary housing units, and has also begun work on two research projects. The first involves the compilation of a documentary about Siaolin’s past, as well as a database of audiovisual recordings. The second is to help plan an exhibition of Siaolin cultural artifacts to be held when a new museum opens as part of Wulipu’s Plains Aborigine Cultural Park (平埔原住民族文化園區). Much of the work for these two projects will be done by Siaolin villagers. Plans are also underway to revive Siaolin’s “Great Drum Troupe” (大鼓陣). Finally, the Association now has its own website, which includes details about its founding and goals, as well as an introduction to Siaolin Village and photos of the community before the disaster and in the wake of its destruction. There is also a section for donors.

Note: Many thanks to Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬 for her assistance in collecting this information.



By Paul Katz

Just over two months have passed since the devastation wrought by Typhoon Morakot, but the reconstruction of Siaolin Village 小林村 and its venerable Plains Aborigine (平埔族) culture is already well underway. A major step forward took place this past weekend with the successful restaging of the annual Siraya 西拉雅 ritual known as the “Siaolin Night Festival” (小林夜祭). This event was accompanied by the holding of a conference on the reconstruction of southern Taiwan’s Plains Aboriginal culture (「重建南臺平埔族群文化」學術研討會) and the official opening of an exhibition of artifacts from Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine culture (小林平埔文化特展) at the Chia-hsien Cultural Hall (甲仙地方文化館). Visiting dignitaries included Huang Pi-twan 黃壁端 (Minister of the Council for Cultural Affairs), Lin Chien-Chi 林倩綺 (General Director of the Kaohsiung County Bureau of Cultural Affairs), Kaohsiung County Magistrate Yang Chiu-hsing 楊秋興, Chia-hsien Township Head Liu Chien-fang 劉建芳, etc.

Of particular significance was the attendance of Sun Da-Ch’uan 孫大川 (Puyuma (卑南) name = Paelabang danapan), the Minister of Taiwan’s Council of Indigenous Peoples, Executive Yuan (行政院原住民委員會主任委員). His presence sent an important message due to the fact that the Council has committed to allocating funds for Siaolin’s cultural reconstruction. Sun’s visit also coincided with the Ministry of the Interior’s decision to approve plans for the formal establishment of the “Association for the Reconstruction of Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine Culture” (小林平埔原住民族文化重建協會), which has been organized by Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏 and his colleagues (林清財, 段洪坤, 洪淑芬, 黃智慧, 潘英海, 簡炯仁). This marks one of the first instances of the Taiwan government’s recognizing the use of the term “Plains Aborigine” in state documents, and represents a major breakthrough in the quest for this group’s being officially listed as one of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

The Night Festival is staged each year on the fourteenth or fifteenth day of the ninth lunar month, which this year happened to fall on October 31 (Halloween!). It began with traditional Plains Aborigine rituals referred to as kaixiang 開向 (“releasing the xiang magic”), which were held at a Siraya shrine (公廨) that had been newly constructed in the village of Wulipu 五里埔, located near the site where Siaolin used to stand. The shrine is dedicated to the worship of a deity known as Taizu 太祖 (other Plains Aborigine deities include Alizu 阿立祖 and Laojun 老君). With the exception of Laojun, most of these deities are believed to be goddesses, and in Siaolin Taizu is generally conceived of as a group of seven sisters. The shrine is also noteworthy for having no statues and no altar. Offerings (especially cigarettes and betel nut, as well as the usual sticks of incense) are placed on the ground atop leaves from the 姑婆芋 plant (Alocasia macrorrhizos; “Giant elephant’s ear”). In the center of the shrine stands a bamboo cylindrical structure of seven knives (one for each sister) adorned with flowers.

A temple to the Supreme Emperor of the Dark Heaven (玄天上帝) known as the Beiji Dian 北極殿 was also rebuilt at Wulipu. While numerous Beiji Dian dot the mountain areas of southern Taiwan, and have long served as sites for the interaction between Han Chinese and Plains Aborigines, the reconstruction of the shrine proved especially heartening to Siaolin’s survivors.

The China Beat -- Revival (Photo1)The kaixiang rites were presided over by a female Plains Aborigine specialist known as the xiangtou 向頭 (“head of the xiang magic”), who is responsible for both summoning and communicating with Taizu and other spirits while joining them in enjoying cigarettes and betel nut. Her rites reflect the profound ethnic reverberation that has shaped southern Taiwanese culture, combining traditional Siraya songs with the use of Hoklo vernacular when issuing instructions to worshippers. The xiangtou was assisted by other members of Siaolin’s women’s community, which reflects the matriarchal nature of Siraya family structures.

The China Beat -- Revival (Photo2)After the spirits had been summoned, the xiangtou led villagers to cut down a preselected bamboo plant (砍向竹) located in the hills near the village, which was then erected in front of the shrine (立向竹). Seven bundles of straw were attached to the bottom of the bamboo (one for each sister, and also representing steps ascending to the heavens), while a larger bundle of straw was hung from its top. In the past, human heads were said to be used instead. There was also a ceremony for repairing the shrine’s roof (整修公廨). Taizu pronounced approval of the rituals.

The China Beat -- Revival (Photo3)The afternoon was devoted to villager worship (村民祭祀太祖) and a Plains Aborigine feast (平埔美食呷平安) prepared by each household featuring a dish known as “mai” 米買 that is made using glutinous rice. This was followed by evening ceremonies (公祭典禮) that combined elements of state sacrifices and mourning rituals, including statements made by leading officials and village leaders (長官致詞, 族人代表心聲感述). The most moving part of the ceremony was the reading of a memorial addressed to Taizu (in Hoklo), which expressed the villagers’ sorrow at their loss, pride in their history and culture, and hope for the future. Its opening and closing statements are worth quoting here:

The China Beat -- Revival (Photo4)“今夜原本是呷恁祝壽和開向歡喜的日子,無奈您們的子孫在二個多月前的風災當中,四、五佰人去乎崩山來埋去,阮也因此失去了阿公、阿媽、爸爸、媽媽、兄弟姐妹、族親呷好朋友。連咱祖先辛苦建立的部落也瞬間來化為烏有,崩山時的驚嚇,土石打置身上,一定真痛,蒼天不仁。”


The evening rites concluded with village leaders’ expressions of gratitude and vows to rebuild. While the traditional nightlong dancing and drinking revelry were abandoned this year, a promise was made for all participants to join hands in dance one year from now.

The Night Festival was marked with occasional moments of grief, especially during viewing of a documentary about the village prior to its destruction. At the same time, however, there were also many outpourings of joy, including making offerings of rice wine to Taizu in the shrine and listening to elderly women who just weeks ago had been torn with grief singing childhood songs (including some in Japanese). There was also the appearance of a beautiful butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina kezia (Butler); “Blue Moon Butterfly”) in Taizu’s shrine.The China Beat -- Revival (Photo5)

Efforts at material reconstruction are also proceeding apace. Surviving villagers who have spent weeks living inside overcrowded temples are now moving into temporary houses constructed by the ROC Red Cross in Shanlin 杉林 (a township in Kaohsiung County nearer to the Kaohsiung metropolis). These structures are rudimentary, and there is a pressing need to add gardens and other greenery, but villagers are happy simply to have a place of their own that they can call home. There are also plans for two separate sets of permanent homes. The first, also located in Shanlin, are to be built by the Buddhist Compassion Relief Merit Society (佛教慈濟功德會). The second, which will also include either a Plains Aborigines Cultural Park (平埔族文化園區) or Plains Aborigine Memorial Park (平埔族紀念公園), will be situated in the village of Wulipu. The villagers’ positive feelings found clear voice in a poster and press release that accompanied the Night Festival, which expressed sentiments of “Gratitude (感激), Commitment (承諾), and Hope (願望)”. What has been accomplished stands as a testimony to the human spirit, and the inner strength of the Taiwanese people. Siaolin has stood up.

*Note: Many thanks to Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬 for sharing her photo of the butterfly.


By Paul Katz

Siaolin’s survivors are in the midst of grappling with three main issues: mourning the dead, coping with current difficulties, and planning for the future (see the online chats about these issues on Siaolin’s own website, the 甲仙鄉小林社區入口網). On August 21, I attended two meetings with Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏 and his colleagues (林清財, 吳旭峰, 段洪坤, 張東炯, 黃智慧, 潘英海, 簡炯仁, 謝世憲). The first meeting focused on the needs of Siaolin’s villagers, who were preparing a petition to present to President Ma when he attended mourning rituals the next day. Consensus was reached on three main points, namely requesting the government allow disaster victims to participate in reconstruction planning, simplify the compensation process for survivors, and commit to Siaolin’s cultural reconstruction. The goal of the second meeting was to lay the groundwork for the formation of the Association for the Reconstruction of Siaolin and its Plains Aborigine Culture (小林平埔文化重建協會), which is currently submitting an application to the government for formal approval.

Photo AThe next morning (8/22) began with an early morning visit to the site of the disaster, which we timed to avoid the usual political theatrics that took place when President Ma attended the 二七 mourning rituals for the nearly 500 victims of the Siaolin mudslide. Accusations of blame for the slow disaster response continue, but it is becoming increasingly clear that this tragedy was also a result of 921 Earthquake (which loosened soil in terrain consisting largely of volcanic ash mountains), poor land management policies, and illegal land exploitation, all of which set the stage for the horrific events that accompanied unprecedented rainfall. At this point, the challenge for Taiwan’s government will be to institute and enforce land policies that take the interests (and voices) of disaster victims into account, especially the south’s Aboriginal peoples.

However, the true focus of the mourning rituals (and hopefully subsequent reconstruction efforts as well) was on remembering the victims and supporting the survivors. The China Beat -- Mourning (Photo B)These rites, presided over by numerous Buddhist specialists (and some Taoists), vividly revealed the sheer magnitude of the tragedy (some altar tables had as many as 10 photos). A sizeable percentage of the victims were children, with some altars featuring milk bottles for babies and toddlers. In some cases, only one or two family members survived, especially young people who had been away at work (it was mainly the elderly and small children who actually resided in Siaolin village). There are pressing psychological concerns, especially children in tears over losing their classmates or unable to fall asleep if it is raining outside. There was also one reported case of ghost marriage (冥婚) between a fiancé and his bride-to-be who died in the mudslide.

The importance of ritual to the mourning and spiritual healing processes was also readily apparent, including the presence of numerous Buddhist volunteers who stood by the survivors, guided them through the ritual’s stages, and provided hugs and other comfort when emotions proved overwhelming. Professor Chien and I stopped at many of the altar tables to offer incense and attempt to comfort, and I soon realized that Chien was in possession of a truly invaluable gift, namely local memories in the form of audio and visual records that he has compiled during his years of studying Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine culture. These will prove of the utmost importance as the reconstruction process progresses.

The China Beat -- Mourning (Photo C)In terms of where the survivors will next reside, there is talk of temporarily housing them on local military bases, while the Buddhist Compassion Relief Merit Society (Fojiao Ciji gongdehui 佛教慈濟功德會) has announced plans to construct a set of villages for different Aboriginal groups at Shanlin 杉林 (a township in Kaohsiung County nearer to the Kaohsiung metropolis). Nonetheless, many survivors hope that one day they will be able to resettle in nearby areas, especially the village of Wulipu 五里埔. Plans are already underway to rebuild Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine shrine (公廨) in that location and stage traditional rituals traditional rituals during the ninth lunar month (other Plains Aborigine groups have promised to help). Other reconstruction efforts currently in the planning stages include a memorial hall near the site of the tragedy and a Museum of Plains Aborigine Culture, all of which is designed to ensure the perpetuation of Siaolin’s intangible cultural heritage.


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