Thu, Jul 28, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Aboriginal cultures reduced to a spectacle

By Ted Chang 陳峻綱

Given the types of images of Aborigines that are shown in the media, one would be led to believe that all they do is sing and dance in woven headpieces and loincloths. To believe that Aboriginal cultures are as simple as said portrayals would be foolish. Indeed, Aboriginal culture is far more complex and rich, and goes beyond these forms of entertainment.

As Taiwan has become increasingly multicultural, this country’s Aboriginal identity has been played up to such an extent that Aboriginal cultures have been cheapened to mere commodities in the eyes of local and national tourist bureaus and their homelands to “living museums.” What exactly are governments and organizations trying to accomplish when they propagate these sorts of images?

There is nothing wrong with highlighting Taiwan’s diversity, but most media coverage and tourism campaigns have reduced Aborigines to a spectacle of singers and dancers who don colorfully woven wardrobes that is not in the style of Western clothing — the marker of “modernity.” If they are not wearing elaborate traditional attire, they are half-naked. One understands that song and dance is a significant part of a number of Taiwan’s Aboriginal cultures, but it appears that it is the only aspect that the public seems to recognize as a representation of Aboriginal identity.

A recent announcement that the New Taipei City (新北市) Government is offering coupons and joint discount package tours to Wulai (烏來) and the recent round-the-clock coverage of Tao Aborigines rowing a balangay boat up the nation’s west coast from Orchid Island (蘭嶼) were just the latest in a long line of societal pigeonholing of Aborigines.

As New Taipei City Deputy Mayor Hsu Chih-chien (許志堅) put it during the announcement of the coupon promotion, “Wulai is a great attraction with its beautiful mountains, clear water and Aboriginal culture.”

Though not the first person to do this and most certainly not the last, Hsu’s statement reeks of neo-orientalism and turns the “other” into some kind of exotic novelty.

Meanwhile, the Central News Agency’s (CNA) video news segment on July 19 of the launching of the coupon program was quick to highlight the performance aspect of the Atayal, with the narrator predictably opening with the line, “singing and dancing,” telling prospective visitors what to expect when they are welcomed upon arriving in Wulai.

More of the same stereotypical coverage peppered CNA reports of the Tao balangay’s voyage, that began with the oarsmen “clad in their traditional loincloths” being greeted at each port of call with ... more dancing.

This trip was the idea of Minister of the Interior Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) and Lanyu Township Mayor Chiang Tuo-li (江多利) to publicize Orchid Island’s culture to the rest of Taiwan as part of the celebrations of the Republic of China centenary. With the extensive photo opportunities of scantily clad oarsmen, recalling imaginations of a “primitive” past, standing alongside “modern”-suited Han Chinese officials, one can imagine exactly how Tao, and Aboriginal cultures as a whole, are being represented.

This is certainly not the way — if there is any intention at all — for the dominant society to pull Aborigines out of their subjugated state. If Aborigines continue to be used as tools of various political or revenue--generating agendas then the government, and by extension the public at large, still have a long way to go in diminishing the perpetuation of these stereotypes.

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