A series of efforts by tourism authorities to turn some Aboriginal traditions into tourist attractions recently triggered protests from Aboriginal activists, who accused the government of disrespecting their culture by treating their sacred rituals as entertainment for tourists. However, this insensitivity on the part of the government is not limited to its ignorance of Aboriginal culture, but extends to the customs and traditions of other groups of people as well.
The controversy stemmed from a plan by the Tourism Bureau to bring tourists into Amis communities along the east coast, as the local communities there prepare for the Ilisin — one of the most important and sacred events of the year held by different Amis villages throughout the summer to celebrate the harvest and pay homage to their ancestors.
Amis activists immediately protested, saying that they welcome visitors who are sincere about learning about their culture and would respect all the taboos and practices at the Ilisin, but not tourists with no respect for their culture who regard the ritual as some form of entertainment.
A few days after, the East Coast Scenic Area Administration announced that it was organizing an Amis Ilisin dance competition.
That sparked another storm of protests from Amis Aborigines, who said the traditional dance is performed for their ancestors and other spirits, and that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” performance, as what counts most is a sincere heart.
Some Amis compared the dance to the ancestral worship practiced by some Han people, asking whether the government would also hold a contest to see who performs the ritual best.
While some may be surprised at the government’s cultural insensitivity in this case, it is hardly an isolated incident. Treating culture as a mere tourist attraction, disregarding the significance of local customs and traditions, seems to be common practice among government officials.
In the Han tradition, there are certain dates of the year when religious activities are held, such as around an immortal’s birthday, after a harvest to express gratitude for blessings or during the Lunar New Year to pray for a prosperous year. However, to attract tourists, local governments have turned many of these religious events into cultural festivals whose sole aim is to entertain.
For instance, the worship of the Hakka Yimin (義民) — literally “righteous people” who sacrificed themselves defending their villages during anti-government uprisings during the Qing Dynasty in Taiwan — are supposed to be held on the seventh month of the lunar calendar, or around July or August in the Gregorian calendar. However, for some odd reason, the Taipei City Government chose to hold its annual “Taipei Hakka Yimin Festival” in October, and dropped some rites that are sacred according to tradition.
Another example is the annual ritual held at the end of the Lunar New Year holiday by residents of the small fishing village of Yeliou (野柳) in New Taipei City’s Wanli District (萬里) to dispel evil spirits from the harbor and pray for a good harvest. During the celebration, young men from the village jump into the water while carrying sedans with statues of immortals on them.
However, since the New Taipei City Government took over the organization of the event a few years ago, it has taken to reserving the best viewing spots for officials and the media corps, leaving the villagers craning their necks and standing on tiptoes to see what is going on.