It was a quiet evening in the mountainous Tungpu village. Young couples from the Bunun tribe of Aborigines were singing by a fire. They were rehearsing songs on their newly recorded CD. The acoustic guitar, their beautiful voices and traditional Bunun-style harmony were resonant in the valley.
"I married into this village because you told me that there were hot springs. But I've given birth to two kids and have never taken a hot spring bath afterward," complained one singer, Umav (
No small amount of irony confronts these young people. Growing up near the famous Tungpu hot springs, the Bunun in Tungpu have themselves scarcely enjoyed the hot springs in the past 20 years.
Their two albums of music, Songs from the Forest Workers
Tungpu, a Nantou County village 1120m above sea level, for years has been synonymous with hot springs. Its water is 50C on average and is categorized as a carbon-acid hot spring, pure, clear and odor-free, which is considered a very high-quality hot spring. Driving from the foothills, passing into Jade Mountain National Park (玉山國家公園), one enters the Tungpu tourist area. On the right-hand side the springhead is called Lah-lah Valley (樂樂谷), a name originating from the Bunun language meaning "hot water." On the other side is Rainbow Stream, another spring source.
All along the main road stands a number of hotels, with various signs advertising spas, hot springs and water-therapy. Some high-rise buildings, such as the Ti-lun Hotel and Sheng-hua Hotel are quite upscale and carry Taiwan's five-star rating.
Most of the hotels are owned by non-Aborigines. Only two small Bunun-owned hostels, located at the end of the main road, see very few customers.
"We have never benefitted from the hot-spring tourism boom, What's more, we've even had trouble enjoying the hot springs. Most of the water-heads were taken by Han people, for their hotels," said, Alang Islituan, a minister from Tung-kuang Presbyterian Church
Alang, who shares the same surname with each of his villagers, is in his 60s. He has watched as the natural treasure of his ancestral land has been slowly taken away over the past 20 years.
"I grew up in the hot springs," Alang said, recalling that the Rainbow Stream was his childhood playground. "We would go along the stream looking for hot springs, and once we found one we'd immediately take off our clothes and jump in."
During the Japanese colonial period, Alang said, there was only one man-made public hot spring bath. The Bunun, as well as some mountain-dwelling Han people, would all go to the bath house for recreation. "My elders, parents and we children all soaked in that big bath. It's a fine memory," said Alang.
But things changed after the 1970s, when the then KMT government selected Tungpu as one of the townships to develop tourism. The hotels entered, and the battle for water rights began.
"Some of the lands [with springheads] were sold at a very cheap price, others were rented with unfavorable contracts. There were some hotels which started using the land without any notification," said Alang. The poverty and lack of legal knowledge made many Bunun give up their water rights very easily, even selling reservation lands which, according to law, cannot be sold.