Sun, May 06, 2007 - Page 19 News List

Reinventing the past

The glass bead market in Taiwan is booming, boosted by consumers who are interested in Aboriginal culture and indigenous people who are confident in the value of their handicrafts

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Opaque beads are increasingly popular because of their bright colors and intricate designs.

PHOTOS: NOAH BUCHAN, TAIPEI TIMES

In times gone by, when a Paiwan (排灣) tribal chief died, his family would give messengers, who spread the news of the death to other villages, a pair of swallowtail wings to help them on their journey through the rough jungle and mountainous terrain.

Today, of course, telecommunications technology has made the journey unnecessary and the tribe no longer follows the tradition. The swallowtail, however, remains an important symbol for the Paiwan people and has come to signify diligence; its significance lives on in the production of glass bead, which the Paiwan tribe revere.

Along with bronze knives and clay pots, glass beads are the most valued objects that an elite family can possess and are a sign of wealth and power.

"We grew up eating glass beads," says Liao Yi-hsin (廖怡馨), repeating a saying common among the tribe's nobles. The daughter of a noble, Liao operates Shatao (沙滔), a glass bead studio that designs and makes swallowtail beads.

Formerly the sacred property of wealthy families, over the past three decades a cottage industry has sprung up in and around Sandimen (三地門), Pingtung County, producing Aboriginal glass beads.

The glass bead industry in Taiwan is booming. Shatao's studio has 14 full-time employees — all women working from morning to night — producing about 500 beads a day. Taiwan's largest glass bead studio, Dragonfly Studios -— also located in Sandimen — has over two-dozen artisans working to fill orders for customers as far a field as Japan and Europe.

As nine employees sit at a long wooden workbench turning canes of colorful glass into beads, tourists from southern Taiwan wander through Shatao's studio taking pictures and buying jewelry made from the beads. Prices range from as low as NT$200 for a bracelet to NT$30,000 for a large ceremonial necklace.

Liao attributes the growing popularity of glass beads to consumers' increased interest in Aboriginal culture and indigenous people's growing confidence in their own traditional crafts.

Beads steeped in myth

For the Paiwan people, the origin of glass beads is steeped in myth. Legend has it that a woman one day built a fire upon which she set a pot of water to boil some millet. As the pot began to steam and bubble, the heat pushed the sun away from the earth. The sun, forced to part with the world of mortals, burst into tears and its teardrops fell to earth and crystallized into glass beads.

Because no written documents or evidence of materials, workshops or kilns for bead production have ever been found in Taiwan, researchers believe that the antique beads were a trade item produced by artisans from other cultures and brought to Taiwan.

Regardless of their origins, the renewed interest in the beads began in 1972 when Umass (巫瑪斯), a commoner in the Paiwan tribe, started researching how to reproduce the beads his ancestors owned. After spending five years experimenting with various materials, he produced his first line in 1976, which met with immediate success and spurred Umass to pass on his skills to others. Liao's uncle, the original owner of Shatao, was Umass' student.

After a 20-year hiatus, Umass returned to making glass beads in the 1990s. He found the industry had changed significantly, with studios and workshops emphasizing transparent glass beads over the opaque variety common to antique glass beads in the possession of noble families.

This story has been viewed 5424 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top