As night falls the dark, dreary, potholed road which runs from Taitung Bus Station to the town’s only Starbucks outlet offers little respite to the weary traveler — broken paving slabs threaten to trip up or dismount pedestrians and two-wheelers alike, while the gravel-strewn ground seems to threaten a gruesome end.
Then, like some fairyland amid the darkness, the soft-lit world of Tiehua Music Village (鐵花村) opens up, offering its palm tree-clad secrets to the determined voyager. The arduous journey is worth the risk.
Fong Cheng-fa (豐政發), the manager of Taitung City’s landmark venue, is nursing an iced tea and propping himself up at the impressive 4-meter-long bar made from driftwood.
“There’s always a special feeling here,” says Fong. “There is a good energy — the open-air space and the music, the fact that travelers can meet locals. It’s a nice mix.”
Fong — an imposing figure at 1.85 meters — throws a long arm in front of him while surveying the expansive lawn that sits in front of the main roofless stage.
“We’ve had so many famous Aboriginal bands play here... This place is a platform for visitors to know about Aboriginal music and that is important because the market for Aboriginal music is limited, even in Taiwan.”
Fong, who is himself from the Amis’ Malan tribe, says that Taitung City remains the unofficial capital of Aboriginal Taiwan with Tiehua Musical Village increasingly serving as a cultural gateway into the indigenous world it occupies.
“In Taitung we have Amis, Puyuma, Paiwan, Rukai, Bunun and Dawu people … Every month 70 percent of the stuff we showcase is local Aboriginal music.”
Established almost three years ago Tiehua Music Village came into being after the Lovely Taiwan Foundation (台灣好基金會), an organization founded by investment guru Ko Wen-chang (柯文昌), provided NT$10 million in funding as part of an effort to bolster Aboriginal culture and to boost the region’s fledging tourism industry.
With the number of guesthouses and bespoke boutique hotels mushrooming along the county’s coastline, while cultural hotspots including Dulan’s Sugar Factory (新東糖廠) and the popular venue Moonlight Inn (月光小棧) nearby continue to host bigger and bigger crowds, it appears the investment in Taitung’s low-level tourism industry is bearing fruit.
As the night progresses at Tiehua the number of visitors begins to swell and amid the cacophony of voices a few Latin tongues can be made out.
“Before Tiehua there was nowhere for tourists and visitors to really hear local music, there wasn’t even really a place to relax and have a beer,” Fong said, adding that he’s seen increased numbers of Taiwanese and people from around the world — Finland, Sweden, Brazil and backpackers from China — descend on Taitung.
Market traders selling locally-made handicrafts tend to their stalls under a row of coconut palms that fence off the outside road while the relaxed chitter-chatter of music-lovers fills the balmy evening air. It is a tranquil scene but Fong is careful to explain that it was not always this way.
“We spent three months fixing the place up,” says Fong. “It was derelict and had become a place where homeless people hung out and people were dumping their garbage here. There was a lot of construction waste to clean up.”
Located next to Taitung’s old city-center train station the area occupied by Tiehua once hosted a large Japanese community — principally railway authority employees and their families. Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) regime turned the facility into a dormitory for Taiwan Railway Administration workers and a labyrinth of now disused air-raid shelters bear witness to the paranoia of the times.