Reaping the rewards of agricultural enterprise

A village community in Ilan County has an interesting story to tell about how art bridged the divide between rival temples

By Derek Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

Sat, Mar 20, 2004 - Page 16

There is a fairy tale that tells of two quarreling gods who settle a dispute between them by making works of art out of haystacks. Jenju community

(珍珠社區) in Ilan County has a similar story and its artistic creations made of dried grasses are now a big tourist attraction.

Jenju (which means "pearl") in Tungshan Township (冬山鄉) is said by local residents to be the first place in the world to utilize hay as a medium for the creation of works of art. Other than binding hay into bails, as is usual, local farmers have devised a hundred ways of forming the bails and stacks into craftworks that amaze everyone.

The Jenju story begins in the mists of time with disputes arising from competition between two rival local temples, the Chinshing Divine Palace (進興宮) and Holy Grace Temple (聖福廟). Three years ago in September, local landscaping specialist and artist Huang Chien-da (黃建達) organized a hay art festival among neighboring villages and painted the faces of the two deities representing the rival temples on the 7m by 7m haystacks.

"My idea was fairly simple at the time," said Huang, who is in his 30s. "Since the adherents of these two temples used to boycott each other's religious activities, I figured that if I put their worshiping gods side by side, the followers would have to come together and participate in the same event."

This artistic display seemed to defuse the ancient antagonism overnight and now these two painted haystack gods have become landmarks for Jenju. The hay art festival is held from July to September every year and features such crafts as hay painting, hay-pulp masks, hay dolls, hay knitting and more.

"You see, we specialize in hay art from the standpoint of seeking community harmony. Huang's bold move has given his fellow residents a great opportunity to explore something creative in art. This goes far beyond what any farmer could have imagined in the past," said Lee Hou-zine (李後進), president of the Jenju Community Development Association (珍珠社區發展協會).

One example of how people have benefited practically is the pulp-mask business, where straw is ground into powder and made into masks with a machine. This small enterprise now brings in an income of NT$2 million a year through sales to tourists. Another popular craft is cutting the hay into small sections, which are dyed and then glued onto wood panels to create paintings.

The Jenju community was created in February 1994 in an area that was formally inhabited by one of the 36 Pingpu Kuvalan tribes (平埔噶瑪蘭族). According to local legend, it used to be relatively easy to find lost pearls on the ground by the wharf from which Kuvalan tribesmen used to set sail to trade in various southeastern Asian countries. The returning Kuvalans would bring back such large quantities of pearls and agates that, presumably, they didn't miss losing a few.

The 2.5km2 community relies primarily on rice and vegetable cultivation and is helped in this respect by the 24km-long Tungshan River which flows through it. A census accounted for 250 people in the area in 1810 and there are now 1,851, with a population increase of 10 percent in recent years, due perhaps to the community's success in providing jobs for its residents.

The river is used for many large-scale international water sport events and one of the most popular cultural activities in Taiwan, the International Children's Folklore and Folkgame Festival (國際童玩節), is held at Tungshan River Chingshuei Park (冬山河親水公園), attracting millions of visitors from around the country and overseas.

The Ilan County Government plans to launch a water bus project a few years from now by using solar-powered ferryboats to link Jenju Community, Chingshuei Park and other popular visitor points along the river. Its overarching aim is to set up a national waterfront recreation area to boost local tourism even further.

The Jenju community, however, is just one example of the many independent villages which have adapted to changes in the farming ecomomy. Other examples include Ilan's White Rice Community (白米社區), which is well-known for producing wooden shoes; and the Jiu Zan Tou Community (九贊頭公社), which offers ecology and cloth handicraft classes in Hsinchu County (新竹縣).

Under the 10-year-old Integrated Community Development Project (社區總體營造) initiated by the Council for Cultural Affairs (文建會), more than a hundred communities all over Taiwan have demonstrated their burgeoning cultural creativity by adapting local and natural resources.

If you do have the chance to visit Jenju, do not miss a pumpkin meal or baked pumpkin pie. Local resident Lee Chi-sen (李吉森) introduced pumpkin seeds from the US several years ago and his garden is now over 150m long, with over 300 varieties of pumpkin plants from all over the world.

Lee, who is in his 60s, is an art-crazy farmer as well. He enjoys making carvings, in the shape of a Chinese dragon or other animals, on the skin of his pumpkins that hang from canopies of leaves in the garden.

There are many untold stories in the country's village communities and the story of one man bringing peace to a village through hay art is just one of them.