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.
When the Taitung County Government controversially relocated the city train station approximately 5 km west from the city center in June 1982 — leveling a thousands-year-old Aboriginal settlement in the process — the whole area fell into decline.
The creation of a garden-lined pedestrian pathway which connected Taitung’s old train station (located relatively close to Tiehua) with several back streets along which the trainline used to pass, the area was slowly revitalized and a renovated Tiehua threw its doors open to the public in late July 2010.
However, despite its colorful history, Tiehua is now facing an uncertain future. With a three-year-long government subsidy running to its natural end in the middle of July the music venue is having to actively generate new revenue streams.
“We have to work very hard now,” says Fong. “We need to get more ideas and let people know that we are not just about music, that we host theatrical performances, workshops, art exhibitions. We now need to use our energy and make some sacrifices so that Tiehua can really ‘explode’ on the map.”
Talk of explosions and sacrifices may sound far-fetched but for Fong — an ex-Special Forces operative who spent 20 years training police SWAT teams in anti-hijack, urban battle tactics — it may not be that far from reality.
The long-haired aging action man and his team now face an uphill task as they seek to turn the music village into something new, but the weekend farmers’ market has grown deep roots and the dedicated team of staff based at the venue have been making inroads in their drive to widen the venue’s appeal.
Darkness has now enshrouded Taitung and a four-piece band are charming their audience from Tiehua’s main-stage podium set among a thick bank of broad-leaved trees.
The venue, alive with a rainbow of tiny LED lights, wears a festival charm and groups of people lounge on rugs thrown around the lawn while giggling children run in circles nearby. A relaxed street dog cleans itself in a corner to complete the picture. Wednesday nights never felt so relaxed.
Throughout late May, Tiehua Music Village is hosting a range of acts with the weekends stacked up with Aboriginal entertainers.
Savakan perform on Saturday and this youthful five-piece will bring their ballady, rock-heavy style to the popular night spot. They are big, they are brash — but they can be sentimental too.
The minimalist Xi-Wu / Big & Small (璽伍/大大&小小) take center stage on May 24 and the vocal-led guitar and djembe drum trio are due to croon to a loyal and local fan base throughout the evening.
Salama, which means “Play Hard,” fully justify their title. This four, and sometimes five, member crew rocked Taitung’s October 2012 Open Surf competition hosted in Donghe Township (東河) and the Aboriginal crew bring their energetic, rock-driven sounds to Tiehua on May 25.
The last weekend in May sees talented Aboriginal singer Seize (希紫) take the limelight. A powerful vocalist — backed by percussion and acoustic musicians — Seize breathes life into several classic, traditional Aboriginal songs and exudes a charm which she uses to great effect in her rapport with an often-entranced crowd. Seize performs on Friday, May 31.
■ Performances start at 8pm and generally run until 10pm at Tiehua, 26, Ln 135, Xinsheng Rd, Taitung City (台東市新生路135巷26號), tel: (089) 343-393. Admission is NT$250 and includes one drink. Tickets can be purchased on the door or through tickets.books.com.tw. More information can be found through Tie Hua’s blog: tw.streetvoice.com/users/tiehua/