Keen to see their hometown become more progressive and prosperous, Tu Yun-chang (杜運昌) and his wife, Hsu Yu-lan (徐玉蘭), both from the Rukai Aboriginal tribe, decided in 2007 to move back to their tribal village in Pingtung County after decades of living in Taipei.
“Although life in the mountains is sort of boring, we still longed to go home and contribute what we had learned in the city to our tribe and local communities,” said Tu, 53, who enjoys fame as the “King of Rukai Cuisine” in Pingtung’s Wutai Township (霧台), where the couple now lives.
Their decision is unusual, because thousands of the nation’s estimated 490,000 Aborigines have migrated from tribal villages to cities in recent decades in search of work, with few returning home, where it is difficult to make a living.
The migration has made it more difficult for indigenous cultures and languages to be passed down to younger generations. Statistics from the Council of Indigenous Peoples show that about 40 percent of the nation’s Aborigines resided in rural areas last year.
But with the economic downturn, which has led to a steep rise in unemployment, more Aborigines may be considering the possibility of moving back to their home villages, where they have their family’s land and the cost of living is substantially lower, a council official said.
Tu and Hsu were part of the exodus of young Aborigines from tribal villages moving to the cities more than 30 years ago when they went to the north and tried to eke out a living by running a beef noodle shop in Wugu (五股), Taipei County.
But even then, the couple knew they would return home one day, said Hsu, 52.
“Compared with Taipei, life here in local tribal communities is much more tranquil, healthy and easier, and there is always something one can do for his tribe and to make his hometown better,” she said.
As the first ones from their tribal area to settle in Taipei, Hsu said they had helped many tribespeople seek jobs and places to live in the city over the past three decades. However, many of the people they have helped are still struggling to make ends meet in the city and come under serious pressure, she said.
“I encouraged my tribal folks to try their luck in the city 30 years ago. Now, if possible, I hope Rukai people can come back and pay back what they have learned to their hometowns,” Hsu said.
The couple’s success story could serve as a model for other Aborigines who wish to abandon the expensive and competitive life in the cities to try to make it back home.
The couple run a small Rukai-style restaurant in Wutai Township, which is often packed with city dwellers seeking fun and leisure in the mountains. The restaurant specializes in blending traditional Rukai flavors into new dishes.
Although it opened in 2007, the cuisine has quickly made the couple famous in Wutai and their restaurant has become a main attraction for many tourists and others looking for a taste of authentic Aboriginal cuisine.
Wutai Village in Wutai Township has a population of 3,000 and is situated at an elevation of more than 1,000m above sea level. The Rukai tribe counts about 10,000 members nationwide, its people scattered in Pingtung, Kaohsiung and Taitung counties.
“We opened the restaurant to offer something new and unique to our tribe and also to visitors,” Tu said.
Hsu said that at first she did not have the slightest idea of how to prepare Rukai style dishes, but was determined to learn.