Lanyu: Taiwan’s Orchid Island

Lanyu: Taiwan’s Orchid Island

More than 99% of Taiwan’s people live on an island that is often likened to a tobacco leaf in terms of shape, and frequently described as a biodiversity hotspot of global significance.

The island of Taiwan also has the lion’s share of the country’s land area, but this does not mean visitors should skip the minor inhabited islands to the northwest, west, and southeast. Each has a distinctive appeal, yet a few generalizations can be made. On none of them does the population density come close to that of the crowded principal island. Apart from fishing, tourism, and small-scale agriculture, there is little economic activity.

Like Taiwan proper, all but one of these island communities are dominated by the descendants of migrants who crossed the ocean from China’s Fujian and Guangdong provinces centuries ago. The exception is known to the majority of Taiwan’s people as Lanyu (a straightforward transliteration of its Mandarin name, which means “Orchid Island”), but to its native inhabitants it is Pongso no Tao.

Like their aboriginal compatriots in the mountainous and eastern parts of Taiwan, the inhabitants of Lanyu are of Austronesian origin. Their language is related to those spoken by forest dwellers in Borneo and the Maoris of New Zealand.

Lanyu’s Tao (also known as Yami) people are recognized by Taiwan’s government as one of the country’s 16 indigenous ethnic groups, and in some ways their culture is better preserved than that of the indigenous people on “mainland Taiwan.” This is largely because Orchid Island has always been difficult to get to. Even now, the ferries that sail between the island and Fugang (near Taitung City in southwestern Taiwan) and Houbihu near Kending are often canceled due to rough seas. The 19-seater airplanes that fly to Lanyu from Taitung are also vulnerable to the weather. Very often, they are fully booked a day or more in advance; nowadays many of the 4,600 Tao work or study in Taitung or other Taiwanese cities, and they are eager to return to their families whenever they can.

Your chances of enjoying a smooth voyage or an on-time flight are best in the second quarter of the year. Lanyu is a mere 63 kilometers east of the Hengchun Peninsula but because of transportation issues, international visitors keen to see Orchid Island should give themselves at least two spare days between their planned return to “mainland Taiwan” and their flight out of the country.

There are no five-star resorts on Lanyu, and little English is spoken. So why endure an uncomfortable crossing and risk a two-day/one-night excursion getting extended to five days and four nights? Taipei-based blogger Richard Saunders, who has explored and written about Taiwan in great depth, sums up the appeal of Orchid Island in Taiwan 101, his two-volume collection of recommended sights and experiences. “Lanyu is still possibly Taiwan’s most magical corner,” he gushes. “It’s completely unlike anywhere else, and it’s absolutely fascinating.”

For a start, there is the Tao’s unique traditional architecture. Lanyu is on the frontline when typhoons blow in from the Pacific – one reason why relying on being able to depart on a particular day at a particular time is dicey – and over the 800 or more years the Tao have lived here, they have perfected the skill of building stone houses that are semi-underground and thus proof against the strongest gales.

The landscape of Orchid Island is rugged. A significant portion of the island is covered by tropical forest, and there are some small but attractive beaches. Ecotourists come in the hope of spotting the Formosan flying fox (Pteropus dasymallus formosus), a large fruit-eating bat, and the endemic Lanyu scops owl (Otus elegans botelensis). As the island’s name implies, there are also wild orchids.

The majority of Tao dress no differently from other Taiwanese, yet some elderly tribesmen go about their daily chores of fishing and farming clad in little more than a traditional loincloth. During festivals, they wear rattan vests and conical helmets made of silver. The latter cover the entire head, with a pair of narrow slits for the eyes.

A traditional hair dance.

There are no silver mines on the island, and the way in which the Tao acquired the metal is fascinating. During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, many ships dropped anchor at Orchid Island. Among them were Spanish galleons, sailing to and from the Philippines (the nearest Philippine territory is just 132 kilometers to the south). The visiting sailors sometimes bought provisions, and paid in Mexican silver dollars. Having no use for currency, the Tao beat the coins flat, tied them together, and created some of Taiwan’s most iconic artifacts.

Fishing is central to Tao existence, and a rich body of folkways surrounds the building of fishing boats, the act of fishing, and the sharing of the catch. Tao boats resemble large canoes; each is assembled from 27 pieces of longan or breadfruit wood, and held together by pegs.

Flying fish, which the Tao call alibangbang, appear around the island between March and June, and much of the fishing is done at night. At this time of year other fish species are not consumed, giving stocks a chance to recover.

Some types of fish are reserved for certain members of the community such as the elderly. Black flying fish are considered a true delicacy, so they are usually sun-cured and saved for guests or for consumption at the very end of the flying fish season.

Fishing is entirely men’s work. The taboo that prohibits women from ever touching any of the boats applies not only to Tao but also outsiders. Cultivating taro and raising native black pigs are among traditional female duties.

The ceremony launching a new boat.

Other customs are less visible, but no less intriguing. If you meet a Tao man whose name is identical to his father’s, it is not because the youngster was named after his father, but rather that, after a couple have their first child, the father should change his name to match the one given to the child.

Lanyu is a challenging destination, to be sure, yet immensely rewarding. A good place to begin gathering travel tips is Taitung County Government’s multilingual website. For all kinds of information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).