In news reports, we often see urban aborigines' illegal shacks on riverbeds being torn down and their inhabitants being evicted. Many people will ask: Why would they live in "places like that"?
In the last of the films featured in our Amis Cinema on Paper series, the director's meticulous technique reveals a group of Amis living at a place called Talu-an ("Deer Hunting Bank"). They are constantly faced with the risk of unemployment, limited educational opportunities, and a substandard living environment, as well as unscrupulous employers and a lack of adequate health care, and their lives are full of frustration and hardship. Yet they still display the carefree acceptance of fate that is typical of the Amis outlook on life. Perhaps this film can help us to better understand their lives, hear their voices, and share in their joys.
In the inky darkness of night, a little lamp, a little fire, and a group of people gathered in a joyful circle, give the impression of a miniature version of the familiar aboriginal harvest festivals.
Talu-an by day
An orange Yuan Ze University building is set off against the background of a bright yellow field of flowering oilseed rape-nothing out of the ordinary. But then the camera zooms in on one part of the background, and we realize with surprise that a collection of simple wooden shacks is scattered among the natural green. So this is Talu-an!
History of Talu-an (1)
Hani was the first to discover Talu-an: "I came here two or three years ago. It was all grassland then. I saw that it wouldn't take much effort to clear a patch to grow some vegetables, so I settled here." "Now there are over 10 households living at Talu-an, mostly people from Hualien or Taitung." In beautiful spring sunshine, amid wooden bridges and flowing water, and accompanied by a few scrawny dogs, Hani introduces Talu-an.
Resident No. 1: Fagi
Fagi is an Amis from Hualien County. He has been living at Talu-an for a year. He has two sons, who live in state-built aboriginal apartment blocks at Tahsi. Fagi says that since his childhood he has been used to living in a natural environment like the one at Talu-an, so he doesn't feel settled living in a modern flat. Like many of the residents of Talu-an, Fagi works as a self-employed concrete formwork carpenter, while his wife works as his assistant. On building sites one can find many such husband-and-wife teams; A-Hui and Suwlam and their wives also work in this way. Mrs. A-Hui describes their situation: "We've only worked 13 days in the last month! The rest of the time we spend waiting for work. There's no steady work around."
When they are not working, they gather wild vegetables from the nearby mountains, or take their nets down to the river and go fishing. They come back from these daily forays with a plentiful harvest, and if they net more fish than they can eat themselves, they give them away to family or friends. When Hani and a dozen other strong Amis men have hauled in a big catch from the river, Hani jokes: "Aborigines love fishing! But we're afraid the fish will all be caught by foreign workers!" Someone else chips in: "That's right! They always steal our work!" Having received no pay for over three weeks, the men of Talu-an decide to go on strike to demand their money from the contractor. But the contractor sends a foreman to mediate with them, and in the end nothing comes of their strike plans.
History of Talu-an (2)
Hani: "More and more people are coming to live here. Because the economy's bad, people don't have money to pay rent, so they come to Talu-an." "It's not just that it's cheap and convenient to live at Talu-an-we all think living here together is a lot of fun, too!"
Resident No. 2: A-Shan
A-Shan and his wife, who have disappointment written all over their faces, sit outside their home on wicker chairs waiting long hours for a phone call with news of work. A-Shan says with annoyance: "We've been waiting for days, but there's nothing. I'm fed up with sitting at home every day like this!" A-Shan, who is from Hualien, has been a formwork carpenter for over ten years. Because of the slump in the construction industry he has moved to Talu-an with his wife and three daughters. This family of five lives in a space of only six or seven square meters. Their electricity comes from a small generator, and they take water for bathing and laundry from a field irrigation channel behind their shack. For drinking water, they go to more trouble, fetching it by car from the Leleku spring two kilometers away. Whenever it is time to go and fetch water, A-Shan and his family drive off to Leleku with an assortment of soft drinks bottles large and small. "Ah! Terrific!" A-Shan's obvious pleasure when he drinks the mountain spring water straight from the pipe shows how sweet and tasty the water is!
History of Talu-an (3)
New Year's Day, 1999. The Talu-an residents gather together to sing karaoke at the top of their voices, and also play merrily with their little black dogs. The dogs get into the swing of things too, wagging their tails gleefully. In their unaffected, joyful celebration, for a time the people of Talu-an cast off all the pain and hardship of their work and lives.
They have passed several New Years in Talu-an, and no one has tried to evict them. "We've never even seen the landowner. There have only been a few teachers from Yuan Ze University who came and asked us some questions. If anyone does come to boot us out, well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it!" says Hani optimistically.
Resident No. 3: A-Ching
A-Ching previously worked as a carpenter in Hsinchu. His younger brother told him that at Talu-an there was land where one could grow vegetables, so he moved here and occupied a patch of land to live on. A-Ching owns half a hectare of paddy fields at his old home in Hualien, but it is not enough to support a family, so he had to come north to find work. He still wants to return home in the future, and today he goes back to Hualien once a month. His son, a second-year junior-high-school student, stays at home in Hualien to look after A-Ching's 86-year-old mother.
Resident No. 4: Mrs. A-Shan
After Mrs. A-Shan got married, she and A-Shan first lived near Taoyuan General Hospital, not far from Talu-an. But because of the slump in the construction industry they didn't have a steady income, so they moved to Talu-an. Mrs. A-Shan describes their present situation with obvious distress: "Sometimes we have work, sometimes we don't. But even when you do have work, you can't be sure you'll get paid. If you're hired by a good boss, you'll get paid. If you're hired by a bad one, you won't get paid."
A few days ago, her husband's nephew's four-month-old daughter's throat was blocked with phlegm because of a cold. They rushed her to hospital, but the nephew couldn't pay a deposit for the medical fees, so they had to bring her home again. At nine o'clock the next morning, the baby died. Mrs. A-Shan says helplessly: "It's not as if he hasn't got money. He's got checks for three jobs, but they're all post-dated by a month or two. And another boss owes him over NT$200,000!"
Mrs. A-Shan's own three daughters only have a junior high school education. The youngest wanted to go back to school, but because of the family's financial situation, the daughter just says, "Maybe next year!"
About her life in general, Mrs. A-Shan also just says: "Well, you can't call it good, but you can't call it bad either. I suppose it's all right. I can't complain really!"
History of Talu-an (4)
31 January 1999. Talu-an's oldest resident, Suwlam, suggests that because the number of people at Talu-an is growing, they need to choose a chieftain to promote solidarity and progress there. Talu-an's residents hold a ballot to elect a chieftain and other officials. By the evening of election day, all the adults at Talu-an have acquired new titles.
In Taoyuan County alone, communities similar to Talu-an can be seen in many places, such as Lungtan, Kuishan, Tahsi, and even on the bed of the Tahan River. These settlements may be somewhat ramshackle, but for Amis trying to make their way in the cities, they are a rare and precious paradise.l
Filmed in February 1999
Length: 35 minutes
Characters: Hani; A-Hui and his wife; Fagi and his wife; Suwlam and his wife; A-Shan and his wife; A-Ching; and the other people of Talu-an.
Writer and director: Laway (Chinese name: Chen Cheng-yuan)
Guidance: Full Shot Communication Foundation
Outline: Some Amis who have come from Hualien and Taitung to seek work in the urban areas of northern Taiwan, but who cannot forget their ways of living close to nature back home, have chanced to come together and settle on some unoccupied land behind Yuan Ze University in Chungli, Taoyuan County. Here over ten families work, fish, gather vegetables, chat and sing together. The contrast between their uncertain future and their happy-go-lucky attitude of living in the present adds a poignancy to otherwise amusing events.