PateRongan Art

A House of Light on Taiwan’s East Coast

2020 / November

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

For fiber artist Chen Shu-yen, weaving is ubiquitous. Using local materials and traditional techniques, she and her husband Tuwak Tuyaw, a bamboo and rattan artist of the Kavalan people, have created lamps by inserting light sources into traditional sanku fish traps. The lamps beautifully project light and shadows through the structure of the traps. Weaving with light, their studio Pate­Rongan Art—a “house of light” beside Provincial Highway 11 on Taiwan’s East Coast—combines traditional and con­tempor­ary techniques and aesthetics.

Walking into PateRongan Art (formerly PateRongan Handmade Studio), you are greeted by Pacific Ocean vistas. Bamboo, rattan and other plant materials are hanging every­where, and a big pot of natural dye simmers on a stove. An artisanal sensibility pervades the space. Here is where Chen Shu-yen and Tuwak Tuyaw live and create in the company of their pets. With great care and respect, they use materials gathered from nature to create contemporary art, employ­ing traditional techniques passed down from earlier genera­tions of Kava­lan and keeping a promise to be good stewards of the land.

Seaside summer school

A sun-drenched summer’s day is a great time to process banana-silk fiber.

Bright and early, Chen Shu-yen and Tuwak Tuyaw lead students from the banana-silk workshop they teach up the mountain to select suitable banana plants—ones that have not yet produced any fruit. In accordance with Kavalan traditions, they perform a simple ceremony to honor their ancestors before bringing the entire plants back to their studio.

The Kavalan people of Hualien’s Paterungan indigenous community practice a unique form of banana-silk weaving. They take leaf sheathes from the pseudostem of the Latundan—or “silk”—banana, scrape out the unwanted pith, dry the remaining mater­ial under the sun, and then separate and prepare the fiber before finally weaving it into fabric for clothing and other products. Chen demonstrates how to pull out the leaf sheaths from the bark. Then, while securing them with her feet and one hand, she scrapes out the starchy pith with a knife until it becomes partially transparent and the silky fibers become clearly visible. The banana silk is then dried in sheets ­under the sun, before being separated into silky strands that are connected and wound into balls of yarn. At that point, the weaving process can begin. 

Tuwak Tuyaw had borrowed some century-old warping machines and ground looms from tribal grandmothers to show the students in their weaving workshop. Chen even invited some of the grandmothers to put on a demonstration. The eyesight of 100-year-old Zhu Aju is failing, but once the tools are in her hands, they move without her seeming to give them any thought. Fan Tianli, who is in her 80s, guides her students’ hands as she teaches them how to put the banana-­silk thread in the warping machine. When the students lose their way, she sets them straight.

In truth, banana-silk weaving can also be found in places such as Okinawa and the Philippines. Yet Chen emphasizes: “The Kavalan directly scrape the pith from the raw banana fiber, whereas in other places the fiber is typic­ally cooked before scraping. The method is different. Thus the banana-silk weavings of Paterungan are quite unusual.”

Every year PateRongan holds classes on topics such as bamboo and rattan weaving, shell ginger leaf weaving, natural plant-based dyeing, and bark cloth making. Starting by having the class experience the feel of the raw materials as they gather and process them, she leads the students to reconsider the relationship between people and the environment.

Upholding a creative tradition

Chen is a fiber artist who loves to work with plant mater­ials. From a young age, she was captivated with ancient cultures, and as a teenager, she explored her own mind through reading. After graduating from National Taiwan University of Arts, she began a long period of travel­ing, when she would ride her motorcycle to experience life in various indigen­ous communities.

Through the many years after she returned to her life in the city, Chen never lost her love for artistic creation. “Inside I had a desire for something different from other people—namely an expectation for my own life: I wanted to realize my own life mission and destiny.” As if respond­ing to life’s call, in 1993 she had a chance encounter with fiber art and came to understand how natural fibers held possibilities that extended beyond ­traditional handicrafts. With a background in clothing design, Chen thus stepped into the world of fiber art.

In 2005, Chen was invited to Paterungan in Hualien’s Fengbin Township to serve as a consultant for the Lala Ban banana-silk workshops.

From a creative standpoint, banana-fiber weaving has presented Chen with many possibilities. She goes to colleges and tribal communities to teach the craft, with the hope that young people will gain experience with it—for only then will it be possible to inject new elements of creative design into the traditional craft and pass the torch to new generations. In her workshops, Chen always invites tribal grandmothers—living national treasures—to come and demonstrate their expertise. “It’s not hard to teach the craft. I could always do that myself. But having the grandmothers there provides special meaning.” Chen hopes that giving students exposure to these dignified tribal elders will allow the grandmothers to gain a feel for their own self-worth.

Fish traps as contemporary design

“I stay in Paterungan because I haven’t yet achieved my mission,” says Chen. “I took to heart the mission to revive Kavalan culture.”

Seeking out tribal people to talk about their culture and artifacts, she once heard some men joke, “Perhaps we Kavalan are pretty lazy, because we only open up one end of our fish traps. It’s like catching fish with a funnel.” That provided Chen with a flash of inspiration: “We’ll use that to create something!” She drew up some design illustrations and asked some older men in the village to make them. “Fish traps are for catching fish, but if you don’t catch fish, how about catching light?” she thought. “If you put a light source inside those fish traps and let it shine out from within, that would make a nice lamp.” It was turning point for Chen. 

The method for making traditional fish traps involves cutting bamboo into equal lengths, splitting these into thin strips, trimming off the soft inner material and then binding the strips onto hoops with rattan. Shaping the traps by hand is a test of their maker’s skill and famili­arity with the materials. Chen’s lamp design concepts were particularly challenging, so she enlisted the help of her good friend Tuwak Tuyaw, who is skilled at the traditional craft of making bows and arrows. The two threw themselves into their work together, becoming important creative collaborators and eventually life partners too.

The works created by the two have a deep connection to the locale and feature Aboriginal elements, while also ­evincing a minimalistic style that is quite contemporary in flavor. Earning the favor of the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute, they were invited to create lamps for an exhibition on lighting arts at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. Chen then went on to in­corpor­ate other craft elements into her lamp designs, such as bark cloth, indigo dyes, and rattan weaving. These have yielded a variety of effects. The lamps are simple and un­preten­tious and create a warm and healing atmosphere.

Using natural resources appropriately

Making use of natural resources was essential for our ancestors to adapt to their environments, and the Kavalan were skilled at making full use of the banana plant: They ate the fruit, used the leaves as wrappers, and drew banana silk from its pseudostem. The inner stem or “banana heart” was eaten in cold dishes, and the leathery inner skin of the pseudo­stem was dried for use as a raw material for handicrafts. What was left over was dug into the soil as fertilizer. Not a bit of the plant was wasted.

Contemporary art often reflects on people’s relationship to the environment as it makes calls for environmental awareness and sustainability. Yet Chen says, “For us, ‘sustainability’ and ‘environmentalism’ are just concepts, but for them [Taiwan’s indigenous peoples] those concepts are a way of life. Taking from nature demands sufficient familiarity and knowledge—finding balance in how natural mater­ials are used.”

Weaving life in the tribal community

The ample content of the four-day workshop keeps every­one busy, processing banana silk as they chat about daily life. But when students hear someone say, “The moon is out over the ocean!” or “Look! It’s raining on the sea!” everyone puts down what they are doing to take in the view. During classes, dogs and cats often come in and seek the students’ company. At dusk everyone walks along the beach or eats dinner while staring out at the ocean. Such is daily life in this indigen­ous community.

One night, after sunset, Chen is leaving to take her dogs out for a walk in the moonlight, and she asks the students from the workshop if they want to come out with her. In this manner they live and create, with daily life and artistic creation woven together—like strips of bamboo and rattan intermeshed among strands of light. Chen and Tuwak Tuyaw are merging traditional arts with a future-­oriented sensibility to create contempor­ary fish-­trap light fixtures. At the same time, they are connecting local groups with friendly outsiders who make the trip there—as they themselves are becoming beacons of light in art, life and memory.               

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