Pisirian on the Sea

The Story of an Amis-Tribe Community’s Rejuvenation and Emergence as a Tourist Draw

Text:Rick Charette
Photos:Ray Chang

“Paw-Paw” drumming, indigenous-craft driftwood DIY goats, village cultural tour, indigenous feasting – sound like your cup of tea?

It’s not known exactly when the Amis people, today Taiwan’s largest indigenous tribe, arrived and settled on the east coast. Written history records they were here when the Dutch and Spanish both took stabs at lording it over the island in the 1600s, setting up colonies. But the Amis had no written language, and their spoken tales of origin, gods, and heroes contain no clear clues. It’s also not known if they are the direct descendants of the ancient peoples that inhabited this region, who came here over three millennia ago – evidence of their existence unearthed by archeologists over the past century, some of which can be viewed at locations such as the Dulan Site and Baxian Caves (see this issue’s Feature article).

And it is unknown when the Pisirian came to Pisirian, which I found myself standing in, in the middle of one cool, overcast recent day. One thing, however, is known – there were goats aplenty on the spot to greet them. I’ll let Pisirian Chen Chun-mei decode what I just said:
“In the Amis culture, the name of a place is generally given to the village that grows up there, and to the Amis sub-tribe that lives there,” she told me, standing outside the Pisirian Cultural Center. “I am Pasirian, from the Pisirian sub-tribe, and the name of our village is Pisirian, which is Amis for ‘goat goat,’ as in ‘many goats’ and ‘place for raising goats.’ When our people arrived here long ago, traveling down the Taitung coast, they found many wild goats ‘waiting’ for them as they came ashore.”
Who is Chen, and just where were all those goats found? The latter first. Pisirian sits against the northeast tip of a Coastal Mountain Range spur that juts out into the sea, forming a small peninsula. Wild goats would long come out of the hills to munch on the peninsula-edge grasslands. Just off the headland’s middle is Sanxiantai (“Platform of the Three Immortals”), a major tourist attraction, which once was part of the headland.

Chen is head of the Paw-Paw Drum Ensemble, Pisirian’s big tourist draw, and the community’s development association. She’s also the person to contact regarding enjoyment of the village’s four offered tourist experiences, with the cultural center as hub. As she led our Travel in Taiwan team out on the village tour (NT$150 person), she gave us more background:
“The center is our ‘window’ for visitors. We offer four experiences – a guided village tour, a Driftwood Little Goat DIY handicraft workshop, a traditional Amis feast, and a drum show with traditional song and dance. There’s a separate fee for each (minimum five people), so you can pick and choose.” Whichever you choose, reservations are a must.
“In recent decades Pisirian was slowly fading. Young folk were not interested in our traditional goat-raising, fishing, and small-scale farming. The government’s development of Sanxiantai also squeezed our traditional lands, affecting income. Our village-tourism development over the past decade has breathed new life into the community, and the young generation is given great responsibility, giving them a sense of accomplishment and income incentives, keeping them here.”

The village has been made a place of public art. You’ll come across wood versions of goats everywhere, most moderate in size, a few very large. You’ll also see cute painted-cartoon figures on walls in 11 locations. These are based on the award-winning picture books of the much-loved Taiwan illustrator Jimmy (Jimmy Liao), who wanted to help the community’s tourism-promotion efforts. The direction these characters face shows you where to go on self-guided tours.
Chen showed us a number of wood-built thatch-roof pavilions. “These are traditional-style rest pavilions, common in the old days, where you could chat and catch the breeze,” she says. “We’ve dotted the village with them again, to get people outside and interacting. They’ve done wonders for community spirit, especially among seniors. If someone doesn’t appear, everyone notices, and we go to check.”
Among the other sites visited are an open-air workshop, the village-run homestay, and a small stand of areca palms. The workshop is where “Amis mochi” (made with millet, rice, and sweet potato), traditional-style wedding feasts, etc., have long been prepared. The homestay, beside the cultural center, was long the home of an important fisherman and village leader; before it are low-walled cement tanks the village’s best catch and fry would be showcased in for out-of-town buyers.

Our 90-minute tour ended back at the cultural center. Chen went off to help the drum troupe get ready, and the show (NT$300) started soon thereafter.
The Paw-Paw Drum Ensemble has performed all around Taiwan, and even overseas in Shanghai. Its energetic shows, showcasing traditional Amis song and dance, feature heart-thumping drumming. The performers are all young students. “We only stage Saturday and Sunday shows (11am and 2pm),” Chen informed us, “so the kids can concentrate on their studies during the week. They receive artist payments: part goes to their family, part is their pocket money, and part is reserved and presented upon their high-school graduation, contingent on good behavior.”
The center was transformed to serve as their training/performance facility. “In Amis we call fishing buoys ‘paw-paw.’ Our old and damaged ones kept piling up, and it was found that when the hard, thick-plastic buoys were cut through, the drum-like halves, when struck, had a sound akin to African drums. An idea was born. Village driftwood artists carved wooden drum bodies for them, and stretched goatskin over them. The drums were then decorated with traditional-style engraved patterns, ribbons, etc., with the Amis-clothing colors red, green, and yellow emphasized. In 2009 the founder of Taiwan’s acclaimed Ju Percussion Group, Ju Tzong-Ching, came for a show, and right then and there decided to help us. His group has since given us invaluable, intensive training, raising us to international standards.”
A note of “warning”: Do not expect to be allowed to gaze on passively during the hour-plus-long fireworks. Audience members are strongly “encouraged” to get up on their feet and lend their talent to the happy rhythmic dancing.

Afterwards, it was up to the center’s rustic thatch-covered rooftop for our Amis-fare feast (NT$350), which turned out to have an unexpectedly wide range of tastes. We lingered, the sweeping ocean views, salty breezes, and sound of crashing waves encouraging our appetites, over such Amis classics as roast boar, fried flying fish, baked sweet potato, wood-cured roasted shrimp, and a-bai (see our Feature – Stay/Eat/Buy article), these containing taro and tender marinated roast pork.

We finished up with our Driftwood Little Goat DIY session (NT$250). Your fee brings you the needed wood pieces, acrylic paints, tools, and instruction, and you of course get to take your artwork home. During our class, Chen continued to regale us with stories of Pisirian life.
Pointing to a mammoth-sized goat sculpture atop the dike directly before the center, she said there were once two. “Typhoon Morakot (Taiwan’s strongest recorded typhoon) hit us hard in 2009, and we woke up to find the second goat gone. No trace has ever been found. The gods blessed us in one way, however. For years we had plans to build on our roof. Morakot stuffed the bay before us with driftwood, and our young people spent days in boats hauling in the best pieces, giving us everything needed, notably the beautiful pieces used for our large tables and massive pillars, which would have cost a fortune.”

Sanxiantai is visible over the dike from the rooftop, and Chen had numerous tales about the island and adjacent mainland area. “They used to be part of our traditional lands,” she told us. “We’d collect laver around the island after storms. Up until I was a young girl, our custom during the annual Harvest Festival was to drive all village goats and cattle across the short section of open water to the island, which had enough forage and fresh water to last during our busy week-plus of celebrating. Amis aren’t good swimmers, so young folk would follow the animals across in lines of 6~8, arms interlocked. Great fun!”

With our goats done, so was our visit. I have “revisited” Pisirian since, however, oft drifting back in my dreams, vivid visions of drumming and dancing in my head. Amis dancers and – strangely yet understandably – dancing goats as well. Great fun indeed.

Sanxiantai is a small volcanic-rock island of massive black-tinged bluffs said to resemble three Daoist deities, in petrified form, who visited here on an immortal cross-ocean flying journey long ago. You reach it on foot via a long dragon-back-shaped arch bridge. We spent a happy 90 minutes traipsing along the bridge and the island’s easy loop trail. Note that a pleasant bike path to nearby Jihui Fishing Harbor starts at the Sanxiantai parking lot, with rentals available.

Getting There
On Provincial Highway 11, turn toward the coast just north of Chenggong town at the direction sign to Sanxiantai. Along the way is a split (three large shoulder-to-shoulder boulders in the grassy area between), with a sign, again with English, indicating Sanxiantai to the right and Shiyusan to the left. Bear left; Pisirian will appear almost immediately.

Pisirian Cultural Center (比西里岸文化中心)
Add:No. 260, Bailian Rd., Chenggong Township, Taitung County (台東縣成功鎮白蓮路260號)
Tel: 0988-353-122
Website: pawpawdrum.weebly.com (Chinese)

English and Chinese

Amis mocha阿美麻糬
Amis tribe阿美族
Chen Chun-mei陳春妹
Coastal Mountain Range海岸山脈
Jihui Fishing Harbor基翬漁港
Jimmy Liao廖幾米
Ju Percussion Group朱宗慶打擊樂團
Ju Tzong-Ching朱宗慶
Paw-Paw Drum EnsemblePAWPAW鼓樂團