The indigenous Tao people on Taiwan’s Orchid Island have long struggled to preserve their home and culture as the world around them changed.
In 2014, the island saw its first chain convenience store open. And in recent years, the island has become a popular tourist destination because of its beautiful coral reef and the Tao people’s distinctive culture.
Many are worried that the increasing number of tourists will only mean more trash and pollution, not jobs and income. The Tao have traditionally relied on fishing for survival, but that way of life is now under threat.
Wen-Yen Wang has regularly visited the island and captured the stories of the Tao people in a photo essay, which recently won awards in several categories in a national photo contest held by Taiwan News Photograph Study Group. Below are some of his photos and descriptions.
At night when the tides were low, an Orchid Islander went to the sea to catch crabs.
He jumped on black reef rocks. The waves crashed on the rocks from time to time. I did not see him move, but he had already grabbed some crabs with his hands. Sometimes he jumped into the water to find the lobsters hiding between the rocks under the water.
Dakaan is a typical character who represents the transition between old and new ways of life on Orchid Island. He could not read much as he did not like to go to school when he was a kid. However, he is a famous ‘prince of the sea’ in the fishing village. He knows a lot about the sea, and many Orchid Islanders come to him to learn how to catch fish. In the traditional Tao society, a man who can catch fish is the best match for women. However, Dakaan is still single today, because the Orchid Islanders who step into the monetary economy do not value fishing skills anymore. Although Dakaan has a terrific ability to catch fish with his bare hands underwater, he cannot earn much money that way. As a result, he has started earning some extra money on the main island Taiwan after the flying fish season.
Dakaan goes to the sea in the morning to check the fishing net he set up on the seafloor.
Dakaan swims between the reef and surface to collect turban snails.
Dakaan collects a fishing net with a dozen rudder fish in it.
To set up a fishing net on the seabed, Dakaan must dive to reach the 6-meter-deep bottom to fix the net with rocks.
Dakaan fights with a freshly caught octopus on his way up back to the surface of the sea.
Dakaan searches for fish hiding in the reef caves during a night dive.
Dakaan washes himself in the river to warm up his body after diving during a winter's night. He does not wear the wet suit even when the cold front arrives.
Dakaan ridea a boat to catch flying fish and to fish.
After the flying fish season, Dakaan goes to Taiwan to work. Away from the sea, dining with friends and singing becomes his only entertainment.
Awen grew up on Orchid Island. He owns a grocery store and runs a motorcycle rental business. Although he rarely goes into the sea, he cares about the sea and the island more than anyone or anything else. He is worried that his beautiful homeland will disappear due to environmental destruction. He has started working on recycling: he contacts recycling companies, collects bags full of bottles and cans, and puts in new bags. He even bought a van for the endeavor. He drives the van to pick up the bags filled with bottles and cans and sets up new bags every few days across the island. To store these bottles and cans, he asked his father, who disapproves of his work, to give him a piece of land, which should be good for planting taros, as a storage site. Others’ plots of land grow taros and sweet potatoes, and his land grows trash.
Min-Jun Jiang is the chief of a big ship in I-Raraley. Traditionally, fishing vessels in Orchid Island are run by family. The chief of a vessel has to be a respectful figure with a big family. As a result of social and cultural change, these kind of family vessels no longer exist. And the few vessel chiefs are all getting old.