Thursday, March 3, 2011


Bunun (I think...please correct me if I'm wrong) dance in Kaohsiung's Central Park MRT Station

While we were in Kaohsiung a few weeks ago, we happened upon this aboriginal dance show taking place in the Central Park MRT Station. We'd stopped in the aboriginal goods stores opened - so we were told - partially thanks to the efforts of Chen Chu - to buy Taiwanese coffee and other small items as the show was about to start. This was not the first time we've seen aboriginal dancing - sometimes in the context of actual festivals where the dancing has some sort of cultural meaning, and sometimes...not.

If you've spent any amount of time in Taiwan at all, you've surely encountered these dance shows - you can see them every weekend evening at the Naruwan Indigenous People's Market at the intersection of Huanhe and Guangzhou Roads not far from Longshan Temple (and practically across the street from the historic Xuehai Academy, the first "university" in Taiwan - now a family shrine - also mentioned in the post linked to above). On certain days they're held in Kaohsiung's Central Park station, and there are other venues in which to see them, as well. Both Taipei City Hall and Kaohsiung Central Park MRT Stations have aboriginal stores, but only Kaohsiung's also has dances.

It's rare to have the knowledge and chance to attend many of the more authentic festivals (Pasta'ai is the easiest to get to, and even that takes some work if you want to go to Wufeng, not Nanzhuang), and you're about as likely to encounter the everyday use of traditional dress as you are to come across a Taiwanese woman walking down the street in a full qipao ("qipao-inspired" doesn't count, nor does a tiny dog in a qipao costume - a labrador in a qipao might count)...but seeing these dance shows is dead easy if you are so inclined.

Amis Tribe dance in Taipei's Naruwan Market

I'm not sure what to make of them, honestly. It is absolutely true that many (most? all?) of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan incorporate dancing into festivals and rituals, to the point where non-aboriginal Taiwanese can often imitate the basic moves of common dances.

Dancing at Pasta'ai 2010 in Wufeng

They certainly help spread at least basic knowledge of these tribal cultures, little-known outside Taiwan. They help bring to the public eye more recognition that there is more to Taiwanese culture than that which came from China (or Japan) - more so than museums that, while important (and however excellent), are simply not as active, interactive or in the public eye.

And yet, I can't help but also watch them and feel like one adjective that could be used to describe these dances is "exploitative". Maybe. I'm not sure about that, but the thought has stayed with me long enough to spur me to blog about it. These dances, taken out of context and set down in a subway station or food court - do they really accomplish more than a fleeting thought of "yeah, aboriginal stuff is pretty cool" in the minds of the audience? Does it convey any lasting knowledge or encourage more in-depth learning about aboriginal affairs?

I guess I just don't know what to think, and yes, I realize sometimes it's OK not to have a strong opinion, and to instead muse on possible points of view.

On one hand, many people would never be exposed to this important cultural element of Taiwan if it weren't for such dance shows. That goes for locals, many (not all!) of whom wouldn't actively seek out such facets of their own national history, as well as foreigners, especially those who don't stay long enough to gain such exposure otherwise (click on the "seven hellish months" link). These dances are also generally related in some way to aboriginal stores and eateries - I love millet wine so I find myself in the stores a lot - which I am sure helps boost exposure, and therefore revenue. For what it's worth, the performers seem to enjoy themselves, and the shows do attract a reasonably sized audience, and the shows seem to be organized by the dancers themselves and not by some outside force being all "show us your quaint Native Dances!" (If that were the case I'd be disgusted).

There's also the fact that live performances, to a far greater extent than in contemporary America, are more ingrained in the public psyche. Back home you'd be hard-pressed to find a local band or singing group playing under the town square gazebo anymore, and sadly, the tradition of holiday caroling has almost died out (I'm a fan of the old-school tradition, which involves lots of wassail or a suitably alcoholic substitute, and is much more "rowdy kids demanding treats" than "family oriented").

And yet here, there's super-loud karaoke - seriously, who here hasn't started a hike up a mountain only to come across a temple and associated public complex in which someone was atonally screaming their favorite classic songs? You know you have. Don't even pretend. There are seemingly-randomly staged budaixi puppet shows (I regularly come across them in Jingmei Night Market, put on for no discernible reason).

Budaixi - Taiwanes puppetry - puppet (without body) sporting an unusual number of heads

There are free-to-the-public showings of Taiwanese opera (gezaixi) outside temples as well as in the square around Yongle Market on Dihua Street...just because the people want opera.

Taiwanese opera - gexaixi - free to the public outside Bao'an Temple

Troupes of kids practice Michael Jackson moves to Jamiroquai hits - yeah, I don't know either - or communally engage in urban dance moves - in the esplanades of sports centers and underground malls in Taipei. Finally, what is a temple fair if not a series of live performances, from lion dancers to dragon dancers to bajiajiang?

Ba jia jiang outside of Qingshan Gong during a temple fair on Guiyang St., Taipei

Practically everywhere you turn there's a live show of some sort - some of them transcendent and others amateur-but-charming.

I can see how aboriginal dance shows would fit into that sort of culture.

The second part of the show in MRT Central Park

On the other hand, taking these dances out of context, putting the dancers in costumes they otherwise never wear, that likely haven't been worn commonly since their grandparents' generation, and sticking it in a subway station does make me wonder. Is it Culture Lite? Is it selling out something that would otherwise be authentic?

I don't have the answers, but I have to admit that I've been gnawing on the questions.

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