Friday, June 02, 2006

Familiar Faces in Taiwan

Graham Reid: Familiar faces in Taiwan
Friday June 2, 2006
Anyone who has been to the Shung Ye Museum of Formosa Aborigines in Taiwan would hardly have been surprised when researchers found a genetic link between the peoples of that part of the world and those in the Pacific.
One glance at the displays in dark cabinets and you didn't need a scientist to tell you what was obvious.
But of course, few people have seen the Shung Ye Museum, despite it being opposite the tourist magnet which is the National Palace Museum in Taipei, the vast structure built into a mountain which houses the world's largest and best collection of Chinese art.
But Taipei is not a destination for tourists. It draws business people for the most part and only around 5000 Kiwis a year make it there. And my guess is that only a tiny percentage of them do much more in this noisy, fume-filled city than go to Snake Alley to drink - or watch others drink - snake blood, eat turtles or buy some weird powder from an endangered species guaranteed (yes, guaranteed) to enhance sexual performance.
Taipei is not by any measure one of the world's most attractive cities and I could find no reference to it in that recent list of the best quality-of-life cities to live in.
The predilection for convenient but noisy motorcycles reaches its zenith in Taipei. They form solid lines along footpaths, come at you from all sides when you step out of shop doors on to the pavement, and zoom around at all hours of the night like manic mosquitoes.
Yet Taipei does have its attractions: the most amusing (but the one you need to stay poker-faced for) is the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial where the hourly changing of the guard looks like it has been choreographed by Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks.
Of much more interest to travellers from the Pacific is the Shung Ye Museum.
Taiwan brags long and loud about its aboriginal peoples - nine separate tribes by all accounts - but they comprise only 2 per cent of the population and so are all but invisible. Their festivals are being encouraged because they form a colourful and unexpected tourist attraction in a country notable for its homogeneity. But mostly their story is told in the museum, where their traditional crafts, pottery, textiles, musical instruments and crude houses are reconstructed or archived.
And what an uncannily Polynesian/Melanesian story it is: even the faces on the models look like people you'd pass on K Rd or in Manukau City.
The day I was there the place was absolutely silent, not one other visitor, and it made for a very strange experience. It was as if I had stepped out of a noisy Chinatown and into a frozen world of ancient Aotearoa.
Of course there were differences, but it was the striking similarities which resonated.
As I left I passed a counter and smiled at the tidy middle-aged woman behind it.
In staccato English she asked where I was from.
I told her.
"Oh," she said nodding furiously. "We know you. We know you."
As I walked back into the mania of motorcycles, I had no doubt she did.

No comments: