Thursday, May 12, 2016

Lanyu Island

I will start this post with a bit of a nautical digression.

I found this photo at Google Images, attributed to Mike Anderson (his link wasn't active) when I searched for "Chinese cormorant fishing boats."  This raft is made of large stalks of bamboo, either bent at the ends (you can bend bamboo by playing a flame on it) or cut from mountainsides.  This style of raft is common in China and no doubt elsewhere in Asia.

Here in Taiwan I've seen some very large boats made of plastic drainage pipe, no doubt inspired by bamboo boats.  This inboard (onboard?) version is a few villages away from us, and I've found piles of discarded pipes from other boats.

Basically a wooden framework is bolted together and the pipes are bundled and attached to it.

The crucial fastening is just heavy-duty plastic ties.

This is Lanyu Island, and we are staying in the village marked by the red label.  The island has just a rim road and one road passing over the mountains at the narrowest point, just a kilometer to the east of us.  Catherine and I decided we would at least hike part way up.  Of the island's six villages, four have tatara, the traditional boats.

Goats, pigs, chickens, dogs, and cats wander freely in all the villages.  At night thousands of frogs come out.  All these animals seem to peacefully coexist: the dogs don't chase the cats, the cats don't chase the frogs, and all of them (except for a lot of frogs) steer clear of the cars, trucks and scooters which they share the roads with.  This particular goat is quite friendly.

A local monument has been taken over by the goats.

Passing an abandoned house as we head uphill.

Looking back at our village as the road switchbacks up.  The highest peaks are about 400 meters.

Is it a banana or plantain?  The stem and flower are weirdly sculptural.

Catherine spotted a dot on the ocean and using her super-zoom camera, then cropping in closer on the computer reveals a tatara coming in from fishing

Here he is entering the harbor in front of our village.  A shame we were so far away as this is the first time I have seen one of these boats in the water.  We are still trying to figure out the timing of the local fishermen.  This morning I walked down to the harbor at 5am and all the boats were in.  Turning back I found people cleaning and hanging freshly caught flying fish, so I wasn't early enough.

We got ambitious and crested the pass and decided to hike down to the other side of the island.

This village is famous for still maintaining a significant number of traditional houses.

These houses are built into stone-lined pits so just the roof is visible.  Every house also has a small raised platform, a place to eat and sleep during the summer heat.  Building in the ground was a protection from typhoons, and prior to 1970 almost all the islanders lived this way.   Then the government started to encourage concrete housing, which proliferates today.  There is currently a building boom of new guesthouses to accommodate all the tourists, about 100,000 a year.

Two pigs sleeping just off Main Street.

We took the island's bus back to our village and I went down to the harbor.  These are stone boathouses, seventeen in all, two with boats inside.  They are pretty identical to boathouses I saw in the Orkney Islands of Britain.

The bow of a tatara.  The hood ends of the planks are lashed together, but those blocks are integral to the planks, since the strakes were carved out of thicker material.

This is the most highly decorated tatara in our village.  Almost all of the painted decoration you see here is relief carved, inside and out.

Those stripes may be the only painted decorations not carved.  The carved seat, with the slit for drainage, is just one of its beautiful elements.  The riser you see is also integral to the sheer plank, carved out of the material and not a separate piece.

A midships frame butted against blocks, again integral to the planks and not added.

Another look at the riser/breasthook assembly.

Higher on the prows another lashing through blocks.

This boat has rabbeted stem timbers fore and aft.  The fits are perfect, and everyone so far has insisted these boats are made with just an axe.

This chip carving must be done with a chisel, and some hulls have lengthwise carved and painted grooves that had to be done with a gouge.

From the riser up is a single piece of wood.  In most boats it runs about 1/3 of the way aft and is then scarfed.  Here is the scarf inside...

...and outside

A different shape of scarf on another boat.

And finally another.

We were shown this bench and told to feel the bark, which felt like a very soft cork.  This is the Tao's caulking material.  I would think its put in the seam before assembly but I am not sure.

Again, wanting to see a fisherman in action we walked down to the harbor after dinner and found a scooter and one boat out.  Catherine pointed out the irony of a modern scooter bringing someone to set sail in an ancient style of boat.  There is certainly a great deal to ponder here about the power of modernity and change and the loss of culture.  How to preserve this tradition is a difficult question.


  1. Hi Douglas, I was in Taiwan for some time and only regret not making more effort to explore some of the timber areas in the central mountains. I understand it is one of the sources of the good timbers used in maintaining many of the prominent temples in Japan.


    Ernest duBois

  2. Dear Mr. duBois,

    I lived on the West Coast in the 80s and 90s and was fortunate enough to have Port Orford cedar for boat planking, but the Japanese priced that out as they bought it as a substitute for hinoki (both trees are in the cypress family). I think Port Orford is difficult to get at this point and I have also heard Japan bought hinoki from Taiwan. The west coast of Taiwan is heavily urbanized, but the mountains, which make up most of the land mass, are forest wilderness.

  3. Sections of the central ranges are off-limit reserves set in place to "protect" aboriginal populations, a real mountain paradise if you manage to get in there. Yes you are right, it's the huge hinoki that are taken out, probably from around the Tiger Gorge area.


  4. Hi Sir! I see you've made it to Taiwan! Were you able to find anyone still building them the traditional way?


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