2017 / 9月
文‧鄧慧純 圖‧林旻萱 翻譯‧Phil Newell
Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Phil Newell
The Green Valley Siraya Park, at Jiucengling in the Xinhua District of Tainan City, is home to Cheng-hiong Talavan, founder of the Siraya Culture Association. It is also the main base of the movement for the Siraya to be officially recognized as one of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. The park is nestled between mountains and water. Over the pond there is a simple floating bridge constructed out of water pipes and bamboo. The pond is quite deep, and as soon as you step on the bridge, it sinks by several centimeters, adding a sense of danger.
We ask the Talavan family if we can take their picture on the bridge, and Cheng-hiong immediately agrees. Then the whole family step cautiously onto the bridge, with daughter Uma Talavan leading the way and grandchildren following grandparents as they all hold hands for a beautiful family portrait.
On the pathway to revitalizing Sirayan culture, three generations of the Talavan family are working hand in hand, just like in the picture, for the same goals. Cheng-hiong Talavan has spent his entire life encouraging the descendants of Pingpu Aborigines (who include the Siraya) to awaken to a sense of their identity. His daughter Uma Talavan and her husband Edgar Macapili have devoted themselves to Sirayan language and culture. His grandchildren Euphony and Lici Talavan, together with other young people from the tribe, sent a letter to President Tsai Ing-wen appealing for recognition of the Siraya name and identity. The three generations are working together to revitalize Sirayan culture.
Waking up to identity and human rights
Now aged 75, Cheng-hiong Talavan recalls being called a “savage” as a child. He didn’t understand what this term meant, and he asked about it repeatedly, until finally his uncle whispered in his ear, “‘Savages’ means the Pingpu!” Only after asking even more questions did Cheng-hiong learn that the Pingpu were Formosan Aboriginal peoples.
The Siraya are one of the Pingpu peoples. When the Dutch came to Taiwan in the 17th century, the Siraya were the first people they encountered. But under a succession of foreign ruling powers, the Siraya were forcibly Sinicized, losing their traditional customs and language, until their very identity became obscured.
Cheng-hiong says there is no sense in indigenous people accepting discrimination against them. Instead they should proudly be who they are. That is why at every gathering or occasion, he has long seized the opportunity to say to everyone, “We are savages,” reclaiming the term.
One person lobbying and trying to wake up his tribespeople to their identity can only have a weak influence. Cheng-hiong therefore also devoted great efforts to forming the Siraya Culture Association, drawing on collective power to revitalize Sirayan culture.
Cheng-hiong’s daughter Uma Talavan is currently chairwoman of the Siraya Culture Association. She was born and raised in the tribal community, so it was only after growing up and leaving the community that she discovered that her group was considered different. Her love of her homeland and her awakening to her identity caused her to realize that her memories of childhood represented the life she wanted. “So if there’s anything that feels awkward to me, or something that clashes, it makes me want to plunge right in and challenge it.” Thus does Uma describe her inspiration for and involvement in human rights and cultural movements.
Another happy turn of fate was that on a trip to study music in the Philippines, she not only brought back a husband who would later become a key figure in the revitalization of the Sirayan language, but also discovered that the school hosted talented people from all over the world, which allowed her to see the beauty of multiculturalism. From there she reflected: “What about me? What can the Siraya show other people?”
This caused Uma to proactively explore the treasures of Sirayan culture after returning home. “I hoped I would become a person who not only unearths Sirayan culture, but also polishes it to a shine.”
A miraculous linguistic renaissance
In going from feeling bewildered at being called a “savage” by Han Chinese to discovering his identity as an indigenous person, Cheng-hiong Talavan also found out that he knew nothing at all about his culture.
Even today, the Sirayan language is listed on the UNESCO website as an “extinct” tongue which has been gone for over 200 years, never being heard or spoken in that whole period of time.
However, from historical evidence we know that when the Dutch arrived in Taiwan in the 17th century, they wrote out Sirayan using the Latin alphabet. Siraya people continued to use and pass down this Romanized writing system. For example, they used it to draw up land contracts and trading contracts with Han Chinese. These are the well-known “Sinckan manuscripts.”
In their quest to recover Siraya linguistic culture, Cheng-hiong and Uma Talavan searched everywhere to collect words and phrases in Sirayan from elders. But the results were very meager. The dramatic turning point came after they obtained a Sirayan translation of the Gospel of St. Matthew, made by early Dutch missionaries. After Cheng-hiong had invested so much effort in the hope of opening the door to the Sirayan language, amazingly the key to unlocking its secrets turned out to be his Filipino son-in-law, Edgar Macapili.
Macapili is a member of the Bisaya indigenous people of the Philippines. Like Sirayan, Bisayan is a branch of the Austronesian language group, and when he opened up the Sirayan Gospel of St. Matthew that it had taken Cheng-hiong Talavan so long to find, Macapili found he could read most of the content. He recalls his impression of Sirayan: “This language is like the mother or older sister of the Bisayan language—they have a family relationship. What’s more, Sirayan is purer, having not been impacted by too many foreign terms.”
Originally a musician, Macapili turned himself into a linguistics scholar. He compared texts in Dutch, English, Sirayan, and Bisayan word by word and phrase by phrase. The main difficulty is that when the Dutch wrote down the Sirayan language in the 17th century, their own spelling system had not yet been standardized, so they were unable to accurately record the Sirayan pronunciation. It took Macapili more than seven years, burning the midnight oil on countless occasions, to complete his Siraya Glossary: Based on the Gospel of St. Matthew in Formosan (Sinkan Dialect), a Preliminary Survey, which contains more than 3000 Sirayan vocabulary items. Only later, with this as a starting point, could there be textbooks, illustrated books, pocket books, audiobooks, the training of teachers, and finally the introduction of Sirayan language classes into the formal educational curriculum in 2016.
A different youth
The third generation of the Talavan family, sisters Euphony and Lici Talavan, learned Taiwanese and Sirayan side by side from early childhood. They grew up very differently from most children. From ages three or four they travelled around with Onini, a Sirayan-language music group that instructs people in the basics of Sirayan culture. When other kids were in class or playing, they often took time off to perform or protest. Says Lici Talavan frankly, “My whole life has been a social movement.”
As we interviewed and followed around elder sister Euphony, we often saw her discussing questions of Sirayan sentence structure with her father Edgar Macapili, or conducting the Onini group in singing practice sessions, fully exemplifying the role of the oldest daughter. And her comments reveal a different logic and understanding from her own generation: “Having one more identity allows me to experience things in a different way, to maintain a tolerant attitude toward other cultures, and to understand and discuss controversial social issues with empathy.”
The words and deeds of the older generations of the clan are imprinted indelibly on the children’s hearts. Euphony wants to go back to school and study for a degree in linguistics, and she is very interested in the analysis of sentence structure. She is also considering researching the Sirayan language herself, so that in the future she can help write teaching materials and lesson plans to assist more teachers of the language. Lici says, “I have known my future goal from early childhood: to work to revitalize Sirayan culture.” Even in choosing her university major, she considered what would be of most value to the Siraya in the future.
Fearlessly moving forward
Today, the Siraya’s campaign for official recognition as one of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples is still ongoing. To this end, members of the Siraya community have several times brought administrative lawsuits before the Taipei High Administrative Court, demanding that the central government formally recognize their historical status and identity.
On May 19 of 2016, judgment was about to be rendered in an administrative lawsuit over the Siraya people’s status. As Uma Talavan waited for the announcement at the Taipei High Administrative Court, Cheng-hiong Talavan was in Xinhua in Tainan with some fellow tribespeople, preparing tangyuan (boiled balls of glutinous rice flour) to celebrate success in the lawsuit. But a few minutes later Uma, her eyes red with tears, stepped out of the court and announced to the media that the lawsuit had failed. As she did so, she repeated the exhortation that Cheng-hiong had given her previously: “If the judgement goes against us, we have also won, because there is no reason for us to lose.”
When Cheng-hiong got the news back in Xinhua, he still tried to fire up his fellow tribespeople, saying that they should go ahead and eat the tangyuan to celebrate victory in the future.
Having not admitted defeat for more than 20 years, Cheng-hiong is pledged to the revitalization of Sirayan culture, and has continually advanced toward this goal. He has always believed that the Siraya will eventually be formally recognized as an indigenous group.
The transition to a new generation is inevitable, and the seeds that have been planted in the minds of the newest generation have broken out of the darkness of the soil and into the sunlight. The children and grandchildren of the Siraya believe that, like that family portrait, hand in hand they will continue to fearlessly advance on the path to a Siraya renaissance.