When Yuraw Ichang was young, whenever his family caught a wild pig, he would be tasked with hiking two days to nearby villages to tell everyone the news. There would be a feast soon, he would say, over and over again, to everyone that he saw. The families would gather together and eat the pig with a sprinkle of salt and handfuls of cold rice. Leftover meat would be preserved with spices and stored in a local river they named Flavor Stream. This was their only way of refrigeration.
"We'd sit there by the stream and enjoy the aroma of preserved meat and think, Wow, life is good," he says.
It wasn't until 1980 that the village, located at an elevation of 1,500 meters, was connected to the electricity grid and a proper refrigerator was carried up to the town on the backs of the local men. In 1995, a road up to the village was built. In 2003, they finally got a telephone signal.
Despite all the technological advances, the tribe's dedication to communal living has remained the same. They share all their food and profits. And whenever a pig is caught, everyone is invited for a grand celebration.
This is Smangus. The population is 178. The people are part of the Atayal group—an indigenous population in Taiwan that is believed to have migrated here from Southeast Asia around 4,000 BC. The tribe originally used to be based in modern Nantou County, but because of resource depletion and population growth, they were forced to splinter off into many separate villages throughout the island nation. Smangus was established nearly 400 years ago in the mountains of central Taiwan by a man named Mangus.
It is one of Taiwan's most remote aboriginal towns. From Hsinchu County, it is about a four-hour drive up narrow one-way roads. Some portions are unpaved and there are no public transportation options available. From Hsinchu, I rent a car with my friends and make the treacherous climb up.
When we get there, the village is quiet and the only restaurant in town is closed. There is a wedding in session and all the members are at the church for the ceremony. Smangus is a predominantly Christian town. This is not surprising; in the 1950s in Taiwan, a great deal of aboriginal groups converted to Christianity en masse because of missionary influences.
For dinner on the first night there, my friends and I resort to instant noodles. We are instructed by another guest to boil water for ourselves. The owner of our hostel is nowhere to be seen.
Although tourism is a major source of income for the tribe, the priority is clearly on themselves and their families—not on tourists. The locals are too busy throwing a wedding party to cater to guests and we respect them for that.
"Sometimes people ask me how we're different from the communist ideals of mainland China," Ichang says. Ichang is a tribal elder, and during official events he's a translator for the chief. We are sitting in his living room and he has a couple of minutes to spare before the evening wedding festivities. "The difference is that we actually share everything. And we love each other."
At Smangus, the working hours are 7 AM to 5 PM. The town is divided up into nine departments and everyone gets a set salary of roughly $330 USD a month. Individual families can earn supplemental income by selling bamboo shoots, mushrooms, or fruit to tourists, but that is usually done during their spare time outside of working hours. There's only one school, one coffee shop, one restaurant, and one church. The meals are often shared at the town restaurant so individual families don't have to cook.
Smangus, in recent years, has become a popular tourist destination among the Taiwanese. These days, they only allow a maximum of 200 visitors a day—a sharp decrease compared to the 1,000 people that would flow through daily in 1995. The villagers put a cap on the number of visitors because the demands of catering to 1,000 people was getting to be too stressful. To the tribe, a balance between tourism and ecological preservation is paramount.
The people are still very dependent on their land for food. In May, they harvest bamboo shoots and mushrooms. In July, it's peach season; the stone fruit sells for a premium because of its unique yellow hue. They also grow millet and sweet potatoes and rely on backyard chickens and wild pigs as sources of protein. It's a beautiful, mountainous place—full of creeks and waterfalls and lots of vegetation. There's a four-hour hike available to a grove of ancient trees that are estimated to be more than 2,000 years old. The trail is very well-preserved. In town, lamp posts are made out of old, decayed wood, which gives the town a fairytale vibe. In the past, there used to be more fireflies at night. On cooler evenings, families will hang out around bonfires and chat. For recreation, there's a basketball court at the school that has a breathtaking view of the tropical mountains below. When it's not cloudy, the evening sky is decorated with an infinite expanse of stars.
On one of my days there, I wander into the bamboo forests with a nine-year-old girl named Yo Ma, who hands me a machete and teaches me how to chop bamboo shoots and shuck them. We don't cut off the roots; this way, the bamboo can still grow. The bamboo variety grown around Smangus is known as Makino in English. When cooked, it has a faintly bitter taste. Yo Ma teases me and my friends on how slow we are. I ask her how old she was when she started harvesting bamboo.
"Five years old," she says. "We work as soon as we can walk." And then she chides us for chopping off the shoots at the wrong angle. "It's a 45-degree angle!" she yells. It's absolutely adorable.
In the evening, we boil the shoots, lay them out, and cart the baskets full of bamboo to a dehydrator, in which they are left overnight. In return, we are awarded a pig roast. I am handed a bucket of cold white rice and instructed to scoop some out with my hands and eat it with the pork. I ask why the rice is cold.
"This is just what our elders taught us," a woman says.
\The family also lets us sample river fish fermented in millet and freshly harvested maqaw (litsea cubeba), a spice that's reminiscent of lemon black pepper.
The morning before we leave, we help our hostel owner pick shiitake mushrooms off of logs. Mushrooms are cultivated three times a year and the varieties depend on the season.
To the people of Smangus, the land is the most precious resource. Ichang tells me a story of a moment in 1995 when a group of rich businessmen from the south of Taiwan came up to the village with a suitcase full of money.
"They wanted to buy a part of our land," he says. "They offered [the equivalent of $768,521 US] all in cash. The chief said, 'Thank you. Though your money is a lot, it cannot grow millet and sweet potato, but our land can.' The businessmen got visibly angry and after a moment, they gave us another proposal. They said they would double the money. Everyone who heard this was shocked. We couldn't even count with our fingers or begin to comprehend that amount of money. What the chief said next really touched me and to this day—a lot of young people come back and stay in this village because of his words. He said, 'Your money is great, great, great. But it can't inherit our tradition and our lives. Our land can. It inherits culture. This land, we have to give it to our descendants. That's why I can't sell it to you.'"
Unlike many other aboriginal communities in Taiwan, where there is an aging population and lack of youths, Smangus is thriving. At its core is a message of sustainability.
"Ninety percent of all the youths eventually come back and work here. It's because they understand how important nature is," Tgbil Ichang, Yo Ma's father and Yuraw's younger brother, says. "We have to continue to respect this land. You can't use your ego. You have to really understand it. I am a hunter. I've hunted a black bear before and I kill pigs often. We hunt out of necessity and are careful not to overuse our resources."
Eventually I meet the tribal chief, Masay Mrhuw, at the weekly church service for tourists. He wears traditional Atayal garb and when he talks to the congregation, he speaks in their native tongue. Yuraw Ichang stands by his side and translates into Mandarin. Mrhuw has been chief for nearly two years now. The chief is elected by the town and serves for life.
After the service, I approach him and he switches to fluent Mandarin. When he learns that I am American, he immediately inquires about the presidential nominees.
"What happens in America, believe it or not, influences all of us all over the world, even us. That's why we are curious," he says.
"What's the biggest change that you've seen throughout your years here?" I ask, changing the topic.
He tells me about a plant that used to be extremely accurate in predicting typhoon season. It would flower right before the typhoons came.
"Now, typhoon season has been extremely delayed and the timing is off," he says. "The sun is also hotter. During the afternoon it used to be bearable. But now, in the last decade, the heat, even at 3 PM, is nearly unbearable."
Climate change, it seems, has drastically affected even the most remote area in Taiwan.
We talk more about the town, its myths, its children. Yo Ma, who has taken a liking to my friends and I, stands next to us, trying to get us to leave the conversation and play with her.
Smangus is special. A great number of aboriginal villages in Taiwan have given way to overdevelopment and fancy resorts. Some face problems with alcoholism; and in certain tribes, few people know how to hunt, let alone speak their native language. Smangus is an exception. They have a vibrant youth population, virtually everyone knows how to hunt and forage, and the aboriginal language is very much alive. There's a distinct sense of community.
I ask Mrhuw for the secret to Smangus's success.
"Our values," he says. "If we had put money first and the environment second, we wouldn't have been able to survive."