fulbright Taiwan online journal

fulbright Taiwan online journal

For What Can We Hope? Concrete Houses and Hopeful Indigeneity in ‘Amis Country

Where is This Stairway Going?


     Nearby my residence in ‘Atolan, a Taiwanese Indigenous Communityon Taiwan’s East Coast, there is a simple, flat-roofed house. The house, constructed of steel bar reinforced concrete, resembles nearly any other solafo, or concrete slab, house you might see around this town, which perches on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean. Sand for mixing the concrete likely came from a stream mouth not too far north of here, and the house required no outside contractors: men who had worked construction abroad–some in Japan, others in Singapore or even the Arabian Peninsula–gathered to assist the house’s owners as they made their bold step into modernity. The family had previously lived in a bamboo and thatch house, as had their ancestors for generations. Most passersby do not give this flat-roofed house a second glance. But when you walk into the house, it is hard not to notice a staircase between the living room and kitchen.


     As for the staircase? It waits for a future second floor.


     In 1978, after three precarious years in Taiwan’s far ocean fishing fleet, the husband of the house’s owner finally returned home. Like most ‘Amis men his age, he had traveled across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as far as Uruguay, with stops in Singapore and Cape Town. World markets, increasingly hungry for sashimi grade fish, had sent them in pursuit of tuna and swordfish. The owner of the house was fortunate to earn enough to build a new house, but his family ran out of funds before they could construct a second floor. Not to worry–the staircase would maintain the family’s hopes. From the time that the family moved in, the staircase had led upward toward that second floor, which they have wanted for more than thirty years but never have managed to build.


     The staircase cheerfully provides access to the roof, convenient for sunning mattresses or hanging clothes out to dry. Still, the roof was never the point. It’s been boarded up with a metal door. These days, the owner’s wife piles along its length those items that the family hardly ever needs but doesn’t have the heart to throw away.


     The staircase has begun to wonder if the family will ever let her fully express the meaning of her existence. Some family members have been living in Taipei, some in Kaohsiung or other urban centers for quite some time. With a family like that, what is a staircase to do? Staircases, unlike people, cannot up and move to the city. So the staircase has resigned to her lot: waiting and waiting. She has heard that the family might build the second floor in another year or two, now that the owner’s wife has moved back and begun to run a restaurant in what was the living room. The staircase keeps up her hopes. Besides, she has become accustomed to the life of a silent index–maybe an anticipatory witness–of the family’s better future life.


     With her, the family won’t lose hope.


     If you were to come to ‘Atolan, then I doubt that you would notice the staircase or the house that has waited more than 30 years for a future second floor. I cannot deny that the solafo looks too much like any other steel bar reinforced concrete house built in rural Taiwan during the 1970s and 1980s. Although I have tried to discover some cultural inflection that I might interpret as a symbol of ‘Amis identity or some residual token of traditional architecture, I’ve failed in that task. Whenever I have mentioned the steel bars left protruding from the roof in order to build a second floor when funds permit, people have always commented that they have seen the same architectural feature elsewhere:


     A Taiwanese anthropologist told me that he has discovered this feature in the Taroko communities in which he has worked. Other friends have shown me the telltale steel bars protruding from roofs in other Taiwanese towns.


     Yes, you can see them nearly anywhere you look:  This sort of architecture is not limited to indigenous people, or even to Taiwan, it turns out.


     “You can even see them in Turkey,” said one of my better-traveled associates.


     We will not find cultural difference in the architectural details. Solafo in ‘Atolan resemble those in other Taiwanese indigenous communities and have very little to distinguish them from similar houses in other rural villages throughout Taiwan or even in other parts of the world. ‘Atolan’s solafo maintain an iconic relationship with other modern houses of similar vintage. What would the staircase say? She cannot speak, but she might say that when we fail to notice a solafo that they express their meaning fully. Through solafo, their owners, who had suffered from both institutional discrimination and informal prejudice, escaped stereotypical images of “primitive and isolated savages” projected upon them by mainstream society and embarked upon a fully modern domestic life.


     The stairwell might ask you, “Did you expect the community to live in bamboo huts?” You are a visitor here, so you need not bother to see the solafo. But they might, like age sets named for President Chiang Ching-Kuo, the Ten National Construction Projects, or even a Chinese-American Astronaut, offend your sense of what “indigenous” should be. 


     Because the houses do not exhibit cultural difference, the houses can never become a circulating token of indigenous identity. In this sense, they are different from the age set names, which register an articulation between local social structure and the broader world outside the community. Solafo seem not such a fitting subject for anthropology. Many cultural activists and academics have told me as such: they are not, say these experts, “‘Amis Culture.”


     Yet, the staircase keeps proclaiming her value, and I have found it hard to ignore her. What can we do? We can look carefully at the different floor treatments in parts of living rooms built at different times, examine tile surfaces in which one can see the progression of tile styles over a ten or twenty year period, or draw near to the staircase which has waited 30 years for a future second story. These objects will begin to disclose a history of a family’s experiences and their feelings toward them:  Even if the owner is forgetful, indices of her hopes still remain; the staircase still anticipates the second floor.


     The hopeful staircase has its own family of related objects, which express hope in several different media:


–       piled up Paolyta bottles

–       hymnals, missals, and rosary beads

–       gout crystals settling in knuckles

–       a few Spanish language popular songs or a cover of Louis Armstrong


     These objects are all carriers of hopeful indigeneity.


oh when the saints


     As I look at solafo and listen to the stories of the ‘Amis women and men who built and lived in them, I am often reminded of Jonathan Lear’s (2006) concept of “radical hope.” Lear introduced this concept as a part of his examination of the life of Plenty Coups, a Native American leader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who opposed the Ghost Dance Religionthen sweeping the Great Plains. Like other Great Plains Native American societies, the Crow lost their traditional means of subsistence, the American Bison, with the encroachment of settler colonial society on Crow territory. At stake, Lear argues, was not just economy, but an entire set of ethical values. Plenty Coups and his generation had to face cultural devastation. Lear suggests that as the concepts of what constitutes a good life and other ethical postulates disintegrated around him, Plenty Coups might have asked the Kantian question, “For what can we hope?” To Lear, the response of Plenty Coups was a type of radical hope:


What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it. What would it be for such hope to be justified? (Lear 2006: 103).


     Radical hope is a form of survivance. Although traditional subsistence methods and normative frameworks were fast disappearing, one could still impart some value to the coming generations; one could insist that one’s people could still compose a radical alternative to Western civilization (Lear 2006: 96-97). In other words, without knowing just what form such a life would take, Plenty Coups seems to have been committed to discovering a path toward a future in which the Crow were different, both from their pre-colonial conquest selves and from the surrounding forms and norms of settler colonial society. 


     To return to a Taiwanese example, many indigenous cultural activists have described the arrival of Christian missionaries and the mass conversions that followed in relatively zero-sum terms. “They traded our traditional beliefs,” said one of these young neo-traditionalists in a conversation we had following a concert at a Taitung venue, “They gave up our traditional beliefs for a few bags of flour. That was too steep a price to pay.” In his remarks, the activist referred to the role of material assistance in mission work during the 1950s. U.S. aid to Taiwan, beginning with the Korean War and continuing through the 1970s, was often mediated through church organizations.


     Today, the U.S. – R.O.C. Cooperation flour sack appears as an almost kitschy reminder of those days of material deprivation. Those who attended church services had access to food aid and other assistance, hence the activist’s remarks. Yet, if neo-traditionalism would rather live on ancestral beneficence than on bread, radical hope might suggest that those flour sacks were useful. 


     The catch phrase of radical hope is that times have changed.


    Houses as a Medium for Hope


     We can see what Lear has called radical hope in ‘Atolan and other coastal ‘Amis villages. Traces of this hope are visible in nearly any concrete house. Because building solafo entangled local desires for a better life with government programs for the reformation of “plains dwelling mountain compatriots,” as ‘Amis were called until the success of campaigns for official recognition as Taiwanese Indigenous Peoples in 1994, solafo mediate between local conditions and state projects. In this guise as a medium, solafo demonstrate how hope articulates with hegemony.


     Whether we consider the construction of solafo or participation of ‘Amis men in the far ocean fishing trade, we see evidence of official attempts to mobilize indigenous people in assimilationist projects.


     A 1972 Executive Yuan document instructed government agencies entrusted with the movement to reform the lives of “plains dwelling mountain compatriots” to provide guidance to indigenous people, so that they would build durable, hygienic, and comfortable concrete houses to replace “temporary” structures built from bamboo and thatch. The document, like others, also described the practice of uxorilocal marriage–then still normative in ‘Amis communities–as an “evil custom.” People around ‘Atolan remember that as late as the mid-1980s, the township and county governments held contests that judged which families, neighborhoods, and communities had done the most to improve their lives. The number of concrete houses was one of the rubrics for judging the competition.


     In 1976, the Ministry of Education (MOE) cooperated with the Kaohsiung Fisheries Association and far ocean fishing companies, whose boats faced a labor shortage. MOE issued a memo to schools instructing them that middle school-aged boys who planned to enter the workforce after graduation should be encouraged to enter the far ocean fishing fleet. ‘Amis men who attended middle school in the mid- to late 1970s have told me about implementation of this policy–free physicals and introductions to men who made profits far oceaning–as well as their own parents’ insistence that going on the boats was the best way to make a living.


     “I had my new middle school bag and new textbooks–math, national language, history–but I thought, what am I doing staying in school? I am 15 and could be working,” one of these men told me,


My fate is not like yours. I couldn’t understand what use those books would be to me. I didn’t really want to study, so when the Fisherman’s Association came to school to recruit us, I was the first to raise my hand. But I didn’t have money to take the bus to Kaohsiung. So I took two ducks and a sack of rice from my mother, traded it in for 200 New Taiwan Dollars. It was 150 to get to Kaohsiung. I got on the bus, went to Kaohsiung and began training to go on the boats.


     When I ask men who went far oceaning why they normally built houses from their income in the trade, they often reply that they wanted to build a durable house for their family to give them a more comfortable life. The convergence of language surrounding houses with the men nearly repeating keywords in a government document verbatim suggests the KMT party state’s hegemony. However, we should remember that hegemony requires a sense of shared interests and generally a kind of complicity across class and ethnic lines. In their enrollment in state projects to reform their lives, ‘Atolan ‘Amis responded to more than just the government, but a combination of factors, including memories of a 1952 fire that destroyed most of the village, gender ideologies, and contradictions within the community’s kinship structure, all contributed to the appeal of solafo for ‘Amis people.


     Their passion for building these houses issued from their limited freedom to desire modernity. In the context of an education system and other institutions that proscribed their language, domestic spaces could both signal their status as good, modern citizens and provide space for their strategies for cultural reproduction. Indeed, the iconicity of solafo with other concrete houses disguises the life of age sets, kin groups, and other ‘Amis social structures from view. And constructing solafo would realize a kind of hopeful indigeneity whose forms of life are still emerging, even as they appear out of step with modes of public participation now urged on indigenous people in today’s multicultural Taiwan.


     The problem of understanding solafo is not just their relative invisibility. Rather, it is that in a world where multicultural discourses predominate our sentiments often lie with neo-traditionalism. Given our own political commitments and understanding of culture, it is far easier for us to distribute and consume narratives of cultural survival. Architecturally speaking, we would like to see more bamboo and thatch structures, such as those constructed for a variety of purposes, including tourism, cultural performance, and the revival of traditional ritual practices.


     I must admit that the symbolic reconstruction of a traditional ritual space, complete with reproductions of the original wooden carvings and a ritual to carry the ancestral spirits from the original carvings (still housed in an ethnological museum in Taipei) back home to Tafalong, would seem to deserve our support and applause.


     And yet, I want to cheer for that stairway, which after 30 years still anticipates a future second floor. That staircase will never be co-opted by mainstream society. It is a faithful reminder of the radical hope that still animates Taiwanese indigenous communities.

Good pieces need to be seen.


Picture of Donald Hatfield 施永德

Donald Hatfield 施永德

DJ Hatfield is associate professor of history and anthropology in the Liberal Arts Department of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. A sociocultural anthropologist, Hatfield’s ongoing academic projects include accidental cosmopolitans: far ocean fishing and ironies of indigenous placemaking in taiwan.

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