Bridging Islands of/beyond Borders: Dongyin and Yonaguni

Written by Yi-Yu Lai

Image credit: photo provided by Salty Island Studio

While the COVID-19 has stopped many individuals from travelling and interacting over the last two years, some cultural exchanges that we never expected to see have emerged during the pandemic. For example, on February 18th, 2022, people in Dongyin, an insular township in Taiwan’s Matsu Islands, had their first online workshop with those from Yonaguni, an island that belongs to Okinawa. Both islands are considered frontiers in their respective countries, and they had many comparable fates throughout history. Therefore, such a cultural exchange between the islands was particularly impressive because it was an activity with the islands as the focal point. 

Since it is still difficult to travel internationally, their interaction was carried out through zoom. As the artists from Yonaguni demonstrated their traditional crafts of making the handheld Kuba fans from fan palms, Dongyin people banged drums and crashed gongs to display their hospitality to their foreign friends. Meanwhile, they also shared delicacies and drinks from each other’s hometowns during the workshop, delivered to their counterparts in advance. 

In the beginning, it was artists from Yonaguni took the initiative to host an online event so that they may perform for other nearby islanders. They first contacted the General Association of Chinese Culture (GACC) in Taiwan. GACC then brought together the Yonaguni artists and members of Salty Island Studio, a youth organisation in Dongyin. Even if their initial contact was unexpected, their subsequent collaboration was surprisingly fruitful.

In fact, that was not the first time those Dongyin youth had heard about Yonaguni. Several years ago, those young people travelled to Tokyo for a community exchange event, where they met several Okinawans and realised that the two islands indeed have certain similarities. First and foremost, they are islands of borders. While Yonaguni is the westernmost inhabited island in Japan, Dongyin is the northernmost frontier of Taiwan. Lives on the respective islands are influenced by the relationship between the periphery and the centre. 

Furthermore, both are deeply affected by militarism due to their geographical locations. When the Japanese government puts troops in Yonaguni to show their concerns about the threat from China in recent years, Dongyin has been an active and heavily stationed base since the 1950s. Although the military presence significantly impacts their ways of life, religious belief remains a vital stabilising force in both islands. Because of these parallels, people from Dongyin began to consider how they might plan out a better Island-to-Island cultural exchange after receiving the invitation from Yonaguni. 

Arousing the Whole Island Through a Small Event

According to Pei-Yuan Tsai (蔡沛原), one of the cofounders of Salty Island Studio, their original idea was straightforward. Since the Yonaguni side suggested sending its specialities to Dongyin, they reasoned that they should reciprocate with local products. However, it wasn’t until later that they realised how much it would cost to ship those items to Yonaguni, and Salty Island Studio is too small to afford such a cost. 

Salty Island Studio is a youth organisation founded by three former Dongyin Elementary School classmates in 2019. After spending many years in Taiwan studying and working, they decided to return to their hometown to establish a space for young people similar to them. They renovated an abandoned fish sauce factory into a composite space with a living room, exhibition space, and coffee shop. When they attempt to use this space to introduce tourists to various aspects of Matsu, they spend more time promoting local aesthetic activities. As for such an international cultural exchange event, they lacked not merely experience but also the necessary funds. Fortunately, after they sought assistance from the local government for aid, the officials also provided some ideas for the cultural exchange in addition to contributing the funds. 

A similar circumstance existed when the studio was amid COVID-19, and there were no tourists. The local residents supported these youths who recently returned from Taiwan and began to develop their careers so that they could initiate novel attempts without worries. Even when they planned to host an environmental theatre on the island before and required someone to assist turn down the lights on the entire island, they could only fulfil such a project by mobilising all of the residents on the island. This is the type of close relationship that a small island with fewer than a thousand people may have. People support one another and work together to generate new possibilities. 

After gaining support from the local government officials, they had more room to prepare a more reciprocal cultural exchange, and that’s how the workshop ended up with a gong-drum performance by the women and children’s ensembles. They began arousing the entire island by inviting the gong-drum ensembles to join in the workshop.

Bringing Island Culture to the World 

Why are the gong-drum ensembles so important in Dongyin? In contrast to the custom of celebrating Lunar New Year in Taiwan, the most prominent festival in Matsu is the “Bā̤-màng” Carnival (擺暝), which takes place around the fifteenth day of the first lunar month. Originally from the rural areas of Fuzhou in the early days, statues representing deities are paraded during this “Bā̤-màng” Carnival as people pray for health, peace, and safety. This is a particularly community-oriented celebration that demonstrates the distinctive culture of Dongyin. As a result, the gong-drum ensembles have their busiest time of year since they are invited to join all of the temple parades.

The most remarkable feature is that the gong-drum ensembles in Dongyin are primarily composed of women and children. In contrast, other ensembles outside of the Matsu Islands are mostly made up of men. Because the population of Dongyin has been gradually declining due to the imposition of military rule over the last few decades, the local women thus organised a gong-drum ensemble, as well as a children’s ensemble from the elementary school. This is so the “Bā̤-màng” Carnival could have enough people to play the gongs and drums. Due to this context, bringing the ensembles to the workshop illustrates Dongyin’s religious life and how the power of women supports Dongyin under the influence of military control. 

Indeed, it was a brief workshop, and their capacity to interact with one another was extremely constrained. Although the members of Salty Island Studio have limited resources, this cultural exchange workshop has brought people on the island together. This is done by connecting with Dongyin’s original social network, allowing them to use their own culture to build a deeper interaction with other islands. This is a great starting point for considering how they may have a reciprocal exchange in terms of an Island-to-Island connection. 

“When the names of the two islands were written in calligraphy on one sheet of paper in the beginning of the workshop, I felt like something is going to happen,” Pei-Yuan said. 

“Perhaps we should start small. After the workshop, we were thinking of incorporating certain Yonaguni specialities into our studio. When our visitors happen to notice them in our shop, they may be interested as to why they are here. Then we can share our connection with Yonaguni first, bringing people to know the world from the view of the island.”

This could be the start of a magnificent story, and their journey across the islands of borders is just about to continue.

Yi-Yu Lai is currently a PhD student in Anthropology at University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA, and he has studied the Indigenous resistance in the highland Philippines since 2014. Focusing on the issues of political violence and Indigenous politics, he has participated in countless academic, voluntary, and cultural exchanging projects in Taiwan, Hawaii, and the Philippines.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Matsu Today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s