Dulan: An Amis Artist Preserves Traditions

Dulan: An Amis Artist Preserves Traditions

Text and Photos by Candice Leow

Dulan, or Atolan in the Amis language, is a coastal settlement north of Taitung City. In recent years, there has been a large influx of outsiders coming here to surf, open art studios, restaurants and hostels, leading to the marginalization of the Amis in their own community. Some of the Amis have responded by working hard to preserve and revive their traditions and culture. For example, the Ina Craft Studio, hidden along a small road, opposite the San Marino Bakery, specializes in betel sheath crafts and mini yarn pompom crafts, both of which are important in the Amis material culture. Ina means mother in Amis and you will find the woman who owns this studio, Iko (Chinese name: Gao Xiu-Xue), to be a warm and affable grandmother who is not just skilled in crafts but also ready to share her own cultural experiences, as well as those of the people who came before her. The colorful and eclectic studio is decorated in the true innovative spirit of the Dulan Amis. Ina might surprise you with her new creations on each visit made with her multitude of crafting materials and, more importantly, her stories.


Traditional Materials, Modern Uses

Ina uses traditional materials in a modern way. One such material is the betel calyx, which she spends hours cutting, and sometimes sewing and gluing to turn the ideas in her head into reality, either into framed craft pieces depicting flowers and stories of the Dulan Amis, including a map of Dulan, and accessories such as bags. The betel plant was of utmost importance to the traditional Amis lifestyle. While betel calyx was made into food containers, such as plates and bowls, betel nuts were chewed as a type of natural chewing gum. Betel nuts are also a traditional symbol of love in Amis culture. In Dulan, the exchange of betel nuts between a young man and young woman of marriageable age signifies that they are an item. As the chewing takes some effort, in the past, children would help their grandparents do the initial chewing before passing the chewed betel nut to the elders.

Ina is also skilled in making Amis mini yarn pompoms, which are a traditional form of embellishment on Amis clothing. While these mini yarn pompoms are commonly seen on Amis clothing presently, the origins are little known. Before the Japanese came to Taiwan in 1895 and ruled the island for 50 years, the Amis already had such adornments, in the form of nettle yarn balls. Fibers were obtained from nettle and additional coloring was derived from the leaves of the mulberry or banyan.  Amis yarn pompoms always come in a trio, symbolizing a family unit of both parents and their offspring.


Amis Bridal Room

Besides her treasure trove of crafts and stories, Ina is also a collector. She has used her collection to assemble an Amis bridal room with artifacts from her parents’ very own wedding, including the clothes they wore and lover’s pouches showing different intricate patterns throughout the decades. The Amis bridal room collection also includes old family photos and sets of traditional must-have items such as a pot for containing home-brewed wine for the joyous occasion, matching bamboo cups, bamboo bed and comforter woven from shell ginger leaves.

Looking Deeper, Looking Beyond

Craft is one medium in which stories are told and cultural experiences relived. When explaining her intentions and motivations behind the craft pieces, the artisan discloses personal thoughts and feelings about the passing of time and transitions through modernity, sharing opinions on past and impending developments.  

Without the written word, stories are woven with meanings into the craftwork, revealing not just art forms but cultural identities, which are not solely nostalgic but powerful in revealing stories of adaption, inspiration and hope.


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