Home of the Bunun ancestors: Pagou Lass
In the indigenous Bunun language, Pagou Lass means a good place with flat riverside terrain and abundant water. This is where the Bunun people once lived. Its history can be traced back to at least the Japanese occupation era (1895-1945). However, for the Japanese to better “manage” these Bunun, they were moved to what are today the Dili and Tannan communities. With the passage of time, most of the original slate homes of Pagou Lass have turned into ruins. However, this place is well worth visiting for its deep cultural meaning.
One of this community’s guides is Jin Ya-Hui (name in Chinese), who is from the Takibakha, one of the five main groups of the Bunun tribe. He is considered the soul of this community as he is very knowledgeable about it and the tribe’s history and culture. He is also known for his great sense of humor.
Before setting off for Pagou Lass, Jin leads a blessing ceremony. It is a prayer to the heavens and the ancestral spirits to inform them that he and his group are heading to this community and to ask the ancestral spirits for their protection. This ceremony is very simple. Fingers are dipped into a cup of liquor and the liquor is splashed three times. The first time is to show respect for the heavens, the second time is to show respect for the land and the third time is to show respect for the ancestral spirits. When asking for blessings, the Bunun do not put themselves first, but rather their friends and family members. It is necessary to have a humble attitude when performing this ceremony. Then, forming a circle the group uses sounds harmonious to Nature to inform the ancestral spirits of their impending visit to Pagou Lass.
To reach this community involves walking the last trail to be opened during the Qing dynasty, across the Central Mountain Range to connect eastern and western Taiwan. This is called the Guanmen Old Trail. Men from the community go ahead hacking away at the vegetation with their knives. Finally, there is an area overgrown by weeds where it is possible to see the ruins of traditional slate houses. Jin points out where there was once a kitchen area and a place for storing food. It is clear that he has a deep emotional connection with this place.
When building these homes, the Bunun stacked large pieces of slate. Thinner pieces were used as roof tiles. Window frames and some supports and beams were made from wood. No metal nails or metal wire were used. The spaces between the pieces of slate were filled enough to keep out snakes and mice, but to allow air to flow. These homes remained warm in winter and cool in summer. When Bunun hunters brought meat back they would smoke it over a fire in the home. The high temperature and thick smoke dried the meat allowing it to be preserved and preventing pests such as flies from damaging it. If stored in a well-ventilated area of the home it could keep for a while.
Currently, there is only one official household in Pagou Lass. So, there is an address plate with the number one on it, but no number two. This is the home of Song Xian-Ming. He is a Hakka from the Meinong District of Kaohsiung. He loves being in nature and fishing. In 1989, he visited Pagou Lass for the first time and fell in love with it. So, he started building a traditional-style slate house with the help of some of the Bunun people. It took eight months just to transport the needed slate to this site. After completing this home, he he has lived a reclusive life here, but has established close relationships with the local Bunun. In recent years, he has provided overnight accommodation to people who want to experience life deep in the mountains.
There is another legendary person in Pagou Lass. People call him Uncle A Shun. He lives a very simple life. If you want to visit him, you must follow a river upstream to a mountain forest. It is an arduous trip. Even if you make it there, you may not find him at home. It all depends on luck.
Uncle A Shun is a Han Chinese who is now about 80 years old. He says that at the age of 19, he came to Pagou Lass to start a tree nursery. After finishing his compulsory military service, he could not get the scenery of this area out of his mind. So, he came back to Pagou Lass and started living a life isolated from the world in a house he built from bamboo. His favorite activity is gathering medicinal herbs in the mountains. He has spent more than half a century researching the history and uses of medicinal herbs. Whenever friends come to visit, he gives them some medicinal liquor that he has produced. He says it is good for reliving muscle aches and pains.
Pagou Lass is both beautiful and tranquil. It is so quiet that it possible to hear the sound of the wind. The breathing of the mountains has a graceful rhythm to it. There are many legends here. Traditional beliefs of the Bunun are still practiced, as is the traditional knowledge of co-existing in harmony with Nature. Although there are very few people, they are important to its preservation. A visit to this place offers the opportunity to understand the Bunun world view and traditional culture.