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The Story Behind the Songs

The Alliance Cultural Foundation (ACF) is rolling out the Stanley Yen & Friends webinar series, in which Chair Stanley Yen will chat with some of his old friends with whom they labored together for Huatung. Each of them will share their struggles and vision for the sustainability of Huatung.

When Chair Yen founded ACF in 2009, he believed Huatung had the potential to become the model for sustainability for the rest of Taiwan. He uncovered the essence of tribal culture, provided a broader learning environment for tribal youth, encouraged the locals to live a lifestyle that respects the land, and led Huatung towards the kind of civilization it longed for. The first guest of the webinar series was Chair Yen’s old friend Kimbo Hu. Hu is a native of Dawu Mountain, Taitung. He is a renowned singer, an innovator, an activist for indigenous rights, and a connoisseur of life. He tells his stories with passion. “He is unruly and naïve. At times he can make you both love him and be upset at him. He is an indigenous cultural treasure!” That is how Chair Yen describes his dear friend Hu.

Friendship of a half century

Their friendship began in a teppanyaki restaurant named Lost City in their 20’s. As a sales representative working for American Express, Chair Yen often took local and foreign customers to Lost City to hear Hu sing western folk and blues. At the time, Hu was an English major at the National Taiwan University but took off from school to work to help pay for his father’s surgery. Besides Lost City, he also performed at the coffee shop in the Columbian Embassy. “Back then no one was interested in native music. I would only sing native songs with Stanley and few close friends over a drink at the end of the night after the restaurant guests were gone.” said Hu.

It was the 1970’s, when the Republic of China withdrew from the United Nations and severed diplomatic relations with the United States. As Taiwan’s international status declined, there was an awakening for the importance of local culture. The three musicians Shuang-Ze Li (李雙澤), Hu, and Hsien Yang (楊弦) rose to become the pioneers of the folk song movement. Young people started to write and sing their own songs. “My songs were about Taiwan’s youth of that period, about how they struggled for a better life. I sang about the era I remember dearly.” said Hu. “Beautiful Rice Grain” and “Formosa” were examples of such songs.

Regain the dignity of indigenous people through music

Hu left his hometown to attend school in Tamsui, Taipei at age 11. He recalls that when he visited Taipei’s China Plaza while in high school, he spotted a lot of his fellow natives.

“I thought to myself, what happened to the tribes? Weren’t we supposed to be self-sustainable? Why did they all have to leave their homes to make a living? I found out that they either worked in mines or at construction sites. They lived by the Xindian River in shabby huts built with construction boards.” After learning about their living conditions, I told myself “These are serious problems. I should not forget why I came to get an education, and that no one would recognize these problems if I did not speak up. What I could do was to regain our dignity through my music.” That was when the song "Dawu Mountain, Our Beautiful Mother," was written. Behind the soulful lyrics was his indignation about the aboriginal girls forced into child prostitution. Not only that, Hu and his friends, armed with pocket knife, also rescued numerous young prostitutes.

Taiwan's economy took off in the 1980s, but it also widened the gap between the rich and the poor. The aboriginals became an economically disadvantaged group. In 1984 there was an explosion at the Haishan coal mine. Hu went to the scene and saw that most of the victims were Amis natives from Huatung. That night he wrote the song “Why?”. That same year he also established the organization “Indigenous People for Affirmative Action” and dedicated himself to the social movement for the rights and interests of the indigenous people. “I was not the ideal fit for leading social movements, but at the time I felt the need to lead the initiative and then pass the baton to the more skilled. As a musician I must have an in depth understanding of my compatriots’ suffering; that is the true mission of folk songs.” In an era when martial law was still in place, that journey was difficult and dangerous. “But you would not mind such challenges when you know you are doing it for your ultimate dignity” said Hu.

A portrait of their friendship, 1 of 2: Promote Taiwan overseas After joining the aboriginal movement, in consideration of the political sensitivity, Hu cut ties from many of his friends, including Chair Yen. 20 years later they reconnected when Hu called Chair Yen. Chair Yen recognized his voice on the phone right away. The lyrics of the song “In a Flash” described the emotion of that moment. This reunion brought Hu back to Taipei. Chair Yen was then the Chair of the Taiwan Visitors Association; he often took friends from Taiwan's arts and culture community overseas to promote Taiwan. Hu, with his fluent English and charming singing voice became one of the most important representatives of Taiwan's indigenous culture. During this time, even though he was not physically in Taitung, the mountains, rivers, and ocean of his hometown were always in his songs. Not against a highway, but to preserve the land Chair Yen’s earliest encounter with Hualien was when he served his military duty by the Qixing Lake (Qixingtan) in Hualien. Hence Huatung has a special place in his heart. In 2007, Chair Yen, along with Hwai-min Lin (林懷民), Ying-tai Lung (龍應台), Hsiao-hsien Hou (侯孝賢), Lu Hsu (徐璐), Tzu-hsien Tung (童子賢), all recognized leaders in their respective fields, held a press conference opposing the project to build the Suhua Highway Improvement Project. “It was an outcry, a plea to preserve the beautiful land for future generations to be proud of.” Chair Yen recalls, “At that time Taiwan’s economy was booming; people were thinking of large-scale infrastructure developments. The government budgeted one hundred billion to invest in the Suhua Highway Improvement Project. I asked the government to reserve over 50 billion of that budget for the Huatung Perpetual Fund, which is still in use today. For that I endured a lot of pressure. I promised myself to return to Huatung after my retirement. I hoped to prove with my actions that Huatung is a region that Taiwan can be proud of.

A portrait of their friendship, 2 of 2: Rebuilding after Typhoon Morakot

The 2009 typhoon hit Hu’s tribe hard. 57 homes were completely destroyed. Hu reached out to Chair Yen. Chair Yen rushed to Bulibolisan village even though he was recovering from surgery at the time, to help lead the rescue effort. Chair Yen recalled, “We met at Hu’s sister’s backyard. The government representatives proposed to build temporary housing as quickly as possible. I disagreed. From the 1999 Jiji earthquake experience, I learned that such temporary housing were insufficient. I suspected that they would need to stay in this housing for up to 3 years before their permanent housing was built. I convinced the government to build a two-story temporary housing complex of better condition and quality. The mayor asked me “What if the public protests?” At the scene Hu and I convinced the tribal representatives to sign an affidavit. That turned out to be a good thing because the permanent housing indeed took 3 years to complete.

The tribe’s name in their native language was Bulibolisan, meaning a village of fog and trees. Typhoon Morakot caused many trees in the forest to collapse, wash down the river and block the port. Hu reached out to United Daily News proposing “Let the driftwood from nature return to nature”, suggesting that the forest service could auction off some of the driftwood and reserve some for the tribe to use to rebuild their homes. Later on, ACF invited artist Wei-bin Hsu (許偉斌) to setup a workshop and offered hands on training to encourage ascetic and creative use of the wood.

The world is sufficient for your need, not your greed

One third of Taitung’s population is indigenous. Hence Taitung is rich in indigenous cultural resources. In the past 13 years, Chair Yen was committed to introducing the aboriginal culture to a broader audience. He encouraged learning from nature, regaining the ability to harmonize with nature, and rediscovering the value of life. Hu said that our ancestors often told us “If you need a window or a door, then take a piece of wood sufficient for it, don’t take the whole tree. This world is not enough for your greed, but sufficient for your needs.”

“Whenever I come home, I drop my luggage and head out to find a creek and follow it up the stream. Once I found a creek which took me to a place I had never been. It was a deep gully with big rocks. I sat on a rock and let the water flow past my body. Birds sang and bugs chirped, those were the sounds I longed for. I collected fruit along the way just as the elders did when I was a child. That is my life in Taitung.” said Hu.

Those sounds reminded Hu of the way the tribal elderlies sang. When the natives sing, they do not get up on a stage or a podium. They let it out naturally. “In the Paiwan and Rukai language, there is a word kisenay. Ki means to take, senay means song. Kisenay is to take out the song. Music is blessed by God; It comes from one’s heart. To sing is to be blessed. Kisenay means a lot to me. Taking the song out from deep inside me, letting it wander around, and then finding its way back into my heart - This is how I feel about music.” said Hu.

Dressed by the Pacific Ocean Breeze

When Hu first returned home, he was greeted by the rice field, banana trees and magnolia. He sensed a new and vital energy in his hometown. Yao-Zhong had become a renowned chef. Bula started a dance studio. Siki and Eleng also had many new creations. We have returned home to continue the effort to preserve our culture.

My first gown, first yearning,

My first home, first memory,

Was the gentle breeze of the Pacific Ocean


The lyrics of “Pacific Wind” portrayed Hu’s earliest emotions. The breeze of the Pacific brings him back to where it all began.

(English translation by Angela Chin)


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