Bachimen, Keelung, and the 2% of Taiwan’s Hope and Struggle

In 1981, photographer Hsiao-Jung Guan came to Bachimen, Keelung, an urban Amis community and met an Amis, Ah-Chun, who worked as a concrete shutterer. He photographed Ah-Chun’s dismembered finger which was lost in an accident on the job. When Guan returned 20 years later, his friend, Ah-Chun had lost two more fingers.

In 1984, Guan stayed with a group of Amis friends for 7 months while he worked on a photography project in Keelung. One of the subjects was a 20-year-old Amis named Kao whose portrait went on to become the front cover of The World in Which We Live Magazine’s first edition the following year. However, Guan never saw the young man again as he was killed in an accident in 2005.

Consequently, in 2011, with his silent yet shocking black-and-white photographs, Guan published a photo collection/corpus, Bachimen: Reappearance of the 2% Hope and Struggle.

The 2% represents the population of indigenous people in Taiwan which is less than that of the foreign labors working here. This mere 2% of population supported the grassroots workforce that propelled Taiwan’s economic miracle in the past 40 to 50 years.


Guan’s Beginning of Recording the Urban Amis

“Cart after cart of coals were mined and shipped daily from the pitch-black pits. All these were the foundation that fueled Taiwan’s economic miracle……”

Photographer Hsiao-Jung Guan was born in 1949 and graduated from National Taiwan College of Arts (currently National Taiwan University of Arts). Even though he majored in art design and took photography classes, he eventually found his passion for literature. Since then, literature and photography have become the most important tools for documenting his observations.

In 1980’s, while Mr. Guan was working for China Times Magazine, an acute mining disaster struck. A great number of miners, in the early days, were Amis from Hualien and Taitung. As a result, most of the victims were Amis. Shocked and sadden by the event, Mr. Guan began his journey to photograph Taiwan indigenous people.

Like most of the indigenous people living in the cities and away from their hometowns in the early days, they worked as concrete shutterers, sailors, miners, etc.

Some of them have built the high-rises and some made the fresh catches at sea. Cart after cart of coals were mined and shipped daily from the pitch-black pits. All these were the foundation that fueled Taiwan’s economic miracle.


The Struggle of Life of the Urban Indigenous People

“No matter how difficult life is, the only thing that could defeat us is not the external forces but ourselves.”

However, working as grassroots labors, their pays were never high nor stable. They cannot afford to live in the high-rises that they built.

Furthermore, like Hsichou, Sanyin and Cilakesay communities of Amis in New Taipei and Ljavek community of Paiwan people in Kaoshiung, the dwellings of Amis in Bachimen, Keelung, have always been treated as constructions without licenses and thus illegitimate. The residents were removed and the buildings were dismantled repeatedly.

When staying with the Amis in Bachimen, Mr. Guan wrote about their lives there,

“…… On one occasion, approximately 70 or 80 people, including mothers with child, were caught for illegal development of land. They were all brought to the police station which was suddenly packed with these people waiting for the police to interview them. As the event dragged on, adults began yelling and babies crying for food. The policemen were so annoyed that they decided to let them all go…”

“After a continuous tug of war and the lands were cultivated, the police was reluctant to destroy such land. People began to prepare all kinds of construction materials and gather their friends and relatives from various places to build their dwellings here together. They did it in the shortest period of time…… The police adjusted their ban enforcement plan and took a much bigger effort to tear down our houses one by one. However, they were unable to take the building materials with them and, so in no time, the houses were restored. Then the police returned again.”

“……In the village of Bachimen, every household had gone through dismantlement at least three times, some as much as eight. The police finally gave up the fight against such stubborn will to live. The village has struggled and survived since then. Up to date, it’s still illegally built, but the people’s petitions and applications for address and number plate for the houses were granted. And there were finally water and electricity……”

“ As peculiar as it could be, the faces of the people here looked much healthier and more solid than the urbanites. It seemed that they were less susceptible to setbacks…… I also learned one thing here:

No matter how difficult life is, the only thing that could defeat us is not the external forces but ourselves.”

(“Bachimen Report” by Hsiao-Jung Guan)

Mr. Guan not only photographed the anguish and sadness of the Amis in Bachimen, but also their joy and happiness. His photographs, as well as his words, are not sensational just like his Amis friend who spoke of his own dismembered finger as if it’s someone else’s story. However, they were always able to move and inspired us for the vitality and stamina of the indigenous people.


Editor’s Postscript

I don’t understand why people never mentioned the aforementioned 2% of population when recounting the facts of Taiwan’s economic miracle. The vitality of these friends have always been the primary reason that Formosa is so beautiful.
The villages of urban indigenous people may have been demolished and relocated, but the people are always close by. They could be one of those with deep eyes and dark faces around us.
Have we ever tried to understand their stories? Have we ever asked,
“Hi mate, what brought you here?”


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Translated by Jane Lin / Photo via xuedesign studio (CC Licensed)