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Fighting for Taiwan: Tsai Sheng-da

Revitalizing Indigenous Villages


Revitalizing Indigenous Villages


The “Island Puzzle” created by OBL Taiwan co-founder Tsai Sheng-da has raised awareness of the relationship between people and nature but even more importantly injected new life into Taiwan’s aboriginal villages.



Revitalizing Indigenous Villages

By Jennie Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 600 )

Tsai Sheng-da looks like one of Taiwan’s aboriginal people, and his friendly appearance breeds a feeling of familiarity wherever he goes. He most recently was reminded of that when he visited Zhiben in Taitung County in southeastern Taiwan, an area with a sizable indigenous population

“The last time I went to Katratripul Village (in Zhiben), they said I looked like a person from Zhiben. They only later found out I was from Hualien,” he says.

In fact, Tsai is from Taichung in central Taiwan. It was only while studying at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien County (north of Taitung County) that he first came in contact with aboriginal culture, and he now resides in the Hualien area.

After graduating, Tsai set up OBL Taiwan with some friends, and one of the OBL team’s major initiatives was the “Island Puzzle,” a gateway that has ushered Taiwan and people from all around the world into aboriginal villages for the past three years.

The first village to cooperate with the project was Mayuan Village in Hualien, an association that originated years earlier in 2007 when Tsai joined his college classmate Ma Yung-en on a trip home to Mayuan. From that point on, Tsai was regarded as one of the family.  

Protecting Coral by Using a Natural Sunscreen

At first glance, the Island Puzzle looks like a standard tour of Taiwan’s aboriginal villages. But Tsai, who once worked as an elementary school teacher, insists the Island Puzzle is all about education, about changing how participants think and act. The concept does not cater to tourists expecting to be pampered. Those who take part must exert themselves and physically experience village culture.

Tsai recalls one activity scheduled on the seashore to illustrate his point. Before diving into the water, members of the group started pulling out their sunscreen but were in for a surprise.

“We told them immediately to put their sunscreen away,” Tsai says. The group’s members were introduced to a local plant and asked to spread the juice from the plant over their exposed skin to protect themselves from sunburn.

“I told them later that they nearly harmed the coral, because coral is very sensitive to the chemicals contained in sunscreen,” Tsai recalls.

This desire to educate is part of every Island Puzzle activity, enabling participants to gain awareness of the relationship between humans and nature as they learn about aboriginal village lifestyles.

Before taking part in an Island Puzzle tour, many participants had never thought that their behavior could hurt the environment, but, according to Tsai, the experience really gets them thinking. “Many people end up heading home in tears because they’re so moved.” 

The Island Puzzle has also had an impact on aboriginal villages, bringing them opportunities for change.

“I’m grateful to A-da (Tsai) because he has brought the young people of Mayuan closer together,” says village hunter Tien Kuang-ching.

In the past, Tien says, young people in the village took its culture for granted and cared little about it. But after Island Puzzle tours began having village hunters take visitors into the mountains with young villagers tagging along to tell stories, the village came to life. 

Through their interaction with tour participants, the young villagers realized how precious their culture is. “When the youngsters got together in the past, they would talk about things in Taipei, but now they’re talking about the village,” Tien observes.

Though the Island Puzzle concept embraces a certain degree of idealism, Tsai’s motives in coming up with the idea were very practical. Each tour costs between NT$5,000 and NT$7,000, and every village member who contributes to the tour gets compensated appropriately.

“If we can help village members earn money, they are more likely to remain in the village rather than being forced to move away to find work,” Tsai explains.

The 10 percent profit on the tours goes into a village fund that will be used this year to repair a slate house in the village and turn it into a meeting hall. Tsai anticipates it will become a place where villagers can come together, so that “when people go to the slate house in the future, they’ll be able to find other villagers there.”  

A Model for Others to Learn From

Aside from Mayuan, OBL Taiwan also collaborates with Makota’ay (港口) Village in Hualien County on an Island Puzzle tour, and its next goal is to extend the service to Orchid Island, which lies about 60 kilometers off the coast of southeastern Taiwan. In the past three years, Tsai’s tours have welcomed participants from more than 30 countries.

They have also attracted the attention of tour operators in China, Hong Kong and Macau, who have talked to Tsai about the possibility of working together. Next year, Tsai will help create a Hong Kong version of the Island Puzzle concept. “We are not limited to Taiwan. We want to reach out into the world,” he says.

To Tsai, Taiwan has provided the impetus that has enabled him to reach beyond the island’s shores “because all of our international perspectives have been built on our local points of view. You can only think about an international perspective if you have a solid local perspective, because you’ll be able to know how you are different from others,” he says.

With years of experience behind it, Taiwan’s homegrown Island Puzzle is now poised to take its first strides into the rest of the world.

Translated from the Chinese article by Luke Sabatier