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Indigenous Entrepreneur Lin Yi-bei

Owl Magic Reshapes a Community


Owl Magic Reshapes a Community

Source:Chieh-Ying Chiu

Returning to Sun Moon Lake to start a business, Lin Yi-bei never expected her little owls to make such a mark on her community. Her inspiring story shows that people can choose their own path in life.



Owl Magic Reshapes a Community

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 475 )

It is hard to tell if Lin Yi-bei discovered the owl, or the owl discovered Lin Yi-bei. Whatever the case, the 31 year-old Lin has used the owl to make business prosper in the village of Ita Thao near Sun Moon Lake, even attracting overseas collectors with her favorite animal.

Entering Lin Yi-bei's 30 square-meter Owl Workshop in the Ita Thao Commercial District one encounters owls of all sorts, put to a wide variety of uses – as coasters, key chains, mobile phone accessories, necklaces, clocks, pillow cushions, wood carvings... It is a veritable owl museum.

Before becoming an enthusiastic promoter of owls, Lin Yi-bei, whose speech follows a logic all her own and is riddled with hip expressions, worked on behalf of the black-faced spoonbill. Armed with a freshly minted degree in interior design from Shu-Te University in Kaohsiung, she headed to her first job at the Black-faced Spoonbill Conservation, Management and Research Center in Cigu, Tainan.

Unfortunately, she never really fell head over heels for these graceful, rare birds, and after a year she went to work at a design firm in Taipei. The crowded, hurried lifestyle of the big city was a shock to her system, being accustomed to a slower pace of life. When the company won a bid to work on the Checheng Wood Museum in Nantou, she volunteered to head back to the countryside and oversee the project. For her, "A little less money was fine. I just wanted to go home."

Lin drove between Checheng and Ita Thao each day. One day after work, driving along the road that rings Sun Moon Lake, she picked up a Formosan mountain scops owl. It was love at first sight with this unusual looking bird, and so began an affair with owls that has burned brightly ever since.

The owl is the spiritual bird of Thao tribal legends. Having grown up in Ita Thao, Lin Yi-bei was no stranger to the stories, but to her they were no more than mythical creatures. However, after encountering owls close-up, she discovered that if you look attentively enough, they are often to be seen around Sun Moon Lake.

"It's a spirit, no longer a bird but an animal that can think, with wings," relates Lin Yi-bei, pointing to a poster in her shop. She notes that the owl is the only species of bird that makes facial expressions, making it especially endearing.

Throwing herself completely into studying owls, she works with the Wild Bird Rescue Institute of Taichung County, and has published the book The Owls of Taiwan, never letting a chance to absorb more knowledge of owls pass by. Determined to see all 12 of the known species of owls on Taiwan, she still has four to go.

Humble Ambitions, Huge Success

An avid sketcher, Lin Yi-bei was always drawing owls. Getting heavily into it, she started making quilt art, at first for fun, but soon offering them for sale outside her family's teashop. They were an unexpected sensation on her street, as customers had never seen such items and even other proprietors came by to inquire about them. Although owl totems can be seen all around Ita Thao, no one had ever thought to sell owl motif merchandise in the commercial district.

Lin Yi-bei trail-blazed a new market.

As her business got better and better, her simple vending stall was not enough to handle it, and her parents gave her space in the tea store for her Owl Workshop. Designing 70 percent of the merchandise herself, with the remaining 30 percent sold on consignment for other artisans, she generates sales of between NT$200,000 and $400,000 per month.

Never intending to establish a big business, Lin Yi-bei singlehandedly gave a boost to the community's handicrafts industry. Her 34 year-old brother, Lin Tsong-wei, returned from Taipei to help out, and all four family members got involved in the owl business. Lin Yi-bei sketches out the designs, her parents hand-paint the items, and her brother oversees the contract workers, as a number of woodcarvers in Nantou and women quilters from 20 neighboring communities have been incorporated into her "supply chain."

"At first I didn't have such a big plan in mind. I was falling behind schedule and needed to find some people to help. It didn't occur to me that I'd be providing them jobs. It just turned out to be a virtuous cycle," Lin relates. Up to two-thirds of each day's output is sold the same day it is made on most days, and she includes a little card with each item explaining the story of the owl and its unique characteristics.

Lin's customers come from all around Taiwan. Travelers from as far afield as Japan, Hong Kong and Malaysia have shown up at her door to buy her wares, and collectors in the United States and Europe place orders over the Internet because, as she says, her owls are "irresistibly cute." With a good-natured laugh, Lin explains that people express emotions more directly in the countryside, so "this kind of bravado is not out of line."

Stories of people succeeding at what they love to do are always infectious, and like a pied piper, Lin Yi-bei has led a brigade of young people back to their hometown to start up businesses.

For instance, the smiling man by the cold drinks stand serving customers iced tea at the Jingpin Teashop 300 meters away across the street is Lin's former primary and junior high school classmate, Lin Yu-cheng.

You Can Choose Your Path in Life

Lin Yu-cheng holds a Master's degree in agronomics from National Taiwan University. After three years working at a marine shipping company, he heard the story of Lin Yi-bei's venture, and decided to return to the village and give it a try himself. Since taking over his mother's tea stall, he has achieved 30-percent growth and expanded inventory to include black tea from nearby Yuchi Township. Coming back home helped Lin Yu-cheng realize that, when he worked from six in the morning until midnight, no matter how good the pay was, he was always working for someone else. Now, all his hard work pays off, because it is his business.

"Working in the city isn't fashionable anymore," Lin Yi-bei states emphatically as she passes Lin Yu-cheng's teashop. In the city she waited passively to be given orders and lacked the latitude to make her own choices. But after returning to her hometown and starting a business doing something she loves, she has more space, time and freedom. As long as the creativity keeps flowing, she can make three or four times as much as she did in the city.

Moving along another few steps, the handsome man in the traditional Thao attire frying up shrimp over a wok is another of Lin Yi-bei's classmates, Shih Chia-sheng. After living outside Ita Thao for a decade, and becoming a chef at a hotel in Hsinchu, he returned to look after his family's snack shop. Cooking up local Thao cuisine to suit popular tastes, he formulated a creative new menu with such dishes as fried shrimp with vegetables and chicken wings with sticky rice stuffing.

"The technical aspects are easily taken care of – the concepts are the hard part," says Lin Yi-bei. "Decide how you want to live, and you can choose your own path," she asserts as she expertly applies paint to a carved wooden owl's head. Revealing her vision, which she describes as ambitious but not out of reach, she says she wants to use her platform for owl infatuation to connect with bird lovers around the world, so that more people can get to know how adorable owls are.

Owls changed a young woman's life, and that woman impacted her community. Some day, perhaps, this beautiful story will become enshrined in Thao legend too.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman