For centuries the Yami were the only tribal group on their island and it wasn’t until the 20th century that their way of life began to be seriously disturbed by outsiders.
During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese were fascinated by the local customs of the Yami and did little to interfere with their way of life. Things changed drastically after the KMT came to power and attempted to introduce Chinese language and culture to the Yami. Boatloads of mainland Chinese were shipped to the island in the hope that interracial marriages would Sinicise the Yami population. The Yami resisted this encroachment and years of fighting with the mainlanders ensued. In the late 1960s the government ordered that the traditional underground homes of the Yami be torn down and new cement structures built in their place. The houses were poorly made and couldn’t hold up to the typhoons that whip through the island every year. At about the same time the housing law was passed, the island was opened to tourism and Taiwanese tourists began to arrive in droves. Christian missionaries also arrived, converting a large percentage of the population who are, to this day, primarily Christian.
Hardly based on mutual respect, the relationship between the Taiwanese government and the Yami took a turn for the worse when the government decided that the island would be a good place to dump nuclear waste. Long Men (Dragon Gate), at the southern tip of the island, was selected as a temporary storage facility for mid- and low-level nuclear waste. The site, which government representatives told locals was ‘a fish cannery’, became depository for up to 100, 000 barrels of nuclear waste in 1982. When islanders discovered the truth from Taiwanese news reports they raised a furious outcry, protesting both on Lanyu and in front of the various government buildings in Taipei. Despite government promises that the dump would be removed, the barrels remain and there is evidence that approximately 20% of the original barrels are beginning to leak and the concrete trenches they are buried in are cracking. Soil samples from the south end of the island show higher than normal levels of radioactivity and the possibility of health problems resulting from long-term contamination is of great concern to Yami people.
The Yami are doing their best to preserve their culture in the face of various social issues not uncommon in aboriginal communities. Alcoholism is a problem on the island, as is the overall brain drain caused by so many young people leaving to find greater economic prosperity in Taiwan. Even so, Yami traditions on Lanyu remain alive and one of the benefits that tourism has brought to the island has been to encourage the younger generation to learn more about their heritage before heading off to Taiwan to seek their fortunes. Visitors to Lanyu are generally made to feel welcome as long as they behave respectfully. Ask people before taking their photograph and don’t wander into anyone’s home or garden without getting permission first.
And no matter how cute they are, don’t pick up the baby goats.