Unsure Welcome

Orchid Island Visit, November 2006

by Philip Diller

Everyone we met on the island for our three day visit was hospitable, but we were not left with empassioned encouragement to come again. Learning more of the the island's native Tao people's interaction with the modern world left us with a clear sense of possible reasons for this sensibility.

Getting there

Yeyou 椰油

Get to Orchid Island 蘭嶼 by boat or by plane. Both leave from Taidong 台東 and are as reliable as the weather, so reservations are not accepted. Flights take 25 minutes on 19 seat planes flying at a few thousand feet over the Pacific. Daily Air Corporation 德安航空 (089) 362-489 is the only airline operating a few flights per day depending on weather. Buy tickets at the airport counter for about 1400 TWD. Get more for your money on the three hour boat trip from Taitong's Fukang Harbor. Roundtrip boat tickets are between 1500 and 2000 TWD available on the boat at sailing time from Golden 金星 or Common Star 恆星 Ferries (089) 281 477.


Orchid Island 2006 township

One of Taiwan's thirteen volcanic islands, Orchid Island, off the eastern coast of Taiwan in the Pacific, at 22°03' N, 121°32' E, is 91 km miles from Taidung 台東, 74 km from Green Island 綠島 to the east, 76 Km from Oluanpi 鵝鑾鼻 on the southernmost tip of Taiwan to the west, and 390 km north of Luzon Island, the Philippines. The island is described as being shaped like a fist. With an area of 45.7 square kilometers and an additional 2 square kilometers at low tide, Orchid Island has a total of 38.5 kilometers of coastline and is 2.8 times bigger than Green Island. Hilly, with eight mountains reaching over 400 meters, the tallest point of Orchid Island is Hongtoushan 紅頭山 at 552m.


Forest on the way up to Tianchi 椰油

The climate is tropical with humidity often over 90% and an average monthly temperature of 23°C, July temperatures reach 32°C and drop below 20°C only in January. Rainfall averages over 2600 cm annually with just over 100 rain free days per year. From October to January or February, the climate is dominated by northeastern monsoons. Throughout the year a light breeze blows from changing directions, making the summer heat tolerable. The warm Kuroshio Current flows northward from the equator past eastern Taiwan affecting the marine fauna.

Native People

Orchid Island 2006 30381

The natives of Orchid island are prevalently called "Yami" by both western and Chinese (雅美) language speakers. The natives do not use the name "Yami" to refer to themselves, the word means "north" and may have been what they were called by their predecessors to the south, in the Philippines. The Yami are also known as the "Tao," pronounced "Da-wu" (達悟) in mandarin Chinese. The natives call themselves "Tao" meaning "man" or "person", "Tao no pongso" meaning "people of the island" or "Tao no Irala" meaning "people of Irala."


The island was "undiscovered" until Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945) when the Japanese government declared the island an off limits ethnological research area and it was not open to tourists until 1967. The relative isolation of Orchid Island has allowed the native Tao to better maintain their traditions, language and culture than the other aborigines of the Taiwan mainland. The undersea mountain chain connecting Orchid Island to the Phillipines leaves a path of protruding small islands. The Tao migrated to Orchid Island about 800 years ago from the Batan Archipelago (巴丹群島) in the northern Philippines, maintaining communication with their homeland, trading pigs, goats, and millet, for weapons, beads and gold. These exchanges ceased about three centuries ago, after a fight in which most of the Tao visitors on Batan were killed. However. The languages spoken by Tao and Batanese today are mutually intelligible. The Tao fish both during the day and at night. Tao are busiest in the summer when fruit ripens and they prepare for the coming winter. The population of Orchid island is about 4000, of which about 2800 are Tao and the rest are Chinese from Taiwan. Since 1990 about 25 percent of the Yami population has migrated to work in cities on Taiwan.

Island Name

Orchid Island is called "Lanyu" 蘭嶼 (orchid island) by the Chinese; early 17th century Japanese charts list Tabako Shima; during their colonial occupation in the first half of the 20th century, the Japanese called the island Kotosho (red head island); mid 17th century French maps call the island Tabaco Xima; Taiwan Puyuma call it Botol, the Formosan native Ami call it Buturu; the native Tao call their island "Ponso no Tao" or "Pongso no Tao" by the Tao (the island where we live) or "Irala" — land (as opposed to sea); and Botel Tobago is a name given by westerners.



The island has seen volcanic activity several times since 3.5 Ma (million years ago) up to about 20,000 years ago. Most of Orchid Island is covered by thick piles of Cenozoic andesites (dark-colored vesicular volcanic rocks erupted from volcanic activity associated with convergent plate boundaries.) The Philippine plate is a small plate between the Eurasian and Pacific plates. The Huatung Basin is a small oceanic basin and constitutes the westernmost part of the Philippine Sea Plate. Lanyu is part of the Luzon Arc that bounds the Huatung Basin to the west. Lanyu is located at the juncture of the Philippine and Eurasian Plates. The steep mountains of Orchid Island are part of the chain of volcanic islands between Taiwan and Luzon.

Nuclear Waste

Oppose nuclear waste

In 1974 Taiwan's Atomic Energy Commission selected Long Men 龍門 (Dragon Gate) at the southern tip of Orchid Island as a temporary storage facility for mid and low level nuclear waste. A harbor was built in 1978, construction began in 1980, and shipments began arriving in May of 1982. Since then, the site has been the depository for mid and low level nuclear waste from Taiwan's three nuclear plants.

In the mid-1970s, government representatives tricked the illiterate district commissioner of Orchid Island into agreeing to the project explaining that the plan was to build a fish cannery on the Long Men site. The deception was maintained into the site construction until island churchgoers discovered the truth from mainland Taiwan news reports.


The Tao language is Bashiic, a Malayo-Polynesian tongue, similar to the languages spoken by the Ivatan peoples of the Batanes islands of the Northern Philippines. The Bashi area is the area comprising the islands of the northernmost and smallest province of the Philippines, Batanes, as well as the Bashi Channel and Irala (Orchid Island). The language is still spoken by the older generation, over fifty. The younger Tao mostly speak mandarin Chinese, which is the official language of the Taiwan mainland. Outside a general store we see a woman reading a bible in written in romanized Tao. Everywhere we go, the natives seem to speak to each other in Tao. Our hosts the Li's lament that the younger generation no longer speak Tao, and that the schools only instruct in Tao for one hour per day.

The major settlements of Orchid Island

Tao Chinese meaning
Yayu 椰油 Yeyou coconut oil/butter
Iraralay 朗島 Langdao bright island
Iranumilk 東清 Dongqing east clear
Ivarinu 野銀 Yeyin country/wild silver
Imourud 紅頭 Hongtou red head
Iratai 漁人 Yuren fisherman
Iwatas 伊瓦達斯 Yiwadasi (phonetic)

Tianchi 天池

Tianchi 天池

In the airport picture essays document the opening up of Tianchi to make the area more accessible to tourists. Great trees were cut down to build the wooden stairway easing hikers' ascent to the lake in the volcano crater. Construction cables and bricks have been left along the path. Sections of the woooden walkway are unfinished. Mr. Chong warns us that we won't see many orchids along the heavily trafficed path. Like the cement harbors and nuclear waste dump, none of these "developments" seem to have brought any benefit to the natives.

The Butterfly Orchid

In January 19, 1946, the island was redesignated as Hongtouyu Township (紅頭嶼鄉 "Red-headed Island") of Taitung County 台東縣 and on November 24 of that year was renamed to 蘭嶼 (Lan Yu) or Orchid Island, after the indigenous Phalaenopsis aphropdite 台灣蝴蝶蘭 or butterfly orchid.

Butterfly Orchid

The earliest scientific record of the orchid dates back to 1879, when the plant was "discovered" on Orchid Island. Overlooked by experts until half a century ago, Phalaenopsis amabilis var. formosa became a household word among orchid aficionados the world over when hybrids won top prize at an international orchid show in California two years in a row in 1952 and 1953. Three years later, another hybrid of this Taiwanese orchid won a gold medal at the Nantes International Flower Festival in 1956, stunning festival goers with 300 blossoms. Sudden popularity led to 30 years of ravaging economic exploitation as natives even cut down old trees to reach the lucrative blossoms. The butterfly orchid quickly approached extinction on the island.

Taiwan's most commonly cultivated orchids — accounting for about 65 percent of the country's exports are those belonging to the genus Phalaenopsis, meaning "moth-appearance," from which comes the common English name moth orchids. In Taiwan, they are called butterfly orchids. Moth orchids are usually found at altitudes from 300 to 1,500 meters above sea level. Taiwan's only two local moth orchid species are P. amabilis and P. equestris, which are also found, respectively, in Indonesia and the Philippines. Phalaenopsis is the most popular cultivated orchid species on Taiwan. The local variety leads in the world in quality, variety and production quantity. In 2004, Taiwanese phalaenopsis industry was worth NT$ 2 billion.

Orchid Island birds not on the Taiwan mainland

Chestnut-eared Bulbul 棕耳鵯 Microscelis amaurotis
Japanese White-eye 綠繡眼 Zosterops japonica batanis
Black Paradise Flycatcher 黑綬帶鳥 Terpsiphone atrocaudata periophthalmica
Large Brown Cuckoo Dove 長尾鳩 Macropygia phasianella
Red-capped Green Pigeon 紅頭綠鳩 Treron formosae
Lanyu Scops Owl 蘭嶼角鴞(紅角鴞) Otus elegans botelensis

The Scops owl as well as many of the butterflies and plants are considered "evil spirits" by the native culture. Perhaps this has contributed to preservation of the natural environment?

Native Diet

Taro Field

Sources of food include fish and other seafood. Men go out spearfishing and net fishing at dusk in their traditional boats, usually many men in one boat. We see fish drying on lines in front of homes in many of the villages. Many varieties of fish, crabs and octopus are harvested from the ocean. The Tao are known for eating flying fish. Tao Culture specifically advises which fish men or women can eat. Young men and women may not even touch certain fish that are not "safe" for them and most houses have two sets of cooking utensils to handle the two classes of fish. Women also collect seaweeds and mussels in tidal pools. On land, the Tao's key staple is taro grown in wet fields. They also grow other crops that do not require working the soil with tools, including yams, millet, sugarcane and onions. Cultivated fruits include bananas, pineapples, coconuts, pumpkins and other vine melons. The islanders also raise goats and pigs which can be seen running about on roads and near homes almost everywhere. Men and women alike seem to chew betelnut all day. Riding home at dusk through fields we nearly run over a rat.

Jiananyuan handicraft workshop


The Jiananyuan handicraft workshop 迦南園工藝坊 just past Langdao elementary school in Langdao village 朗島 sells small carvings and jewelery. The proprietors make many pieces themselves and also sell crafts of other island artists. They are also working to revive the craft of making beads from local plants seeds.

References and Resources:

  • The Lanyu Website
    An experimental pilot project of the Digital Library/Museum of the Academia Sinica
    including overview descriptions of the people and land and the following articles:
    • Gold and Silver on Botel Tobago: The Silver Helmet Of The Yami
    • Three Genealogical Stories From Botel Tobago: A Contribution To The Folklore Of The Yami
      Beauclair, Inez, 1959 Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica 7: 105-140.
    • Display of Wealth, Gift Exchange And Food Distribution On Botel Tobago
    • Field Notes on Lan Yu (Botel Tobago)
    • Fightings and Weapons of the Yami of Botel Tobago
    • A Study of the July 23, 1978 Lanhsu, Taiwan Earthquake Sequence
  • Benedek, Dezso, The Songs of the Ancestors, Taipei, SMC Publishing Inc., 1991
  • Kano, Tadao & Segawa, Kokichi, An Illustrated Ethnography of Formosan Aborigines, Vol. 1, the Yami, Tokyo, Maruzen Company, 1956
  • del Re, Arundel, Creation Myths of the Formosan Natives, Tokyo: the Hokuseido Press, 1951
  • Yu, Guang-hong, Ritual, Society and Culture among the Yami, Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan, 1991
  • Orchid Island: Taiwan's Nuclear Dumpsite
    An example of Environmental Colonialism
    by Duncan R. Marsh, Edgar (Jun-Yi) Lin, Pi-yao Lin
    published by WISE News Communique on March 28, 1993
  • The Loss of the Benjamin Sewall
    On Friday, 10 October 1903, a despatch arrived at Lloyds, London, from An-ping, Formosa, stating that, "The American ship Benjamin Sewall and her cargo has been lost at the Pescadores."
    the Takao CLub web site notes:
    • Much of the information above has been taken from a book entitled 'Ship Benjamin Sewall', written by Douglas Egan and published in 1982 by Ye Galleon Press, Washington.
    • The journal of Helen Jackson Piper is contained among her papers held at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College. Amongst these papers there is also an unpublished account of her experiences on this voyage entitled "The Girl in the Lifeboat".
  • Orchid Island spoils the visitor in need of a break
    "The island is a great place for seekers of tranquility. It boasts some of the best reefs in Asia and wonderful scenery"
    Gavin Phipps, Wednesday, Jun 29, 2005, Page 13, Taipei Times
  • 蘭嶼-達悟族人飛魚文化的最後淨土 Cultural overview in Chinese
  • 蘭嶼映像 Travel information in Chinese