Monday, May 12, 2008

The Silver Helmets of Lanyu Island

On an old episode of Globe Trekker, the hostess visited Lanyu (Orchid) Island off of the Taiwanese coast. On the island live the Tao (aka Yami) people. Only 3,000 of them are left. The old man on the show wore a strange silver helmet.

Around 800 years ago, people from the Batanes Islands between Taiwan and Luzon settled on Lanyu Island. They subsisted on fish and created unique and intricately painted canoe boats. They lived underground to protect themselves from the fierce typhoons.

The Spanish shipped tons of silver coins from the mines of Mexico to the Philippines. There, the Spanish would purchase items from Chinese merchants using the silver coins. Inevitably, some silver coins ended up on Lanyu. The locals melted and hammered the silver coins into coils and made helmets out of them.

With no known enemies, the helmets were not used for protection. Rather, the helmet was a mark of wealth and had animist qualities. The helmet was brought out during ceremonies to show the owner's wealth. As one accumulated more silver coins, the helmet was enlarged. In addition, the helmet was respected and thought to have supernatural powers. It was used to bless homes, fields, and boats. At the beginning of the fishing season, the helmet would be waved at the coastline to attract fish.

With occupation by the ROC government, the Tao people suffered greatly. The Chinese who moved there were either anti-social soldiers or common criminals. Land was taken away. To add insult to injury, Lanyu became the dumping ground for Taiwan's nuclear waste. Unfortunately, not even the powerful silver helmets of Lanyu can ward off radiation.


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