Adventures with Advent Church Choir 台灣聖公會降臨堂詩班 @ Jiji 集集, Checheng 車埕 and Wang Hsiang 望鄉部落 Kalibuan Village, Nantou County!

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A choir that has fun together, laughs together and goes on trips together is sure, yes, sure to sing and harmonize better at church on Sunday mornings.  And y’know, our Advent Church Choir is not just any old choir singing any old hymns. This choir is really quite special.  They are dedicated, not just to singing in the morning worship, but also to their rehearsal time on Sunday afternoons.  They spend hours and hours practicing.  And when they sing in the morning service, they sing with great joy.  They look happy.  Smiles all around.  This is a gift from God.  Not every choir sings quite so joyfully, believe me. What’s more, they are all friends.  And friendship means having fun together.  And having fun involves an annual trip somewhere interesting, usually involving an overnight stay, and singing at that church on the Sunday morning.  Visiting other churches and other denominations is a great blessing, and in doing so, we bring greetings from the Taiwan Episcopal Church, and our own church, Advent Church @ St. John’s University, Tamsui, Taipei.  The annual choir trip is officially called their choir retreat.  And so it was that this past weekend, I was invited to tag along too.  Thanks to the choir, especially their leader, Meng-Zhen, who invited me to join them.  So, early on Saturday morning, off we went in cars driving to Nantou County, in central Taiwan, about 3-4 hours south of Taipei…

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First we went to Jiji Town 集集 , famous for its train station, originally constructed by the Japanese colonial government in 1933, but very badly damaged in the Sept. 21, 1999 earthquake. Since rebuilt, incorporating the original design, and now a major tourist destination for Taiwan people.  And that means us – that’s us at the train station above.  The station is beautiful, and the surrounding station area is full of things to take photos of.  And with.  And next to.  And behind, in front of, above, below and around.  You can jump up.  Or sit down.  Or buy a balloon.  Or whatever.  By the time you have taken 100 photos, the train might have arrived.  For that is our main purpose.  To get the train along the Jiji Line to Checheng 車埕 Train Station.

The Jiji Train Line was built in 1922 as a single track to help move construction materials used in the Sun Moon Lake Hydroelectric Project.  Get to the very front of the train and the view is especially wonderful!

Checheng 車埕 Town lies just below the Mingtan Reservoir and Power Plant, with water coming into the reservoir from Sun Moon Lake further upstream.  Checheng itself is an old logging town, with a log pool and old buildings where the Japanese workers lived and laboured in the wood-processing plant and in preparing the logs for transportation downhill on the railway.  Now the buildings are a huge museum with all sorts of interesting things to do and look at….

About an hour or so from Checheng, further up in the central mountains, is Wang Hsiang Village.  Our main destination ~ and the real reason why I came along on this trip.  Any chance to visit an indigenous village with friends who know people there – and I’m in!

Wang Hsiang 望鄉部落 is known as Kalibuan in the Bunun language. This is a Bunun Village.  The Bunun people 布農 are a Taiwanese indigenous people, traditionally living in the very high mountains of central Taiwan.  Famous for their singing and their physical strength – turned out I recognized several of the men in the village who have come with us on our mountain expeditions in the past, helping us to carry everything and cook the food.  One of the aims of our visit this time was for us to learn something about the village – and the challenges, customs, faith and way of life of the people there.  The current population of Wang Hsiang is over 900, all members of the Presbyterian Church (built in 1951), where we worshiped on Sunday and our choir sang, accompanied by Yu-Jie on the piano – all so beautifully!

The Bunun choir sang too, their songs are incredible.  The church has 2 services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with 200 at the morning service – often extending to 300 if all the children come too.  The church was so full that many were sitting outside.  Services are held in the Bunun language, but with a power point so everyone can follow the words in pinyin.  Actually, for our benefit, the sermon and some of the announcements were in Chinese, with translation into Bunun.  The preacher was Rev. Wu, who was visiting from a neighbouring village.  Most of the people now are second or third generation Christians – a challenge in itself, and in his sermon, Rev. Wu talked about how for Kalibuan Church to be a strong church, it needs victorious Christians, who are well-equipped through prayer, Bible reading, teaching and fellowship, united in love, and with a vision to go out and share the Gospel with others.

Wang Hsiang was not always a Bunun Village.  The history of Taiwan’s indigenous people and their relationship with the Japanese authorities during the colonial period of 1895-1945 is complex.  The Japanese authorities wanted Taiwan to modernize and develop, and all in Taiwan to be law-abiding model citizens under their control and management.  The indigenous peoples, especially those in the high mountains (like the Bunun people) – who were known as fierce warriors, resented such interference and responded with hostility. This led to conflict, violence, uprisings, killings and brutal crackdowns.  The Japanese authorities forced the high mountain peoples to relocate to lower altitudes where they could be more easily controlled, and killed many of their fiercest warriors who opposed their authority – including those in this photo, displayed on the village wall. This is the last known photo of the men before they were put to death.

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Wang Hsiang was originally inhabited by the Tsou 鄒 people, and when the Bunun people first moved here, there was much conflict.  But as the Bunun people grew in numbers, so eventually the Tsou moved away to the Alishan area, where they still are today.  The story goes that when the Bunun people were forced to move down from the high mountains, they were offered 3 choices of location, and they chose Wang Hsiang because of its distant view of Yushan 玉山, Taiwan’s highest mountain (3,952 m).  From their original high mountain village they could also see Yushan in the distance, so they felt more at home.  Their original home village was located up over 3,000 m in altitude, with snow every winter.  Down in Wang Hsiang, they’ve had snow once in the last 20 years.  The name, ‘Wang Hsiang’ means ‘looking towards home’ and that described their own longing to be back in their high mountain village, which was over the mountain of the same name – and / or maybe it described the feeling of the young homesick Japanese police officers stationed in Wang Hsiang.  Many theories of where the name came from… but the view is there all the same.  Except in the afternoons, the clouds roll in and it often rains in the high mountains ~ like on Saturday afternoon, when we arrived.  Yushan is in the clouds on the left of that big mountain in the centre…..

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Towards the end of the Japanese Era, the first missionaries appeared in the Wang Hsiang area and eventually the village elders made the decision to convert to Christianity.  In doing so, they also realized that their days of headhunting and violent conflict with the authorities were over, and so started a complete transformation of their way of life and thinking.

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These days, the pastors and church leaders are Bunun people from the village, and together with the tribal and village leaders, several income-generating projects have started locally.  These are community enterprises, designed to benefit the whole village.  Originally considered one of the most underdeveloped and backward of the local villages (they were the last to be connected to mains electricity, for example), in recent years there has been much hard work, and success is coming slowly but surely.  The government provides a lot of support, like free wifi throughout the village.  These days also, when the Bunun people remember the Japanese era, not all is completely negative, they say they are grateful for the infrastructure, education facilities and benefits provided by the government.  But still, it must have been terrible at the time.  Recent development projects are in 3 main areas: leading and supporting mountain-climbing expeditions – training and licensing as mountain guides and high-altitude porters, providing guest house accommodation for mountain expeditions and for weekend visitors / ecotourism (like us!) and thirdly the development of high-altitude agricultural projects, particularly fruit and vegetables.  Ah yes, and coffee too…

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This was not the first time I had stayed in Wang Hsiang. Last year at this time, on the night before our ascent of Yushan, we also stayed in Wang Hsiang.  This time, we stayed in a different guest house and had a tour of the village with one of the local guides.  This time also, the personal connection was that Sheng-Feng (Simon) and Hsuan-Ying (Grace), one of our choir couples (who had also invited me to join their trip to visit Grace’s home village at Nantian, Taitung earlier this month – see that post here) are old friends of the pastor and his family – actually they had been student members of a fellowship group that he led in Taichung many years ago.  That personal connection made all the difference, and we enjoyed hearing their stories and sharing time together in the guest house…

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The food was amazing.  Loved it all!  Delicious, completely so!  The bamboo tubes are a traditional dish – filled with sticky rice. The lemon slices are flavored with – guess what?  That dark stuff is coffee granules.  Really special!  And then we sang…

On our tour of the village, we learned that it consists of 4 streets, all leading off to the left of the main road.  The walls of all the houses and gardens have mosaic / stone patterns showing aspects of Bunun daily life.  Each house – and corner – has a notice explaining about each place.  Really amazing.  In some places, millet, the staple food was lying out in the sun drying….

We finished our tour with a group photo at the village sign at the entrance to the village…

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Early on Sunday morning, some of us climbed up the hill behind the village.  Bit foggy, but by the time we got back the mist had cleared and the view toward Yushan was beautiful. Yushan is the pointed peak in the far distance.

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One of our group had a drone – this is us!

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And so to church.  First to the rehearsal – our choir are dedicated!  Our music conductor on the retreat was Shiao Chien, she has a real gift of enthusing everyone with a love of singing and music, and always chooses really suitable songs to sing.  She had also asked everyone to wear one (any one!) of the Advent Church T-shirts, of which we have many,  going back years, hence all the bright colours.

Also at the church were a group of young ABC (American-born Chinese) whose families are originally from Taiwan, they are here for a few weeks in the summer as part of a project to help Wang Hsiang children learn English.  They also sang a song, and the church provided lunch for us visitors after the service.  Ah, it was so delicious!

A big ‘Thank You’ to Advent Church Choir for their kind invitation and welcome to me to join their trip.  Thanks to Paul and Christina for driving me there and back – and all the way home.  It was all a wonderful adventure.  The choir all love singing and having fun ~ a great combination!

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Thanks too to the pastor and people of Wang Hsiang Village, for their hard work and time to make us so welcome.  And thanks be to God for safe travels, beautiful views, delicious food, new experiences, fresh mountain air, and of course, friends, fellowship and fun!

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