The Silver-helmeted People of Orchid Island
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
The Yamis continue to live according to their ancient traditions, as they have done for the past million years.
They are one of the few peoples in the world to remain untouched by modern world developments. Out of Taiwan's original nine ethnic groups, the Yamis are the only one remaining today.
Photo-journalist Eric Pasquier set out to discover this unique people, now living in six different villages on Orchid Island, southeast of Formosa.
The men on the island, with their gleaming silver helmets, set out at sea in their long pirogues, colourfully decorated with representations meant to ward off evil spirits, to catch flying fish as their ancestors did centuries ago.
An exclusive portrait of people who continue to live in their own timeless era...
Large, multi-coloured pirogues are lined up along the shore. Like some kind of primitive astronaut, a man is cleaning fish by the sea. His head is covered by a large, cone-shaped helmet going from the top of his head down to his shoulders. By taking a closer look, one can see the riveted bands of silver metal pounded together and bent to form this strange headgear, which hides his head completely. He stares back through the two square holes at eye level, dark spots in the gleaming silver that hint at the mysterious face underneath.
The man is a member of the Yami tribe, a people who have not developed writing and who for thousands of years have mostly survived on flying fish, which they catch from their colourfully painted pirogues. The flying fish is as sacred to the Yamis as the 'vaoyo' (tuna), which abounds in the waters of the South China Sea.
The Yami population, three thousand in total, is nowadays spread over six little villages on Orchid Island, southeast of Taiwan. They are the very last of Taiwan's nine original ethnic groups and one of the last peoples in the world to remain untouched by modern world developments. The Republic of China tried to approach them, with the tempting offer of free education and modern housing, but they declined, deciding to remain faithful to their ancestral traditions.
They do not feel the need either for education or housing, they rely on the great sea, which represents their main source of support during the summer when they move their residences to pile-built dwellings. In the winter time, when typhoons strongly hit the island, they survive on betel and lime.
The Yami are a people who live to the rhythm of the seasons and have in fact winter and summer houses.
When the cold wind blows, freezing the green flanks of the island's mountains, they disappear in their underground dwellings, protected from the elements by the warmth provided by earth’s isolation.
The streets connecting the winter houses are also dug in the ground, shaped as narrow trenches with stone walls on the sides. But when the weather turns mild again in the springtime, the inhabitants of Orchid Island emerge, moving to their above-ground huts.
In the villages, life revolves around the performance of basic, daily duties. The women, who are free to choose - and leave - their husbands as they wish, look after the animals (chickens, goats and a few pigs), work in the fields where millet and sweet potato are grown, while the men set out in their colourful pirogues, facing the roaring waters of the South China Sea and the much feared evil spirits, who are believed to inhabit its deep waters, to go after their favourite food, flying fish. On the days that are set aside for hunting, the men will wear their rattan armour and track wild boars on the mountains of Orchid Island.
Their simple life cycle, spent mostly farming, hunting and fishing, is very dear to the Yamis, almost as dear as their silver helmets, which they wear from dawn to noon. The silver helmets are objects that hold a very strong symbolic meaning and, for the men, undoubtedly their most precious personal possession.
The silver helmets have always been sacred objects among the Yamis, although their exact origin remains unknown. Oral legends maintain that the row material for the helmets originally came from silver manufactures found in wrecks, off-shore Orchid Island. The silver objects were melted and shaped into strips that were then riveted together to obtain the cone-shaped headgear that, from a distance, may resemble a pyramid set on a man’s shoulders. Tradition wants the helmets to be handed down from father to son, where each generation adds a strip of metal to the helmet, that is why you may see some of the older helmets extending beyond the shoulders of the man wearing it. They eventually become so big that the pieces from a father’s helmet are divided and distributed among the brothers of the family.
The Yamis' pirogues, like their helmets, reflect the owners' social status. There are two kinds of pirogues, the larger ones, which can sit a crew of six to ten men, also equipped with a rudder, and the smaller ones, fit for a crew of one to three men. A plank is fitted onto the bottom to serve as floor while plant fibres are used to make the pirogue waterproof. The boat, always carved from a single piece of wood, belongs to the person who built it. The largest boats weigh up to three hundred kilograms and require some three months to build. The decoration of a new boat is an occasion for rare and quite impressive celebrations, up to 45 pigs are sacrificed for the occasion, 20 of them being provided by the owner of the newly decorated pirogue. Some boats, after being given a base of the white paint coating, are decorated with elaborate red stencilling; others carry evocative, cannibalistic symbols, expressing the belief of their owners in the afterlife.
The Yamis use three basic colours - white, black and red - to decorate their pirogues as well as for painting houses and temples. To manufacture the colours women crush and burn seashells, then moisten them with seawater, thus producing an off-white paint. In order to obtain black paint, the soot on cooking pottery is added to this base while the mountain's natural lateritic-soil is used to obtain the red colour. Bows of the pirogues are usually fitted with a feather-trimmed cross, which recalls the ambiguity of the flying fish: half amphibian, half bird.
Other typical representations on the Yamis’ pirogues are the series of zigzags stencilling on the hull representing the mountains of the island or the single circle symbol representing the celestial eye, which overlooks the sea and the people who live by it. Last and most important, the symbol of ‘mata-no-tatara’, a set of concentric circles that represent the eye of the boat and strongly resemble a sun-ray design, which is said to keep away evil spirits that, according to the Yamis, lurk in the waters of the sea surrounding their island.
The graceful lines in Yamis' crafts reflect a traditional art form that is rich with legendary tales and superstitions. Life on the island is in fact centred on one main legend, the one of the flying fish. The legend tells that a Yami fisherman dreamt of a fish with a strange pair of wings attached to its body. In the dream the fish pronounced these words: "I am Black Fins, King of the Flying Fish. When you awake from your sleep, come and join me on the beach. I will then tell you what you have to do." The fisherman went to the beach the following morning, obeying the order of the King of the Flying Fish. 'Black Fins' flew then towards him, skimming gracefully over the waves. The two spent many long hours together as 'Black Fins' explained to the Yami the secrets of the sea, how to live with it, what food it would supply and how to catch it. Ever since the Yami people celebrate the beginning of the fishing season with a ritual that features the traditional singing of Black Finn’s wise words. For this occasion, all men wear their silver helmets and their jewellery made of copper and gold. The women dress in their best clothes and their finest jewels as well. Chicken blood is poured into the sea to attract the sacred fish of the Yami. Some of the chickens are then cooked, according to precise ancestral recipes, others are worshipped and covered in gold. It is strictly taboo for strangers to enter the dwellings of the Yamis during these ceremonies.
When twilight falls at last on Orchid Island, the Yamis' pirogues are pulled up onto the beach. Their helmets, attached by the tip and allowed to sway in the wind like many shining silvery lanterns, a glimmer in the last golden sun-rays of the day. When night falls, at last, the women toss back their heads, their jet-black hair swaying in the breeze, and begin a ritual dance, it is a homage to "Black Fins". One of the many elaborate rituals performed by the Yamis - these unique people of another age on this unique island of the South China Sea. An island whose people are peace-loving and satisfied to live in the timeless manner of their ancestors.
© ERIC PASQUIER (1957) is a French photojournalist who started getting involved in the media world co-operating in the production of TV advertisements and documentary films. From 1989 he dedicated himself totally to photojournalism choosing to concentrate on ethnological subjects, culture, traditions of unique and remote peoples. His work has been published in 25 countries, in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America and the US. Titles include Figaro Magazine, Paris Match, GEO France, Bild, Bunte, Earth Geographic, World Geographic and many others.
His work was also on display at a number of exhibitions in Europe and the Philippines and some of his series resulted in photographic books. Among his most renown features: a reportage on the Pirates of the South China Sea, the Princesses of Silver of the Guizhou province in China, the Ku Klux Klan and many others.