Taiwan’s tribal matchmaking festival celebrates a tradition



Known as “Lovers’ Night,” it is the grand finale of the annual harvest festival in the settlement that belongs to the Amis tribe, the largest of the 16 recognized indigenous groups in Taiwan.

Near the island’s rugged east coast, the village of Mataian is a collection of basic, low-lying houses along meandering streets, located in a valley between two mountain ranges.

The harvest festival usually runs between June and August, with each village holding it at a different time. It is the biggest and most important celebration for the Amis tribe. In Mataian, it culminates with single women taking their pick of eligible bachelors.

The centuries-old custom is a reflection of the tribe’s matriarchal system, which sees that women make key decisions, including managing finances, and men marry into their wives’ families.

As the singing and dancing men pick up their pace, the women move in behind their chosen love interest and tug on a multicolored cloth bag slung on their target’s shoulder.

To spark interest, the men wiggle and flex their muscles, the most popular among them accruing a queue of interested women. If a man reciprocates the approach, he will give his bag — known as an alufo — to the woman, marking the beginning of a courtship.

In the past, the ritual would commonly lead to marriage and even now still sparks relationships, but it is also a chance for Amis community members who are working in the cities to return and socialize.

“Lovers’ Night is to make friends,” said Cheng Ying-hsuan, who is in her early 20s.

Dressed in a red traditional outfit adorned with green beads and her own sequined alufo, she had returned to the village from the city of Hualien, where she now lives, an hour’s drive away. Asked if she hoped to find a boyfriend, she laughed and said coyly: “That’s also a possibility.”

Mataian is one of the biggest Amis settlements and is home to about 500 people, mostly elderly people and children.

“We like the feeling of everyone coming back together and reconnecting. For us this is the most important,” said Liao Ching-tung, 28, who lives in the capital, Taipei.

Each harvest festival, hundreds who have moved away to work or study return to join in the festivities. The indigenous community, which remains a marginalized group in Taiwan society, has seen its traditional culture eroded since immigrants started arriving from mainland China centuries ago.

Since President Tsai Ing-wen came to power in May 2016, her government has been pushing for greater indigenous rights and preservation of tribal languages and culture.

Some groups, however, have criticized Tsai for not going far enough, and they have clashed with authorities over land-rights policy, demanding their ancestral areas be returned.

In Mataian, tradition is alive and kicking.

Lamen Panay, 41, who goes by her tribal name, says the matchmaking event is still meaningful to her even though she is no longer single. She has a collection of lovers’ bags from past harvest festivals, but has since settled down with her long-term boyfriend, living with him in Taipei.

The couple are both from the village, and Lamen still makes a point of picking him out during the matchmaking ritual. “We are both usually very busy with work,” she said. “It’s necessary to rekindle the flames.”

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