A swell hit the coastlines of Taiwan on the 4th of October, courtesy of Typhoon Nalgae. Part of Taiwan lit up, albeit briefly. I happened to be in the neighborhood.
I had a few more days to hang about and wandered over to Jialeshuei on the south-east coast. A small swell was hanging about on that coast. It’s a river mouth pebble-stone set-up with ever-changing banks. There are lefts and rights.
Jialeshuei (which translates to ‘beautiful happy waters’) is surrounded by sandstone cliffs and coral hills that are pounded by consistent waves and wind. The surrounding vegetation is lush, and fauna is ample on the ground and in the air: the Formosa Monkey, Vipers, Sika Deer, a dizzying array of butterflies, as well as a plethora of raptors, such as the diurnal Peregrine Falcon and the Gray-faced Buzzard.
Jialeshuei has a tiny township. There are two bare-bone hostels here, to provide a bed for the trickle of mostly Taiwanese surfers who pass through. There is one surf shop / eatery, a few local dwellings housing the farmers and fishermen, and a boats sheltered behind a four-meter concrete harbor wall. That tells you something …
The wave gets good on occasion, but it’s fickle. A strong trade north-easter blows, hard. The wind is funneled along the coast, the mountains and valleys that drop off abruptly into the Pacific provide a grand wind tunnel. The trade-winds are cross-shore / onshore at the break. Nevertheless, its consistency in terms of wave-height means the wave is a staple in the area.
I noticed more than the normal amount of crew milling about the village and wondered what was going on. I bumped into Neil MacDonald and his son Rory who live nearby.
The annual Jialeshuei International Surfing Competition was about to take place, from the 8th of October until the 10th (the Taiwanese National Day long weekend). It has been running for six years and is the biggest competition in Taiwan.
The crew from Taiwan Ocean Recreation Sports Association were setting up the event site. T.O.R.S.A is a group set up to lobby and educate the policy makers, weather bureau and coastguard about surfing and ocean sports (if a typhoon gets too close to the coast you aren’t allowed to surf). They also handle beach clean-ups and make sure the surf schools are safe for the many tourists learning to surf.
While I am normally adverse to surfing competition in any guise I decided to return to see what it’s all about.
The thirty-knot north-easterly wind had not let up for days, and the rain had the river flowing fast. The banks were still OK, and the swell was a lumpy 2-3 feet (remained so for the three days) so the contest was go.
The T.O.R.S.A crew had set up a row of tents for the many boardriders club that arrive from all over Taiwan: Yilan County, Pingtung, Hualien, Tiatung County and the two major cities of Kaoshiung and Taipei.
A small yet varied collection of international surfers had assembled also. They were from the United Kingdom, South Africa, California, Australia and Japan.
The ubiquitous surf companies were there, flags and tents replete with product and gimmicks. They seemed to be piggy-backing off the hard work of the local community who had pulled the whole event together. Some of the companies had provided t-shirts, stickers and some prize packs. Once again, it was a local shaper (Banana Tube) and surfing club (A-Lang) who were the ones who had ponied up the cold hard cash to run the event, as is so often the case in surfing communities around the world.
The surf divisions (longboard, shortboard, bodyboard) had A, B, and C levels. Everyone got to go surfing.
Kathy Tang and Alicia Wang from Taipei even got me out there, despite the enthusiastic crowd of beginners filling the line-up at the edge of the contest area. They had the ability to make the session fun with their infectious laughter and enthusiasm.
Then again, everyone was having fun. Kids ran around digging in the sand and dragging foam boards into and out of the water. Families joked and ate under the tents. People chewed beetlenut endlessly, and Taiwan Beer was shared around. A DJ blasted out music.
The whole scene was a family fun fair on the beach. It was obvious that the event is something the Taiwanese surfing community looks forward to all year, especially the grommets.
Rory didn’t surf until late on the first day, in the under 16s. He’s 11 years old, by the way. He sat wide on the half moon bank, and picked off the runners as the others struggled to make it past the inside sections. It was a smart game plan. His size was also a benefit. The waves were head-high for him. He made it through to the finals.
I followed Rory’s progress closely. His mother and father, Amy and Neil, own the place I stay at, Red Garden. Rory and Amy are from one of the twelve indigenous tribes of Taiwan, the Paiwan. Traditionally a mountain people, Rory has has followed the rivers into the ocean. The Paiwan culture is rebuilding after years of colonization. It’s a proud moment when one of their own achieves like Rory is. He had a vocal fan-base over the three days.
The Amis and Bunun tribes were also well-represented at the event. Jennifer Yang, who runs the Taitung Surf Shop and Hostel, had scraped together some money and brought ‘Taitung Surf Crew’ south. Jennifer runs a program that helps aboriginal young people access boards and provides a supportive place to hang out. Aboriginal communities in Taiwan have problems, such as alcoholism and unemployment. These are problems borne of colonization. Being Amis herself Jennifer knows how tough it can be growing up in these communities but she also knows the strength of them. So the young people come and surf, after they do their schoolwork. The emphasis is on schoolwork and learning about their history, traditions and music (such as that of Difang).
Surfing is a enthusiastically is becoming a welcome part of their culture now.
The strong indigenous presence at the event served to remind me of how many indigenous peoples so generously share their waves with us, those from Hawai’i, Tahiti, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, Japan, and so on. This got me to thinking about how when we surf we are often venturing into waters with long cultures and histories. It’s important to pause and pay our respects to these peoples, it’s the least we can do. When we surf a place and even come to call it home, we enter into a relationship with original peoples and their culture. Sometimes we ignore that relationship and in doing so deny their stories and histories. Surfing is richer if we don’t. There’s a lot to learn and share.
I made sure I personally thanked the Paiwan, Bundun, and Amis. A board is on the way to the Taitung Surf Crew.
Overall, despite the mediocre waves I was stoked on the Jailesheui International Surfing Competition.The legacy of such events stands in stark contrast to those run by the big surfing companies. While I am not normally into competition, I got to see how an event like this can actually contribute to a surfing community, and with careful planning even enable young indigenous surfers to find ways to reconnect with their cultures and take on the future. As the Amis saying goes,
Yahiyan-hiyan hohiyan hoiyohin hoyan, hoian-iyan hoiohin hoyan. Yanay iyohin! Yanay iyhin Hiyohin!
(How about coming along with us to the seashore? Come on! Let’s enjoy ourselves there)
nb. I paid for everything during my visit. I just happened to be around at the time of the competition. Although, I did get a free dinner at the competition party along with everyone else who came along.