Celebrating Births, Paiwan Style

10 01 2011

A banquet table setting in festive reds and pinks

Festive blue- red- and white-striped awnings are stretched over a collection of pink tables arranged on a hilltop overlooking the twin Paiwan villages of Chichia and Lili. Karaoke music is just beginning to play and guests are beginning to filter in. They present gifts of hong bao (or red envelopes full of money) and take turns cooing at the twin infants who are the guests of honor at today’s banquet.

Three women are busy preparing lunch in a makeshift outdoor kitchen off to one side, and karaoke music begins to play.

At first glance, it looks like a typical manyue or “full-month” birthday celebration for babies in Taiwan. The feast is replete with typical Chinese dishes – shrimp, glutinous “oily” rice, plates of deep-fried foods, hard-boiled eggs dyed red, and cold lobster platters. There are speeches, singing and a copious amount of alcohol.

But the celebration differs in many ways, too. There are people in modern variations of Paiwan dress, the banquet includes cinavu, a savory Paiwan specialty made of taro and pork wrapped in leaves, and many of the speeches and songs are in the Paiwan language.

But perhaps most fascinating of all is the table off to one side looking out over the village of Chichia far below. No one sits at that table, but there are watermelon seeds, cups of rice wine, and a basket of betel nuts. I’m told that this is the table reserved for the deceased ancestors. And clearly they are welcome here, unlike at Western or even mainstream Taiwanese celebrations.

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