When one imagines an environmental activist, a freshly minted English teacher might not immediately come to mind. Nonetheless, when Huang Shu-mei began her first job teaching at Gongliao middle school in New Taipei City, Taiwan, she found herself suddenly in the crosshairs of a proposed nuclear power plant (Nuke 4) that was to be built on her school site.

Members of the local Ketagalan indigenous group vehemently opposed the project, but its continuation did not rest on their approval. Rather, it relied on an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the expected effects of the project on local biodiversity. And, to Huang, the scientists’ assessment grossly under-represented the area’s biodiversity.

Huang remembers, “I had just started learning how to birdwatch, and we were seeing a lot of birds.” Never one to stand idly by, she realized that her new hobby could serve as a useful method to oppose the reactor, and with it, the destruction of her school community.

With binoculars around her neck and a wide-brimmed hat on her head, Huang joined another teacher to lead students on daily bird counts. Their group only missed one day of the school year, she said proudly, “due to a typhoon.”

Their citizen science efforts culminated in the Gongliao Biodiversity Handbook, which documented 196 different bird species in that area alone. This humble grassroots effort countered and exposed the industry-backed environmental impact assessment, and was one of many sources of grassroots resistance against the project.

Nuke 4 was eventually halted in 2014 after years of scrutiny, but Huang’s experience building resistance through everyday activism was something that would continue throughout her life.

SETTING DOWN ROOTS

Huang, a Hokkien woman from a farming family in Nantou, met her match in Liu Hsiao-sheng, a Taiwanese Hakka biology teacher and fellow birdwatcher-activist. When they married in 1999, she moved to her new husband’s hometown – a Hakka minority ethnic enclave called Meinung.

couple holds bundled rice stalks

Huang Shu-mei (right) and husband Liu Hsiao-sheng (left) hold rice stalks bundled into Japanese-style teepees at a community rice harvest event in 2018. Photo credit Serena Calcagno

Hakka migrants from mainland China had moved to Taiwan long before Chinese Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War and migrated to Taiwan.

But harsh Mandarin-only policies pushed earlier-arrivals’ languages to the margins. Indigenous, Hakka, and Hokkien languages have been historically suppressed to such a degree that Hakka and Hokkien people worry that their mother tongues are fading away.

By the early 1990s, as Taiwan transitioned toward democracy, the new government’s industrial interests interfered with indigenous, Hakka and Hokkien lifeways and angered environmentalists. This coincided with a growing Hakka identity movement to reclaim space for Hakka language and culture.

Then, in 1993, Meinung’s Twin Rivers Valley became a hotbed of conflict over regional water distribution. The government hoped to fuel the development of new technological parks in downstream Kaohsiung by filling the valley with a gigantic dam; all this despite significant ecological and cultural costs.

Chanting slogans in Hakka and wearing traditional Hakka clothes, young Liu Hsiao-sheng and his allies took to the legislature in the capital city of Taipei. To more effectively protest the dam, this group formed a new Hakka-interest organization called the Meinung People’s Association (MPA). Their success in staving off the dam is partially credited to leveraging their minority Hakka identities.

Though this occurred long before Huang and Liu’s marriage took place, these environmental, cultural, and moral commitments became a fundamental part of Huang’s life. When she moved to Meinung to get married, she also fell in love with Meinung’s ecology.

In a testament to their devotion to Meinung’s environmental history, Huang and Liu’s wedding ceremony took place among the camphor groves of the Twin Rivers forest.

The couple’s marriage site symbolized their steadfast promise to each other, but also their commitment to protecting Meinung’s treasured cultural and ecological resources. Their activism as a couple – conserving both culture and the environment – became their way of life.

BECOMING HAKKA

Living in Meinung reshaped Huang Shu-mei’s identity, and also the ways in which she frames her activism: cultural heritage became equally important to her as protecting biodiversity.

But Huang was not born Hakka. Rather she became Hakka through her language learning and activism on behalf of her community.

To become close with her husband’s family, and integrate into her new community, Huang was eager to learn Hakka, a language distinct from the Hokkien she grew up speaking. And, like her forays into birdwatching, Huang’s language learning grew to be more than just a hobby–it seeped into her life as an activist.

The humbling process of learning Hakka taught her the value of protecting a heritage language. It took Huang six months to be able to pick up on Hakka’s distinct phonetics, and a year to make simple sentences. And as she learned, she came to see herself as Hakka, even before Taiwanese law changed to make it formally true (though when it was, she says it was “very moving!”).

For her, building Hakka language capacity and pride in Meinung was an act of self-preservation just as it is one of activism.

What stands between Hakka’s disappearance and its preservation, she says, is insularity: “All it takes is one person in a group who doesn’t understand for people to stop speaking Hakka [and switch to Mandarin]. In that case, Hakka will be lost… nobody will use it anymore. And that is a really dangerous situation.”

As she became a competent Hakka speaker, Huang began subverting this harmful norm, using Hakka language in more spaces and in front of more people – including in her middle school English classroom.

Her innovative efforts were recognized in a feature on Taiwanese public television that shows her students using English to introduce Hakka cultural practices like river-based fishing traps.

Her trilingual teaching methodology using Hakka (the local language), Mandarin (the national lingua franca), and English to share Hakka culture helps her students see Hakka heritage as a source of pride and connection to Meinung’s ecosystems, while also not overvaluing Mandarin and English at Hakka’s expense.

PROTECTING MINORITY CULTURE & BIODIVERSITY 

Over time, Huang’s activism has fully merged her two core values. Huang and Liu are still key members of the Meinung People’s Association (MPA), and helped strengthen and publicize the organization’s vision for a Meinung that retains its vivid Hakka culture and restores thriving ecosystems.

And Huang spent a number of years presiding over a local environmental education and birdwatching club, named the “Fairy Pittas” after a charismatic bird found in the Twin Rivers Valley.

The marriage of Hakka cultural activism and environmental conservation is symbolically illustrated on the hat she wears while she teaches and appears on television; the center panel shows the symbol of the MPA — a woman in Hakka garb whose interlaced fingers represent the river flowing through the town — surrounded on both sides with a yellow butterfly and a colorful Fairy Pitta.

Hat with environmental symbols

Huang Shu-mei is often seen wearing this hat that represents her environmental and cultural commitments. Photo credit Serena Calcagno

Today, the site is a well-known tourist destination known as the “Yellow Butterfly Valley” for the charismatic diurnal insects that congregate in the forest each year. Beyond being significant in Huang Shu-mei’s life as her wedding site, the valley has become a symbol of Hakka environmentalism, and a site of ceremonial significance.

Every other year, the MPA welcomes hundreds of people from Meinung and all over Taiwan to the Twin Rivers area for the Yellow Butterfly Festival. People pray to the Hakka gods with joss sticks, toss yellow petals into the river, and celebrate biodiversity with a pledge to protect all living things.

Huang is quick to clarify that the Yellow Butterfly is simply a charismatic flagship species, not the main reason for the ceremony, itself. Instead, the festival advocates for recovery and restoration of the forest as a whole.

Huang and Liu have helped envision, organize, and carry out this modern, invented tradition for Hakka people to “say sorry” to all the living things that have been harmed by irresponsible human land use, and to unite people in a pledge to do better.

And, living out her twin commitments to Meinung’s ecologies and cultures, Huang has helped turn the Twin Rivers into a classroom for simple Hakka language lessons and environmental education.

She likes to “sprinkle in a little bit of Hakka” as she teaches attendees to identify and count birds. She hopes to expose them to the beauty of Meinung’s local heritage, and muses that, “maybe after coming here, other than getting to know the Yellow Butterfly Valley, they can feel that it is in a Hakka village with nature-oriented culture.”

Intentionally weaving Hakka cultural identity into physical space, Huang Shu-mei bravely raises the public profile of this minority language while strengthening land rights arguments for the Hakka community.

THE BIRDWATCHER-ACTIVIST TEAM IN RECENT YEARS

When she looks back at her time in Meinung, Huang has only good things to say. Meinung, she says, has “beautiful mountains and rivers; is full of cultural atmosphere; is a place where everyone has a story to tell; and even after exploring it for twenty years, I still haven’t done it all!”

Her husband retired six years ago, and Huang followed suit two years later, giving them both a chance to get nearer to “doing it all”. But instead of laid-back relaxation, their partnered activism has been a cornerstone of their retirement, partly out of necessity.

Though the Meinung Dam has long been successfully averted, the work of these birdwatcher-activists is far from over. Regional economic pressures for more water to build industrial plants have not subsided.

The plans for a dam resurfaced in 2015, quietly shifting to a neighboring town in Southern Taiwan, this time in nearby Pingtung. The proposed Gaoping Reservoir would have similar negative impacts on minority communities’ water access.

Once again, Huang’s life was set at the crossroads of a mega-development project, but this time her new home and learned culture took center stage.

In 2015, about twenty years after the legendary protest her husband attended in the early 90’s, Huang found herself front and center in yet another Hakka protest in TaipeiDressed in Hakka garb and chanting in Hakka – she was essentially repeating her husband’s history by mobilizing Hakka environmental and cultural activism against top-down decision-making that disregarded local communities.

Without a doubt, grassroots organizing against the new reservoir has benefitted from Huang and Liu’s collective experiences and efforts.

But the couple are not the type to allow their vision for a healthier future to be paralyzed by these pressures. Together in everyday activism, they have helped make Meinung a place where life can flourish, whether avian or human.

Soon after he retired, Liu rented out a plot of land and got to work planting water chestnuts to recreate habitat for the pheasant-tailed jacana. The bird had become locally absent due to rice monoculture, but due to Liu’s initial efforts, began returning to Meinung to nest. The bird now thrives in this multispecies working landscape where Liu grows aquatic crops and invites greater avian biodiversity to the area.

Bird sits with chicks above lily pads

A pheasant-tailed jacana and her flock of fledglings in Huang and Liu’s paddy. Photo credit Huang Shu-mei

Restoring this aquatic habitat has also provided Huang and Liu with rich opportunities for outreach and public education, allowing the couple to conveniently share the joy of birdwatching with all-ages birdwatching groups along with the Meinung People’s Association, the Kaohsiung Wild Bird Society, and the QiMei Community College, along with local elementary and middles schools.

As a former community member myself, I can attest to their impact as keystone members of the community on Meinung’s culture of active care and stewardship.

Huang and the author use a food peddled rice harvester in a rice field

Huang Shu-mei and the author team up to hull rice with the foot-powered hulling machine. Photo credit Serena Calcagno

Huang and Liu are often heard repeating an environmentalist’s twist on the popular political slogan often heard in Taiwan “Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow Taiwan.” Their preferred version is: “Today birds, tomorrow people.”

This serves as a reminder of everyday ecologies: that our contexts are connected to outcomes, and, as Huang succinctly puts it, “places that are unhealthy for birds will gradually become unhealthy for people, too.”

Monitoring the shifting numbers of birds in the Yellow Butterfly Valley allows Huang’s birdwatcher-activist community to assess the overall health of the ecosystem, and, she hopes, inspires her attendees to care about protecting the environment, as well.

“If people pay attention to the changes humans caused, we might have a chance to leave a healthier ecosystem for the next generation,” explains Huang.

And, due in small part to Huang Shu-mei’s activism, that next generation might just continue to nurture their cultural heritage and treasured ecologies.

 

Disclaimer: A previous version of the article suggested that the Fairy Pittas were a part of the Meinung People’s Association (MPA), when in reality they are distinct organizations that often collaborate, share many of their members, and used a historic Hakka house as their workspace. In addition, Huang clarified that while the jacana hunts for food on white water snowflake, a plant that features prominently in local Hakka cuisine, it nests on the leaves of aquatic crops like water chestnuts or fox nut (gorgon).