HUALIEN (AFP) – As night falls on a square in the village of Matai’an, young women cast critical eyes over a dancing circle of men in embroidered skirts and feathered head dresses as part of an ancient matchmaking ritual.
Known as “Lovers’ Night”, it is the grand finale of the annual harvest festival in the settlement which belongs to the Amis tribe, the largest of the 16 recognised indigenous groups in Taiwan.
Near the island’s rugged east coast, the village is a collection of basic, low-lying houses along meandering streets, located in a valley between two mountain ranges.
The harvest festival – which usually runs between June and August, with each village holding it at a different time – is the biggest and most important celebration for the Amis tribe, and in Matai’an 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 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 multicoloured 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 socialise.
“Lovers’ Night is to make friends,” said Cheng Ying-hsuan, 22.
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.
When asked if she hoped to find a boyfriend, she laughed and said coyly: “That’s also a possibility.”
Matai’an is one of the biggest Amis settlements and is home to around 500 people – mostly elders 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 marginalised group in Taiwanese society – has seen its traditional culture eroded since immigrants started arriving from 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.
But some groups have criticised Tsai for not going far enough and have clashed with authorities over land rights policy, demanding their ancestral areas be returned to them.
In Matai’an, 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 longterm 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 festival’s matchmaking ritual.
“We are both usually very busy with work,” she said. “It’s necessary to rekindle the flames.”