2017 – Golden Jasmine

“Golden Jasmine”, 2017
dried tobacco leaves, bamboo, white nets
Presented at Meinong Hakka Cultural Museum, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

During my year of field research, I observed and recorded the steps followed by the tobacco farmers. Sow in August, grow seedlings in September, and add soil in October. At the end of the year, after fertilizing and spraying the plants, and picking off the flowers, the tobacco leaves are roasted at high temperature. After the golden tobacco leaves are ready, the farmers press them in the form of large tobacco bricks. As the farmers finish the year’s hard work, they send the tobacco bricks to the public sales office and wait for confirmation of quantity and price from the cigarette factories after a quality check. In terms of tobacco cultivation, I am particularly interested in the ethnic relations and the economic and industrial conditions during the Japanese occupation as well as the human traces that have been ignored by history. In the complex ethnic milieu of the time, Hakka, the aborigines, Hokkien, and the Japanese, all played important roles in the development of the industry. There were periods of cooperation and conflict between the different ethnic groups. 

Long before the Han Chinese immigration to Taiwan, the aborigines grew tobacco leaves in the mountains. The indigenous Paiwan people planted tobacco in almost every household and used bamboo nets to dry and collect tobacco leaves. The crushed tobacco leaves were put into pipes for smoking. Famous Taiwanese painter Chen Jin (1907-1998), who taught at Pingtung Girls’ High School for a time, depicted the scenes of Paiwan women smoking tobacco with pipes. During the Occupation period, the Japanese even allowed the aborigines to grow tobacco privately and purchased the tobacco leaves at high prices, often in exchange for information about firearms and munitions among the Aboriginal tribes. Zhong Li-He’s (1915-1960) article “Gullible” (假黎婆) discusses the interaction between the aborigines and the Han people. Indigenous people have played an important role in the cultural history of tobacco. In addition to being the early growers in the entire economic system, they were also the least visible laborers in Taiwan’s tobacco industry. 

Finally, I began to think about how to use tobacco leaves as a medium to convey people’s beliefs about their land and spiritual values, the relationship between ethnic groups, and the historical context of Taiwan’s position under different regimes. Dried tobacco leaves on the white mesh, used by local farmers to build greenhouses, the “Tobacco Leaf Carpet” (2017) is a collage depicting tobacco leaves and farmers transformed into mina-birds hard at work in the tobacco fields. The “Bamboo Slip Album” (2017) is made from tobacco leaves rolled into cigars and bound together with thread. It echoes the literati culture supported by the farmers. The numerous manuscripts, clippings, and objects, let me cherish this special tobacco industry and cultural memory. 


In the year 2017, the Taiwan Provincial Tobacco and Liquor Public Sales Bureau purchased tobacco leaves for the last time. This American Virginia-variety tobacco was introduced and successfully tested during the Japanese period in the Yoshino Immigrant Village in Hualien in 1913. It was promoted for cultivation in the central and southern regions of Taiwan where it developed a successful industry that lasted more than a century. The first time I visited a tobacco field was in early 2016 during the tobacco harvest in the Meinong area in Kaohsiung. A fully-grown tobacco plant was taller than an adult person. The tobacco leaves were large, spear-shaped, and covered the entire stem in a spiral sequence. Tobacco farmers moved through the green tobacco fields to pick the tobacco leaves and the crisp sounds (“Pop! Pop! Pop!”) of picking fresh tobacco leaves created a euphonious atmosphere. However, the tobacco leaves also secreted a thick nicotine-containing sap after being picked and left mud-brown marks on the farmers’ palms and between their fingers. A memorable activity for the children of tobacco farmers was to take turns and look after the flame that roasted the tobacco leaves in the smoke tower during the Lunar New Year for nine consecutive days and nights. This labor-intensive and highly economical crop was the main farming resource for many Hakka settlements and supported their economic well-being. It also helped develop a unique labor sharing system and Meinong’s unique literary culture. 

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