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From “Sea Women” to the Sea of Change: Seaweed, Goggles, and Climate Change

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Walking through the villages surrounding Keelung all the way from Yehliu 野柳, Heping Island 和平島, and Badouzi 八斗子 to Longdong 龍洞 and Aodi 澳底, the golden braids of suntanned “stone flower vegetable” 石花菜 cover the empty street corners. Occasionally, there is a sign by the road advertising “stone flower jelly” 石花凍, sold by the enigmatic “sea women” 海女, whose “culture” of freediving and collecting seaweed has by now all but “disappeared.” Younger generations show no interest in choosing diving as their way of life, many have moved away to the cities, and the remaining divers are mostly elderly women, who have been going into the sea since their childhood. This is how the story of the “sea women ” is usually presented to the gaze of the urban dweller or a tourist to the Northern coast of Taiwan.

Image 1: Seaweed Dried on the Floor
Image 1: Seaweed Dried on the Floor

A closer look into the transcultural and environmental processes behind the trope of “sea women” hints at a different story; a story that has nothing to do with the exotic stereotype of a disappearing culture of mermaid-like “sea women,” but has everything to do with people being a part of the changing natural and social environment. How then are we to understand the story of seaweed, women and the changing biosphere in Northern Taiwan?

Seaweed, Goggles and the Myth of “Sea Women”

In Taiwan the first archeological evidence for the collection of seaweed and other marine life dates to the Neolithic era, around 6000 years ago, when the settlers in the coastal areas went out to the intertidal zone to collect food.[1] Various communities living by the sea relied upon the coastal biosphere for food, acquired through fishing and hand-picking shells, crabs, seaweed and other edibles, which constituted an important part of their diet. Yet collecting seafood in the intertidal zone was quite different from diving for it at greater depths. The beginning of the colonial period in Taiwan represents a junction in the knowledge and practice of collecting seafood by the shore. It transformed the perceived border between the sea and the intertidal zone into a fluid space bridged by the divers collecting sea creatures underwater. The main protagonists of the story are mīkagan (ミーカガン) goggles, invented in 1884 in Okinawa,[2] and a valuable seaweed called tengusa (てんぐさ).

Image 2: Seaweed Gelidium Amansii or Stone Flower Vegetable 石花菜
Image 2: Seaweed Gelidium Amansii or Stone Flower Vegetable 石花菜

 

Tengusa (Gelidium Amansii) or “Heavenly Weed” 天草 is a type of purple-red or yellow-red algae growing in early spring on shallow sea reefs at the depth of around 3 to 10 meters in the oceans surrounding Korea, Japan, China and Northern Taiwan. The depth of its habitat made its collection prior to the introduction of goggles difficult but not impossible. In the 1880s it became a valuable commodity in Japan, due to the denudation of marine environments. As the demand for tengusa grew, the practices and knowledge of collecting it traveled along with the expansion of the Japanese colonial enterprise into Taiwan.[3]

Image 3: Ryukyu Fisherman,” Heping Island
Image 3: Ryukyu Fisherman,” Heping Island

Tengusa was quite abundant in the Northern coast of Taiwan and became known as one of the species of red algae nicknamed “stone flower vegetable” 石花菜. Perceived as a lucrative opportunity, the Ryukyu people from the island chain stretching from Japan to Taiwan, decided to migrate seasonally to Heping Island and the surrounding areas in late 1890s to collect this “Heavenly Weed.”

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Heping Island Tour

They soon decided to permanently settle on the Heping Island, due to the abundance of the local aquatic biosphere, and remained there until the end of the colonial period. It is here that the story of the goggles begins as a technology that traveled along with them to Taiwan. It is remembered as largely bening by the Ryukyu. As they brought the goggles to Taiwan, they tought the Taiwanese (ethnically aboriginal or Hoklo), how to dive naked and fish underwater.[4] Up until then seaweed was primarily collected by foot in the intertidal zone, rather than at a greater depths by diving.[5] The knowledge of diving and the goggles as the technology enabled them to gather new species of seaweed and at a greater abundance. Ryukyu tought them how  to collect more abalone, urchins and shells, as well as how to catch fish underwater by stabbing them with an iron needle.[6] In other words, goggles resulted in a mini-revolution in the practices of seafood collection. Suddenly, the border between the land and the sea was no longer as rigid as before; rather it became much more permeable even without a boat.

Image 4: Diving Goggles from Badouzi Fishing Museum
Image 4: Diving Goggles from Badouzi Fishing Museum

 

Under the Japanese colonial enterprise, the diving goggles enabled the collection of large quantities of different species of seaweed — they were to be shipped to Japan under the name “Taiwan-grass 台灣草.”[7] Tengusa as the “Heavenly Weed” was the most valuable of them all. Yet goggles were also accompanied by other crucial technologies introduced to Taiwan, such as harpoon fishing, trolling and longline fishing.[8] These new technologies resulted in the growth of both the fishing and shipbuilding industry, the construction of motorized boats, capable of offshore fishing and resistant to adverse weather conditions.[9] Concurrently, they also transformed the existing relationship between humans and non-humans from a small-scale, sustainable coastal cohabitation between marine life and the people, to the large-scale, “mining” of sea resources through lucrative fishing enterprises meeting the colonial market demand. Furthermore, they induced wider social and environmental changes in the coastal villages surrounding Keelung.

The changes to the marine environment and the social processes demonstrate that the colonial project was far from benign even if it led to improvements in economic well-being. Increased catch of marine resources, led to their scarcity and resulted in competition over fishing rights as well as the rights to collect seaweed.[10] By the 1930s the competition grew so fierce that the colonial authorities decided to grant Okinawa residents in Heping Island priority rights over the local Taiwanese in harvesting seaweed, which in turn led to local fights and protests.[11] The seaweed quarrels furthermore resulted in the appearance of local government policies establishing fishing and harvesting rights through the distribution of permits, which regulated both the natural ecosystems and the social environments.[12]

We see that the colonial context reified the ethnic differences, however, the transmission of fishing knowledge between the Ryukyu and the Taiwanese also resulted in more rigid gender roles in relation to marine environments. The growth of the fishing industry in 1920s and 1930s meant that more men begun earning their wages on larger and more profitable motorized boats, specialized in fishing offshore and in deep-sea fisheries,[13] whereas women balanced household chores with collecting seaweed. While tengusa became one of the most common seaweeds collected by women, since it fetched high prices, it was not the only lucrative sea “resource.” Women who did not practice diving continued to rely upon the many other species living in the intertidal zone, which could be utilized at home or sold for a good market price (for example, the “Hairy Vegetable” 髮菜 Nostoc Flagelliforme growing in winter months).[14] The Regional Exploration Museum in Badouzi presents such separation of gender roles most clearly, where men are portrayed as fishermen working on the old wooden bamboo boats, whereas women are presented both as housewives and “sea women” 海女. The arrival of colonial enterprises further entrenched existing gender roles, since women were rarely if ever employed on the motorized boats fishing offshore.

Yet the “gendered” relationship with marine environments remained fluid. Some women still went fishing on old wooden boats with their family members, whereas some men — the ones who were not employed on motorized boats — still collected seaweed.[15] Seaweed thus provided much needed additional financial support and sometimes became a major source of income.[16] Due to the development of the fishing industry, the practice of collecting seaweed became perceived as primarily a side-occupation of women, yet precarity and meager family earnings remained the main reasons behind it.[17] While collection of seaweed in the intertidal zone mostly provided for the family and communal needs, the goggles and the knowledge of diving enabled the collection of the valuable tengusa, which was sold to Japan in increasing quantities.[18] Tengusa was as such instrumental both in improving economic circumstances and in redefining the role of women in the family. While it may have given women a larger voice in their families, it also required more labor from them. However, if men also collected tengusa and went diving, as sources indicate, how did the trope of “sea women” 海女 appear and why were men excluded from it?

Image 5: Colonial Exhibition: Sea-women Pavilion
Image 5: Colonial Exhibition: Sea-women Pavilion

To answer this question, we have to look into the representation of gender under colonial Taiwan, especially in relation to Taiwanese women living on the Northern coast. One might be surprised to learn that Ama or “sea women” 海女 was not a name with which women collecting marine resources identified — at least not until the name was given to them by others. One of the first documented usages of the name happened within the context of the Japanese colonial exhibition entitled: “The Taiwan Exposition: In Commemoration of the First Forty Years of Colonial Rule” 始政十四年記念台灣博覽會. The exhibition attracted more than two million visitors and was meant to be a display of colonial achievements, nationalism and cultural power. Its aim was to portray the Taiwanese as the natives of the colony — the “Treasure Island” — who could, however, transform themselves into citizens of the Japanese nation.[19] The women “divers” and seaweed gatherers from areas surrounding Keelung became the prime examples of such would be citizens, narrated into the familiar Ama 海女by the Japanese colonial authorities (Image 2). The photograph that we see above is a postcard depicting Keelung’s Ama Pavilion — purportedly, an aquarium — which was exhibiting a performance of “Ama” diving and collecting pearls. This suggests that women from areas surrounding Keelung were not only named and categorized through the Japanese model of Ama 海女, but they were also scripted into performing as the Japanese model divers from the Mikimoto Pearl Island — better known for collecting pearls.[20] The colonial exhibition thus reified the stereotype of an objectified and eroticised mermaid-like “sea woman,” promoted in more than 40 Japanese expositions from 1916 to 1957.[21] It imaginatively transformed unglamorous seaweed into pearls, obscuring the precarious nature of the job, while excluding men, whose representation as the “native divers” would not fit the exhibition’s goal of portraying the “modernization” of Japan.

Coastal Memories and Climate Change

If we jump to the present, we see that the name Ama or “sea women” 海女 was not embraced by women themselves until recent years. Women, who were especially successful in collecting seaweed were jokingly referred to amongst themselves as “sea brooms 海掃把,” metaphorically sweeping the rocks clean.[22] Nonetheless, the increased academic interest in the topic of Ama in Japan and Korea as well as the growth of tourism familiar with the trope, resulted in the (re)familiarization with the term by the communities in Northern Taiwan. Documentaries and newspaper articles appeared featuring “sea women 海女” on the northern coast of Taiwan and the women themselves started identifying with the name. Street vendors of seaweed products sometimes used the name as a marketing strategy, while further academic research employed the term to discuss the “disappearing culture” of Ama and suggested the need to “preserve” their “cultural heritage.”[23]Once again the representation of women themselves was in the hands of others, who more often than not fell into the idealization narrative, creating a “Thoreauan” image of an ideal past in harmony with unspoiled nature. However, instead of recreating such old myths of a mermaid-like past, that circumscribe their precarious livelihoods from their idealized representation, we should rather attempt to narrate what they wish to tell us themselves.

For this purpose, we’ve interviewed a resident of Heping Island, an 87-year-old lady, who still goes out to the intertidal zone to collect seaweed and sea urchins for her family and the local community. Rather than perceiving her past livelihood as a “culture” that is disappearing, she primarily remembered her practice of collecting sea resources as a means of supplementing her family’s income and providing food on the table. After she got married, her husband’s wage was just enough for the survival of the family and it fell upon her to support the family with an extra income. Going out to the intertidal zone in her free time was not simply a choice for her; it was hard work and the only work she could do to earn the extra money without primary education. She remembered learning her skills while observing other women working by the sea, however, she had no memory of anyone diving for sea resources on Heping Island. Going to the intertidal zone enabled them to collect enough resources, while the dangers of the sea could be more easily mitigated. Still, going out to collect often cost her sleep. As her own children were growing up, she decided not to teach them her skills, because she wanted them to have better lives earning enough money with an ordinary job. In this way they could get enough sleep and spend their free time resting rather than having to collect seaweed. She pointed out that neither of her two daughters collect seaweed, they are free to take care of their families and earn a living at the Kanziding fish market.

Since the days of the Japanese colonial empire and the early years of the Republic of China, much has changed as the society has become more affluent. Interviews done in other studies, likewise point out that diving and collecting sea resources was often the only means of income for women that could be combined with their household responsibilities. It continued to be seen as both unwanted and avoidable hard-work. Many women in earlier interviews likewise suggested that they preferred to see the younger generations study and get a job enabling them to live better lives.[24]Yet the ability to pursue other ways of life is not the only reason for the changing relationship with the marine biosphere. The other major concern that our interviewee pointed out was the pollution of the ocean and the coastal areas. The amount of garbage coming to the seaside from the ocean has increased substantially; the coasts are often full of cans, glasses, bottles, even boots.[25] The microplastic on the northern coast has become ubiquitous,[26] affecting the population and diversity of fish.[27] These are simultaneously endangered by the pollution from the factories and (nuclear) power plants. The large quantities of thermal discharge waters from the two nuclear power plants on the Northern coast of Taiwan result in high mortality of zooplankton essential for the survival of other species within the ecosystem.[28] The higher temperatures of discharge waters likely also influence the populations of temperature-sensitive algae in the vicinity of the power plants. However, a far greater cause of the seaweed population decline are the global warming events, during which the seawater surface temperatures in northern Taiwan have continuously increased year-on-year, causing the reduction of macroalgal abundance.[29] As the Kuroshio Current intensifies bringing warmer waters to Taiwan, weakening the colder China Coastal Current,[30] the changes to the biodiversity and species population in oceans is expected to further decrease. Indeed, our interviewee observed that the population of the valuable “hairy vegetable” 髮菜 seaweed found in colder winter temperatures on the rocks by the sea, has been declining.[31]Furthermore, the construction of fishing harbours has fundamentally changed the local biosphere. The scaling up of off-shore and deep-sea fishing infrastructure has come at a cost: the seabed and the intertidal areas in the vicinity of harbors have been transformed to ensure safe passage and harbour for large fishing vessels. Furthermore, the growth of the off-shore fishing after the colonial period has resulted in a long period of overexploitation, which has only in the recent decade been reversed through a variety of fishery management methods attempting to rebuild the fisheries.[32]

Conclusion

The lives of women, the seaweed and marine life have changed substantially throughout the past century, reflecting the arrival of the Anthropocene — an era marked by human-made global changes to the natural environments. The currently occurring sixth mass-extinction has mostly impacted terrestrial species, however, the falling numbers of species populations indicate it is spreading into oceans as well. Instead of lamenting the disappearance of a past “culture” of “sea women,” we might instead reflect upon the transformations of the social and natural environments brought about by dreams of “modernization.” First in the Japanese colonial period and then in the Republic of China, new technologies and development of coastal areas brought about changes to the marine environments and the people living within them. The introduction of underwater goggles enabled women (and men) to collect resources previously inaccessible to them. Along with other “modernizing” fishing technologies, goggles exemplified the colonial enterprise as a transformative period for the social and natural environment. By looking at the knowledge of diving and goggles as a technology through a transcultural lens, we have seen how their arrival in network with the utilisation of a new species of seaweed tengusa has shaped the construction of gender, racial and national identity. While the goggles enabled humans to reinterpret the limits of the oceanic environment, tengusa and its fragility in the biosphere in turn induced racial tensions amongst the competitors over the “resource.” Furthermore, situating the story of seaweed in juxtaposition with contemporary environmental changes has shown us how “social” and “natural” processes are not separate but rather constitutive of each other. The microplastic found on the sandy beaches around Keelung finds its way first into the famous Kanziding fish market, and later onto the plates of restaurants around Taiwan serving fish; the immense electrical power required for Taiwan’s semiconductor industry would hardly be possible without fossil fuels or nuclear power plants causing high plankton mortality.

Instead of once again mythicising these women into idealised roles, we have observed the harsh environments in which they survived: how lack of education and rigid gender roles in the household made diving and collecting seaweed their only means of earning an income, which they experienced as dangerous hard-work. Rather than expressing worry about their “culture” “disappearing,” women expressed hope and satisfaction that their children would not have to rely upon collecting sea resources but that they could earn a good living in Taipei. They just as much wished their children to enjoy a “modern” lifestyle, arguably as a package deal with implicit use of semiconductors, plastics, fossil fuels, and all. Simultaneously, they expressed worry about pollution and global warming changing the natural environments they relied upon throughout their lives. These changes can already be felt by them. Some species of tropical fish, abalone, and in some places even sea urchins, that used to be common in the coastal areas, can hardly be found anymore. Neither can they collect as much “hairy vegetable” as they used to. The story of seaweed and the women gathering it tells us that it is not their “culture” that is disappearing nor is it simply “Nature” being destroyed, rather it is our whole environments that are transforming.

Årticle by: Tilen Zupan

Edited by: Tawana Michael

Endnotes and References:

[1] Li Kuang-ti. 2013. “First Farmers and their Coastal Adaptation in Prehistoric Taiwan.” In A Companion to Chinese Archeology, edited by Anne P. Underhill (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell), pg. 618. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118325698.ch30.

[2] Susumu Tatehira 立平進 . 2002. “The People Who Travel the Ocean. The Track of Itoman’s Fisherman. 海を旅する人たち -沖縄・糸満漁師の軌跡.” Nagasaki International University Review 2, Departmental Bulletin Paper, pg. 91-99. http://id.nii.ac.jp/1171/00000622/. Makomo Kuniyoshiまこも國吉. 2017. “The Change of the Turbo Use in Okinawa After the Visit of Moriharu Kawarada明治初期河原田盛美の来沖とその後の沖縄県における. 夜光貝等貝殻類利用の変遷.” Kanagawa University International Folk Culture Research Institute 神奈川大学国際常民文化研究機構, pg. 153-154. http://hdl.handle.net/10487/14820.
It is worthwhile to note that other scholars speculated that the glasses were introduced to Japan from abroad around the same period.

[3] Shuhei Tashiro. 2022. “Navigating Precarity Underwater: The Changing Livelihoods and Relational Practices of Japanese Ama Divers in a More-Than-Human Anthropocene.” Master’s Thesis. Heidelberg Universität, pg. 23.

[4] Atsushi Sugano 菅野 敦志. 2017. “Memories and Living Experiences in Colonial Taiwan of a Taiwan-Born Okinawan and an Okinawan Evacuee: An Oral History of Genfuku Taira and Sakae Morishima. 「湾生」と疎開者による台湾・沖縄経験 ―平良玄福・盛島サカエ オーラルヒストリー.” Meio University General Research Institute 名桜大学総合研究, Departmental Bulletin Paper, pg. 98. https://meio-u.repo.nii.ac.jp/records/1386.

[5] Xu Cuiting許翠庭. 2019. “Gathering Modes and Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Seaweeds in the North-East Coast of Taiwan 台灣東北角藻類採集模式與傳統生態智慧.” Master Thesis. National Taiwan University, pg. 15-16. http://tdr.lib.ntu.edu.tw/jspui/handle/123456789/762.

[6] Wang Junchang 王俊昌. 2019. “Fishery Development and Fisherman’s Life in Sheliao Island during Japanese Occupation 日治時期社寮島的漁業發展與漁民生活.” Journal of Marine Culture 海洋文化學刊 26, pg. 57. http://scholars.ntou.edu.tw/handle/123456789/10692. Atsushi Sugano. 2017. “Memories and Living Experiences,” pg. 98.

[7] Xu Cuiting. 2019. “Gathering Modes,” pg. 15-16.

[8] Nobutake Koiwa. 2015. “Development of the Fishery Systems in Modern Taiwan.” In Poverty, Inequality, and Growth in Developing Countries Theoretical and Empirical Approaches, edited by Atsushi Maki (London and New York: Routledge), pg. 219. http://doi.org/10.4324/9781315696058-9.
Robin Hsu. 2023. Badouzi Fishing Museum.

[9] Wang Junchang. 2019. “Fishery Development,” pg. 80.

[10] Ibid., pg. 59; Xu Cuiting. 2019. “Gathering Modes,” pg. 16.

[11] Wang Junchang. 2019. “Fishery Development,” pg. 87.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Nobutake Koiwa. 2015. “Development of the Fishery Systems,” pg. 218-220.

[14] Tilen Zupan. 2023. “Interview with Mrs. Tu.” Recording Conducted at Heping Island. Archived with Keelung for a Walk 雨都漫步.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Xu Cuiting. 2019. “Gathering Modes,” pg. 24.

[17] Tilen Zupan. 2023. “Interview with Mrs. Tu.”

[18] Wang Junchang. 2019. “Fishery Development,” pg. 60, 83, 86.

[19] Joseph R. Allen. “Exhibiting the Colony, Suggesting the Nation: Taiwan/Japan 1935.” Modern Language Association, Society for Critical Exchange. University of Minnesota. http://www.cwru.edu/affil/sce/MLA_2005.htm, pg. 1-2.

[20] Wang Junchang. 2019. “Fishery Development,” pg. 28, 57

[21] Akira Tsukamoto 明塚本. 2012. 都びとのあこがれ : 歴史に見る志摩の「観光海女」. The Journal of History and Archaeology Mie University 三重大史学, pg. 19. http://hdl.handle.net/10076/14504.

[22] Robin Hsu. 2023. Badouzi Fishing Museum.

[23] Wang Junchang. 2019. “Fishery Development,” pg. 77.

[24] Wang Junchang. 2019. “Fishery Development,” pg. 93-98.

[25] Tilen Zupan. 2023. “Interview with Mrs. Tu.”

[26] Alexander Kunz, Bruno A. Walther, et all. 2016. “Distribution and Quantity of Microplastic on Sandy Beaches Along the Northern Coast of Taiwan.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 111, no. 1–2, pg. 126–135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.07.022.

[27] Robin Hsu. 2023. Badouzi Fishing Museum

[28] Pei-wen Lee, Li-Chun Tseng, and Jiang-Shiou Hwang. 2018. “Comparison of Mesozooplankton Mortality Impacted by the Cooling Systems of Two Nuclear Power Plants at the Northern Taiwan Coast, Southern East China Sea.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 136, pg. 121–123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2018.09.003

[29] Showe-Mei Lin, Li-Chun Tseng, et all. 2018. “Long-term Study On Seasonal Changes in Floristic Composition and Structure of Marine Macroalgal Communities Along the Coast of Northern Taiwan, Southern East China Sea.” Marine Biology 165, no. 5, pg. 14. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00227-018-3344-9.

[30] Changlin Chen, Wang Guihua, et all. 2019. “Why Does Global Warming Weaken the Gulf Stream but Intensify the Kuroshio?” Journal Climate 32, pg. 7437–7451. https://doi.org/10.1175/JCLI-D-18-0895.1.

[31] Tilen Zupan. 2023. “Interview with Mrs. Tu.”

[32] Chun-Pei Liao, Hsiang-Wen Huang, and Hsueh-Jung Lu. 2019. “Fishermen’s Perceptions of Coastal Fisheries Management Regulations: Key Factors to Rebuilding Coastal Fishery Resources in Taiwan.” Ocean & Coastal Management 172, pg. 2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2019.01.015.

Image Sources:

Image 1: Author’s Photograph.

Image 2: The Fish Database of Taiwan. ND. Gelidium Amansii. Accessed on 1. August 2023. https://fishdb.sinica.edu.tw/e_books/fishshell2011pic.php?id=7.

Image 3: Author’s Photograph.

Image 4: Author’s Photograph in Badouzi Fishing Museum.

Image 5: Taipei City International Information Service Taiwan Branch Office. 1935. “40th Anniversary Taiwan Expo Patent Hall and Ama Performance Hall 始政40週年紀念臺灣博覽會 特許館與海女表演館.” Accessed on 5. August 2023. https://tm.ncl.edu.tw/article?u=001_003_0000363215&lang=eng.

Follow Tilen:
Tilen is a graduate student of transcultural studies at Heidelberg University on a research and travel visit to Taiwan. He is currently writing his master’s thesis on the propagation of iconic images of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek. Previously, he lived in Ljubljana, London, and Shanghai, completing his studies in philosophy and Chinese philosophy. He plans to continue his academic research in transcultural and intellectual history as well as philosophy, focusing on the creation of knowledge through visual media. In his spare time, Tilen enjoys hiking, drinking tea, and discussing ways to subvert systems of power.

  1. Mateja

    87 years old Ama reminded me of Metkayine people on Panfora in The Way of Water. Good article!

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