The serial online comic series Pataauw: The Witches of Beitou follows the story of seven girls living in Taipei–ordinary cosmopolitan ladies, except that each of them carries mysterious ancient powers to manipulate plants, beasts, lights, or dreams. These modern day Taiwanese “witches” have caught the imagination of readers and inspired much discussion and even cosplay projects in Taiwan.
Pataauw is the debut work of Taiwanese comic artist Shih-Gye Chien (簡士頡). Chien is one of the new generation of homegrown comic artists in Taiwan, where comic book readers predominantly follow Japanese manga; however, Chien prefers American style comic books himself, and it shows in his work.
His characters have more realistic body proportions and facial features; and unlike Japanese manga which focuses more on dialogue, his work relies heavily on body language and atmosphere. Chien’s work also features bold colors and brushstrokes, often breaking out of their cells or layered on top of one another, suggestive of the supernatural spells of the witches.
Ancient History Hiding in Plain Sight
But what makes Pataauw really special is how Chien has dropped a bunch of contemporary urban superheroes into his hometown of Beitou (北投), a neighborhood just north of downtown Taipei, known for its hot springs–but also full of culture and history as the homeland of the Ketagalan indigenous people.
While the English transliteration “Beitou” is from Mandarin, the name comes from the Taiwanese pronunciation pak-tau, which was derived from the word ki-pataw in the indigenous Ketagalan language known as Basay spoken by locals. Not coincidentally, Ki-pataw means “witch” or “female shaman,” because of the sulfurous fumes from the natural volcanic hot springs nearby, as if mystic shamans lived there.
The Ketagalan homeland spanned across the Beitou, Guandu (Kan-tau), Qili’an, Tianmu, and Shipai neighborhoods in current day Taipei, between the Datun Mountains and the Tamsui River.
As Chien was forming his comic series, he took inspiration from a 2015 art exhibition in the Ketagalan Cultural Center in Beitou by Chiu Ruo-long (邱若龍), the art director in the movie Sediq Bale. The exhibition featured visual arts creations of the local Ketagalan female shaman culture. Chien also later used Chiu’s graphic novel The Daughters of the Ketagalan as a reference to styles depicting indigenous visual styles for his characters.
But most interestingly, the backdrop of Pataauw is modern day Taipei, the same cosmopolitan city we live in. Chien deliberately did not create a fantasy world for his superheroes, but made them a part of a “secret culture hidden in plain sight.”
Chien said that both the Basay Ketagalan people and their archrivals, known as the White Group, are almost true “secrets” to even Taiwanese readers. The history of the Ketagalan people has been buried in the sands of time from neglect. Meanwhile, the White Group was a secret deliberately hidden from the public by the government for political reasons. Chien had only known about this top secret military agency through his grandmother.
The White Group was a secret posse of Japanese military advisors to the KMT authoritarian regime. In the comic, the White Group consists of assassins who act as hound dogs for greedy commercial interests tied to the KMT. As the witches fight to protect their homeland from real estate development, the White Group is tasked to eliminate all obstacle that stand in their masters’ way.
Originally, Chien had wanted to incorporate more of the local folklore and conspiracy history into his work, but it was difficult to balance cultural references with the more dramatic parts of the plot, such as the interpersonal conflict between the witches or their dazzling battles with the military operatives sent to kill them.
Hiding Their Identity as The Witches of Beitou
Chien believes that while it is difficult to embed historical references into his story, he still tried to connect the characters’ personal circumstances with the greater issues they represent. For example, the modern day witches face the problem of passing down their powers, which symbolizes the problem of passing down indigenous cultures to the next generation.
In the story, the witches seem to deliberately hide their superpowers as they go about their normal lives as models, secretaries or shopkeepers; but they are also very anxious about how much their real life alter egos will take over their real secret identities. Chien wanted to express the witches’ complex emotional journey from rejecting their powers to accepting them as part of Mother Nature into the work.
However, Chien does not consider Pataauw to be primarily concerned about accurately depicting local history.
Chien admits that he was extremely nervous being interviewed by Mata Taiwan on indigenous issues. Originally, he considered speaking with the descendants of the Ketagalan people about his work, but worried that they would not accept their culture represented by his morally conflicted characters, which could restrict his creative freedom. Strictly speaking, Chien did not consult with the indigenous community, nor obtained their consent to his using their cultural symbols.
Creative Culture and Attitudes Towards Taiwan
As required by the Protection Act for the Traditional Intellectual Creations of Indigenous Peoples, any indigenous or tribal intellectual property can be registered by the tribe, after which any creation deriving from that IP must first be licensed from the tribe. But since the passing of the Act in 2015, there has not been one registered indigenous intellectual property, and therefore the current practice is for creators to directly negotiate with the indigenous tribes for consent. Meanwhile, there are still disputes arising from misuse or misappropriation of indigenous cultural symbols.
Any work that involves references to indigenous culture and history has to find a balance between depicting the culture faithfully (such as Chiu’s graphic novel), or creating freely with only a loose interpretation of indigenous elements (such as Pataauw). Although the latter may be more entertaining and draw in new audiences who weren’t interested in indigenous culture before, unfortunately the actual owners of those indigenous elements may be shut out of the creative process.
In summary, Pataauw opened up a new page for Taiwan’s comic industry. Chien, who is only 26 years old, believes that the culture of the actual place is very important for moving Taiwanese art forward. However, this is just the beginning of the quest to build an uniquely Taiwanese cultural point of view, between growing out of the particular brand of continental Chinese culture forced on Taiwan by the KMT authoritarian regime, and searching for the untold, unknown, long-suppressed stories from the island itself.
For the youth in Taiwan, perhaps there are many who are also still unsure of where they themselves fit into this quest. This ambiguous and conflicting search for identity is just like the witches of Pataauw, balancing their contemporary alter egos with their ancient superpowers, as well as their young creator, who is trying to navigate a gap between the many histories of Taiwan.
(Feature photo of The Witches of Beitou, by Shih-Gye Chien)