Chang Yen-Tse, 9 years old, tirelessly repeats his movement. The ball and his hand wrapped in a glove near his lips, he bends one knee, then throws his projectile at full speed. The young schoolboy listens religiously to his coach distilling his comments. Among the twenty or so young Aborigines training on the summer school field at Guangfu Primary School may be hiding Taiwan’s new baseball hope. Wedged between two mountains of the east of the island, the village of the tribe friends has already seen grow many professional players over the years. All out of this establishment, become in spite of himself, a factory of champions.
In this Asian country with a population predominantly of Chinese origin and where baseball is king, it is not rare to see half of the national selection made up of natives, and this for decades. Yet this minority has barely five hundred thousand members out of 23 million inhabitants. Barely two percent of the population, according to official statistics. These ancestral peoples from Southeast Asia settled on the island more than 5,000 years ago, long before the arrival of the Chinese, from the end of the 17th century.e century.
In the field, the distinction can not be read on the back of the shirts but on the features of their faces and in their morphology. The aborigines use Chinese names in the Taiwanese league. Among the nuggets of the moment, Chih-Chieh Su enjoys great popularity in Tainan, in the west of the island, where he plays club since 2016.
Revered and wanted players
But in this city, it is another child of the country which is quoted in hero: Ching-Feng Chen. The first to join the American reference championship: Major League Baseball. Between 2002 and 2005, the native of the Siraya tribe played for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Since its breakthrough, fifteen other Taiwanese have followed in the United States. Almost all aborigines.
During the baseball season, recruiters from major US teams regularly attend games in Taiwan to detect these talents. It must be said that for an island with modest 14 000 km2 In terms of area, the country has had its moments of glory in the history of global baseball. Several third places in World Cup (1986, 1988, 2001), a final in 1984 and especially a bronze medal at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles the same year, and a silver in Barcelona, in 1992.
It was at this time, at the 1984 Games, that Cory Snyder, former American international and player of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Giants of San Francisco met them. Today, he coaches the Taichung Brothers Elephants in the Taiwanese league.
Larger, stronger, more powerful
“There is not a huge difference, but I noticed that Aboriginal players are a little bigger, stronger and more powerful”he explains. His team counts sixteen. And he is not the only one to think that. The physical argument of these athletes returns regularly to Taiwan. As if biology alone could explain their remarkable success and overrepresentation in this sport.
In fact, aboriginals are also the subject of stubborn popular beliefs in Taiwan. They are given a different bone structure and blood, which would make them natural athletes, even supernatural? “When I was little, in my village, our priest told us that it was a gift from God”, says Szu-Chi Chou. At the age of 35, Friends from Guangfu defended Taiwan’s colors internationally. At home, he became a legend.
“Some aborigines are physically different from the Chinese, but it’s mostly a self-fulfilling prophecy”says Alan Bairner, a professor of sport sociology at Loughborough University in England, who has researched the role of baseball in Taiwanese society. He prefers to evoke the admiration of the multitude of Aboriginal people who have become professionals, making this sport a way out of poverty for young people.
For today, most of them still live in the mountainous regions of the east of the island, the least developed part of the territory. Although their living conditions and rights are far more advanced than those of indigenous peoples in other countries, they still face discrimination. Shorter life expectancy, lower wages, higher unemployment rate, school failure, society is slowly changing.
Athlete’s bodies worked from an early age
Szu-Chi Chou does not hide it, it’s good to get out of this poverty that he wanted to become a professional player. Today he has created a foundation. When he returns to Guangfu, he gives scholarships to young promising players for them to go to train and study in the city or abroad. “But they have to work in school as well”, says the player.
In this friendly city, we no longer live to the rhythm of the matches of the heroes of the city, but the legacy is still alive and well. On the wall of the primary school, a fresco with the image of baseball and football reminds that the institution has always had a special interest for its sports teams. “For at least seventy years, before that, one would have to look in the Japanese archives”, said the director Wan-Nan Lin. From 1895 to 1945, the island was under Nipon domination. It was at this time that baseball was imported to Taiwan by the Japanese.
The Guangfu School has one hundred and eighty students, including some of the surrounding villages who come here specially to train and sleep on site. They train every night: a daily effort that explains their future success, according to their educators.
“Aboriginal children are very shy. By playing them in baseball, we want to make them feel proud and give them more confidence. “explains the director, who wants to focus on the mind more than on the body. On his desk enthroned some sporting trophies, as well as a photo of a former student, now the man with a hundred strokes (home runs) in the Taiwanese professional league: Szu-Chi Chou of course.
Tokyo 2020 goal
In this poor region of the island, the government encourages the minority to play baseball. The practice of sport is free for children. For Taiwan, isolated internationally, in conflict with the People’s Republic of China, which does not recognize its independence, the national baseball team is a way to shine. In promoting and building a Taiwanese national identity – distinct from mainland China – aboriginals play a big role despite themselves.
When the country began erasing the dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s legacy by changing its banknotes, in 1999, the national bank printed the illustration of a young baseball team on the $ 500 banknote. It would be the legendary team of Hong Ye, world champion in 1968 and composed of children … aborigines. All a symbol. In fact, the ticket represents all the successes of the country in “Little League”, a tournament bringing together young teams from around the world. With seventeen world titles in youth, Taiwanese teams flew over the competition in the 1970s.
Today, with its new generation that exports to the United States, Taiwan is dreaming of gold at the Tokyo 2020 Games, which will see the return of baseball in the Olympic program. But before that, another page in the history of this sport remains to be written on the island. To date, no Aboriginal person has ever held a key position in the Taiwan league, nor coached the national team or a professional club. A big challenge for the young shoots of Guangfu School.