Life in Palau

Newly independent islands coming to terms with foreign influence.

By Ephemera documentary

Angelo Chiacchio

Detail of Palau grass skirt (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Palau is a small island country in Oceania. It was originally founded 3,000 years ago by migrants from insular Southeast Asia. It survived nearly 400 years of foreign rule before gaining independence in the mid-20th century. 

Today, Palau’s islands have entered a new era marked by mass tourism, foreign investments, and climate change. 

Aerial view of Koror (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

In May 2018, photographer Angelo Chiacchio - on his journey to the world's most fragile places - spent two weeks in Koror.

Aerial view of Seventy Islands, Palau (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

This small archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean hides some big secrets.

Corals in Palau (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Despite the murky water on a rainy day, the beauty of Palau’s healthy and diverse coral reef is still clearly visible. Until now, the corals have been resilient to the effects of coastal erosion, pollution and overfishing. 

Aerial view of Koror (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Soundscape of Palau
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Palau consists of 340 islands. Koror is the most populous island and the center of economic activity. 

House in Koror (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Most of the homes on the islands are surrounded by bright tropical green grass and shaded by palm trees. 

A family in Koror (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Many generations of the same family typically reside in the same home.

Woman in Palau (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Palau is a matriarchal society.  Women are seen as the central figures of the household.  They tend to drive most economic decisions and are viewed as the ones who contribute the most to community well-being. 

Portrait of Palauan matriarch (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Everyone knows that the precious stone on Amania’s necklace signifies her high rank within her family. 

Detail of Palauan woodcraft (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Men are expected to take on agriculture, fishing and manual labor. They also carry on Palau’s wood-crafting tradition. 

Wood craftsman in Palau (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Interior of Palauan hut (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The most representative building of Palauan architecture is the village meeting house.  Each “bai” is built from the finest hardwoods and features ornate carvings that depict island legends and mythology. Before modern times, a village’s daily life centered around its bai. Today, use of the bai is generally reserved for special occasions. 

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3D scan of Palauan meeting house (21th Century) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

The Bai er a Ngesechel a Cherechar is one of the best examples of the traditional bai structure. Originally built in 1969, it later caught fire in 1978. In 1991, a replica was built using traditional material and construction techniques.

Houses in Palau (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Palauans have been able to maintain their traditions despite centuries of influence from the East and the West. Starting from the 16th century, the islands were occupied first by the Spanish, then by Germany and Japan.  The islands were controlled by the United States until gaining independence in 1994. 

Shop in Palau (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Today, Palau's economy is based primarily on tourism. This sector has grown steadily as rising prosperity in East Asia has fueled an increase in regional air travel.

Hotel in downtown Palau (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

A new form of foreign control has emerged from substantial investment in Koror’s tourism industry by Asian entrepreneurs.

Traditional dancer in Palau (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Local schools are still able to teach students about their Palauan heritage. This young woman performs a traditional dance in front of a small audience at a local market.

Kids playing videogames (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

But the younger generation’s reliance on modern technology is creating expectations that are disconnected from island life. 

Palauan hut at night (2018) by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

A village bai begins a dark night after another day of little use.    

Conclusion

Palau has maintained its culture throughout centuries of foreign rule. Newly independent, it faces new challenges as the influx of foreign tourists, capital and the effects of climate change alter the character of the islands. 

Terra by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

Partnership by Angelo ChiacchioEphemera documentary

This story was created with the support of Art Works for Change, a nonprofit organization that creates contemporary art exhibitions and storytelling projects to address critical social and environmental issues.

Credits: Story

Written, shot and produced by Angelo Chiacchio
Copy editing: Al Grumet, Rajesh Fotedar

With the support of: Google Arts & Culture, Art Works for Change

Thanks to: Amania Haruo-Ngiraikelau, Palau Bureau of Tourism, Belau Modekngei School.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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