Uhan Shii is an oral history theatre group. Since 1991, I have visited elders in many towns of different sizes in Taiwan and wove their life stories together and had them come to the theatre to rehearse. We had our first production of the “Echoes of Taiwan” series in 1995. Now we are working on “Echoes of Taiwan (X) :When Spring Comes”.
Today, I am going to talk about “Stories of Taiwan (VI):We Are Here”, a story about the lives and history of the Hakka people. Hakka is one of the three major ethnic groups in Taiwan, with five million people. As a Hakka woman, I live in the metropolitan Taipei city, but I rarely hear people speak Hakka or know who is Hakka.
Literally speaking, Hakka means “the guests”. Two thousands years ago, Hakkas lived in the northern China. Due to the wars and change of political powers, they gradually migrated south. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Guan-Dong province at the southeastern China had the most of the Hakka villages. By the middle of the twentieth century, Hakkas spread all over the globe.
Before I started this production, I put an ad in the local newspapers:
A group of people who were proud of their unique and distinct culture is now spread all over the world.Their family ethics, traditional music, cultures and even language are gradually lost. Hakkas in the big city, where are you?
Before I start to tell you any story, I must tell you something about myself.
My grandparents were Hakkas, living in a Hakka village. We did not know how or why they moved to that village. Twenty years after my grandfather died, we discovered that his father was a scholar in the Chin dynasty. When the Japanese invaded Taiwan, they fled their own villages and ran for their lives. They moved to a Hakka village on the far eastern shore of Taiwan. By the time I was born, they had moved out of the Hakka village and they did not speak the Hakka language any more.
For our generation, it is more and more common for Hakka people to become invisible in the city. I have been spending half an hour each day learning Hakka language from the television and the radio for six years. Yet I have nobody to talk to in Hakka, because nobody speaks the language in the public in Taipei. Thus, I wanted to ask loudly:
My fellow Hakkas in the city, where are you?
At last, I gathered fifteen Hakkas---one man, four children and ten women. All of them were born into farming families. Four of the women were over sixty-five years of age and the other six were between forty and fifty. I gave them this homework :
Where did your great great-grandfather use to live? What did he do for a living?
Where did your grandfather use to live? What did he do for a living? Why did he move away from his Hakka village?
Which Hakka village were you from? How long have you lived in Taipei?
Why did you leave your Hakka village?

Lui Ziou-mei’s Story

Today, the story I am going to tell is about Lui Ziou-mei.
Ziou-mei was born in 1930, the tenth and youngest child in the family with five brothers and four sisters. All her sisters were given to other families before they were one year old. Ziou-mei’s family adopted four girls from other families to work for them since very young and marry the sons when grown.
Ziou-mei was to be given away also. Luckily, her father came home just in time to put a stop to it. So she grew up in her own family.
Adoption is a common practice in the Hakka community. The landlords gave away their daughters, the poor people gave away their daughters and Ziou-mei’s family, being somewhat well-to-do, also gave away their daughters. People exchanged little girls, enslaved them and saved the dowries when their daughters married the sons in the adoptive families. The mothers were adopted when they were still little, so were the grandmothers and all the aunts. In my group, even a forty-five years old woman had the experience of being adopted. These women had survived long years of abuse, slavery and humble existence.

When Ziou-mei was twenty years old, she graduated from the nursing school and decided to marry a doctor from Mainland China. This was a terrible taboo at the time. Hakka people only married one another at that time. All the mothers wanted their daughters to marry Hakka men. They would threaten their daughters that they would rather chop the daughters up and feed them to the pigs than have them marry outside the clan.

Ziou-mei faced the toughest choice of her life. On her wedding day, nobody from her family showed up.
Now she is seventy-three. Yet she has never gone back to her village, not even once. According to the Hakka custom, a married woman has to be companied by an elder male from her maiden family in order for her to visit.
When Ziou-mei’s parents died, nobody accompanied her to go back.When Ziou-mei’s oldest brother was old and on his death bed in the hospital she worked, she begged him to ask his son to take her back to the village and he refused. Her brothers died one after another. None of them was willing to take her home for a visit.

“Stories of Taiwan (VI) We Are Here”

“Stories of Taiwan (VI): We Are Here” is about the struggles of these people who left their villages and moved to Taipei. The debut was in the September of 2000, at Wuppertal and Berlin, Germany. In October, we were on the stage of the Taipei National Theatre. At first, the box office was pathetic. Before curtain time, we pre-sold ten tickets for the first night, one ticket for the second night, none for the rest of the days. But, after the first evening, every performance was sold out. Many Hakka people bought tickets to enter the National Theatre for the first time in their life. After each performance, there was not much applause, but many of the audience lingered in the theatre without taking their leave. They stood around quietly in small groups, contemplating. They did not even talk to the performers when they came out of the backstage. Perhaps just as they said, they are not used to speaking Hakka in the public and they are not comfortable letting people know that they are Hakkas.

Since all of the performers were originally from Hakka villages all over Taiwan, our biggest wish was “a trip back home”, back to all the villages we came from, sharing our stories with all the folks. I called some villages in 2001 to arrange for our performance. Their answers were, “A Hakka play? No, we don’t watch Hakka play, not even free ones. Even if you send us a tour bus, prepare the food and give us presents, we still don’t want to watch a Hakka play.”

We were not defeated. We went any way, in April and May. After each performance, the folks either waited around quietly or hugged the performers tightly, holding their hands and shedding silent tears. Bolder women whispered into my ears, “You have said what we dare not say for all these years.” Some women said, “I was just a little girl. I could only hide in the closet from time to time to escape all the unfairness in the world. Tonight, in the darkened audience, I was able to cry openly without reservation.”

When we were on tour, we realized that there was a group of women who followed us to every village we visited. They hid themselves in the audience and cried. Many times, after we cleaned up after a performance, we found some of them still crouched in the corners unable to collect themselves.

“We Are Here” spoke of the darkness in the hearts of these Hakka women. At the end of the performance, I asked the performers to open the blue scarves in their memories---Hakkas often use blue scarves to wrap things up, like handbags. In the blue scarves, they will see the love that has supported them through the years, the spirit that has kept them who they are through all the hardships

Seventy year-old Shuo-chuen said,“Twice, I was almost given away but I wasn’t.”
Sixty-five year-old Shu-yu said, “Grandmother wanted to sell me off. Luckily, father hid me in the closet and I was not sold off.”
Forty-nine year-old Shi-yen said, “Mother didn’t want me. Grandfather took me into the mountains many times to give me away. Then father carried me back on his shoulders. The warmth of his shoulders is still in my heart. Without it, I don’t think life is worth living.”
Forty-three year-old Huei-mei said: “Open the blue scarf, I see the envelope that father gave me. In the envelope, it was the college tuition for me. Father said farmers had to kneel on the ground and it is too hard on the feet. It is easier to hold a pen then a hoe for a living. I am making more money than my tuition now.”
Forty-one year-old Chuen-chuo said, “My blue scarf is empty. My family was poor and they did not give me anything. Now I have my own family, my own house, my own kids.”
Ziou-mei, the woman who had not been back home since she got married when she was twenty years old, opened layers after layers of the blue scarves in her life and finally she said, “I never regretted my decision.”

“We Are Here” has performed in fifty-one Hakka villages. In the past two years, all the villages eagerly looked forward to our arrival. They prepared Hakka food and desserts. They formed huge numbers of volunteer groups to go into the smaller villages in the deep mountains, inviting people to come for the performance.
The reactions after each performance were still quiet hugs, silent tears, clapped hands and unspoken gratitude. Like every village leaders told us: “ ‘We Are Here’ let us find our Hakka identity.”

A German director told me in the Berlin Art Festival:
“This is a sad story, but not a tragedy.
There was discontent, but they did not complain.
There was unfairness, but they were not bitter.
They did not point their fingers at anybody.
They simply told their stories truthfully. “

We are here.


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