While growing up in the US, Tony Coolidge (陳華友) was told very little about his Taiwanese mother’s background.
“She went through great pains to bring us up American, to keep us speaking English so we could succeed, so we could adapt and fit in,” he says.
After his mother’s death from cancer in 1994, Coolidge visited Taiwan to reconnect with her relatives — and made a life-changing discovery. On a trip to his mom’s hometown of Wulai (烏來) in New Taipei City, Coolidge found out that she was a member of the Atayal tribe. Up to that point, he had never even heard of Taiwanese Aboriginals.
Coolidge’s quest to find out more about his family’s Aboriginal background — and why it had been hidden from him — is the subject of Voices in the Clouds (眾族同聲), a documentary by director Aaron Hose. Released last year, the film will be shown with Chinese subtitles for the first time at the Urban Nomad Festival’s closing night on Sunday, followed by a question-and-answer session with Coolidge.
Coolidge recalls that on his trip, the topic of his family’s background did not come up until he questioned his aunt about the Aboriginal art he saw on the streets of Wulai.
“I thought, ‘What were Native Americans doing here?’ That’s what it looked like to me,” Coolidge told the Taipei Times on Tuesday. “And then she told me, ‘No, that’s our tribe.’ I thought, ‘Our tribe? Atayal?’ I was surprised, shocked.”
Back home, Coolidge started researching the tribal group’s history. A magazine article he wrote about his trip caught the attention of filmmaker Aaron Hose.
“The fact that while he was visiting Wulai, he discovered that his entire family are descendants of the Atayal tribe, this blew me away,” Hose wrote in an e-mail. “Like Tony, I, too, was surprised that he hadn’t ever heard about it from his mother.”
What: Aaron Hose’s Voices in the Clouds (眾族同聲) at the Urban Nomad Film Festival’s closing night
When and Where: The film will be shown on Sunday after an awards ceremony and screening of Pangcah (製造), a short film by Kawa Ume, and followed by a question-and-answer session with Tony Coolidge. The event starts at 7:30pm on Sunday in Warehouse 2 of Huashan 1914 Creative Park (華山1914), 1, Bade Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市八德路一段1號)
Admission: Tickets are NT$220 (NT$170 for students)
On the Net: Urbannomadfilmfest.blogspot.com; www.voicesintheclouds.com; www.atayal.org
In late 2005, Hose and his filmmaking team followed Coolidge and his brother Steven on a return trip to Taiwan. Voices is a moving account of Coolidge’s journey to learn more about his ethnic identity. At the same time, it casts a light on the persecution suffered by Taiwanese Aboriginal tribes.
As he found out more about the challenges faced by Aborigines, Coolidge began to understand why his mother never talked about her background. In the film, one Aboriginal elder recalls having to take on different identities in succession: tribal, Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese. A father describes how classmates labeled his young son a “barbarian.”
“When I first went, it was very evident that there was not a lot of pride about the culture,” Coolidge says. “To me, it was a total avoidance of that culture, in my own family and my relatives. Throughout Taiwan, I got the sense that there wasn’t a positive attitude toward indigenous cultures or people.”
The son of an American GI who left his mother before his birth, Coolidge was born in Taiwan but immigrated to the US when he was a small boy. He grew up on military bases around the world with his mother, stepfather and three younger siblings.
Though she kept her ethnicity hidden from him, Coolidge knew his mother missed Taiwan and dreamed of returning before she was diagnosed with cancer. In a poignant scene, Coolidge recalls a time when he tried to ease his ailing mother’s homesickness by taking her to a Florida amusement park called Splendid China.