Living the memories of a conflicted generation

Tae Hitoto plays herself for the first time in the stage production ‘A Suitcase of Memories,’ which depicts the real-life story of the tumultuous relationship between her father, the reluctant heir of one of Taiwan’s richest families, and her Japanese mother of humble origins

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Thu, Feb 28, 2019 - Page 14

Just three months after Cheng Yu-chieh (鄭有傑) read Tae Hitoto’s novel My Suitcase, he was asked to play the lead role in its stage adaptation.

Producer Khan Lee (李崗) says it was a no brainer to cast Cheng as Hitoto’s father Yen Hui-min (顏惠民), the Japan-raised heir of the powerful Yen family, whose identity struggles and relationship with his Japanese wife of humble birth make up the meat of the drama.

Cheng’s father was born and raised in Japan, and even after he returned to Taiwan the family spoke Japanese and maintained a Japanese lifestyle. Cheng also faced an identity crisis growing up, and like Yen, refused to follow in the family’s footsteps. But while Cheng had the choice to become a filmmaker, Yen did not.

Lee also found the perfect candidate to play Yen’s wife Kazue Hitoto, who strived to become Taiwanese and fit in to the Yen family: Japanese model and actress Mariko Okubo has lived in Taiwan since 2011 and is married to a Taiwanese.

Finally, Tae Hitoto plays her modern-day self who is working with a documentary filmmaker to reveal her parents’ tale. The longtime resident of Japan has been exploring her Taiwanese identity since she found a suitcase full of letters and mementos that her parents left behind, which led to two popular books and a feature film. But A Suitcase of Memories (時光?手箱:我的阿爸和卡桑), which will run from March 7 to March 10 at Taipei’s Metropolitan Hall, is the most challenging and personal project for Hitoto yet — not just because most of her lines are in Chinese.

“I’m looking at myself objectively,” she says. “Every time we rehearse, I feel like I’m analyzing myself. The scenes with my parents often bring me to tears, as they involve memories that I want to forget, yet must face. But I also know that if I can’t stop crying, I can’t be in this play.”

MINING KINGS

The equivalent of Taiwanese royalty — Yen Hui-min stayed in late Japanese prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai’s household when he was sent to Japan at age 10 — Hitoto says that the Yens of Keelung (基隆顏家) are now the most obscure of Taiwan’s “five great families” (五大家族). The north coast’s development, however, can be credited to the Yens’ gold and coal mining empire, including tourist favorite Jiufen (九份).

While the Wufeng Lin (霧峰林家), Banciao Lin (板橋林家) and Lukang Ku (鹿港辜家) clans rose to prominence during Qing rule, the Yens found their fortune by fostering good relations with the Japanese colonial government, which took power in 1895.

The Yens began mining northern Taiwan as early as 1847, but their business empire wasn’t born until Hitoto’s great-grandfather Yen Yun-nien (顏雲年) learned Japanese and gained the trust of local officials. By 1914, a 40-year-old Yen had earned the mining rights around both Keelung and today’s Rueifang District (瑞芳) in New Taipei City. In a few years, he would be known as the “King of Coal and Lord of Gold” (炭王金霸).

Yen Yun-nien’s son, Yen Chin-hsien (顏欽賢), provides the role of the capable and stern clan patriarch in the play. But his eldest son Yen Hui-min not only marries a Japanese waitress, but he refuses to return to Taiwan to work for his father. When he is eventually forced home, his wife struggles with life in a foreign country with one of its richest families. She tries hard to become Taiwanese, but her Tokyo-raised and educated husband longs to be Japanese. Conflict arises. The ensuing tale is told through Hitoto’s books, My Suitcase and What’s For Dinner, Mom?, with the latter being adapted into the 2017 feature film of the same name.

The family fortune was already declining during the time the play is set, as oil had started to replace coal. They officially shut down their business in 1971.

RECONSTRUCTING THE PAST

Lee had no prior experience in stage plays. His last production was the 2015 Attabu 2 (阿罩霧風雲2), the second part of a docudrama about the rise and fall of the Wufeng Lin family.

It was a natural progression to move on to other members of the “Big Five,” but he quickly decided that a stage play would be the best format for Hitoto’s tale as there was less information available compared to the Wufeng Lins. Instead of telling the family’s entire history, Lee focused solely on Hitoto’s parents, with a script that moves back and forth through time with fictional dialogue.

Lee was drawn to all the conflicts that shaped Yen Hui-min’s personality — race, nationality, family, class, generation, romance. Born at the wrong time and into the wrong family, Yen struggled to find himself, and his family suffered as a result.

“The challenge with a documentary is that you can’t get a single fact wrong,” Lee says. “We could not interview Yen Hui-min, but even if we did, would he be completely honest with us? He was hiding in his room for much of his latter life — that would make a really dull film. With a stage play, we can focus solely on the characters and put together an approximate silhouette of the truth for the audience.”

The stage is divided into four quadrants that represent different times and scenes, allowing for instant transitions between the eras as some even overlap. Hitoto agrees that a stage play would be the best format for such a narrative device, adding that the dialogue the screenwriter created feels very much real to her.

“I feel as if these words were really uttered in the Yen household back then,” she says.

The hardest part is playing herself. While Lee encouraged Hitoto to “be herself,” Hitoto felt that her own perception of herself was very different from what other people saw of her. Each rehearsal was a deeper look into herself and the family history that she had ignored for much of her adult life.

As of last week, she says her portrayal is still evolving, and could manifest differently for each show.

“One time I cried so hard that I couldn’t read the dialogue properly,” she says. “But now I’ve let these feelings settle inside me so I can really explore ways to portray this role.”

Cheng identified so much with Hitoto’s book that he accepted the role without reading the script or discussing payment. Like how Yen had to deny his Taiwanese identity to become as Japanese as possible, a young Cheng learned to hide his family’s Japanese lifestyle to fit in with his Taiwanese classmates.

“Hiding myself became an instinct,” Cheng says. “Luckily, I started coming to terms with my identity in college. For Yen, due to turbulent times and his family background, he kept running, eventually shutting himself down and turning to alcohol. I know how it is, because I’ve been there too, although my circumstances are much more fortunate.”

Cheng adds that it was a great help to have Hitoto on set. Not only did she share with him her father’s personal items and letters, he could feel her strong drive to discover and make up for what she missed out with her father.

“Not only is she present, but she’s playing my daughter. Whenever I look at her, I often already know what to say. Several lines in the play were improvised that way,” he says.