Restoring Pingtung City’s forgotten Hakka identity

HISTORICAL LINK::Retired civil servant Lai Yu-mei has written a book, ‘Records of Tianliao,’ to help Pingtung’s younger generation reconnect with their Hakka past

By Chiu Chi-jou and Jake Chung  /  Staff reporter, with staff writer

Sat, Mar 23, 2019 - Page 4

Former Museum of Traditional Theater director Lai Yu-mei (賴玉梅) has made it a personal mission to help Hakka people in Pingtung rediscover their identity.

Lai said that decades ago, during the Japanese colonial era, a group of Hakka people from the Hsinchu-Miaoli area traveled south to Pingtung City, but over time the descendants of those migrants have forgotten their past and instead believe themselves to be native to Pingtung.

For two-and-a-half years, Lai, a third-generation descendant of those migrants, collected information, talked with elderly people in the region and pored over old maps to finish her book, titled Records of Tianliao (田寮庄志).

The Tianliao mentioned in the title is not Tianliao Township (田寮) in Kaohsiung, but refers to Fongtian Borough (豐田) in Pingtung, which used to be known as Tianliao.

Since retiring from Chaojhou Township Office’s Department of Culture and Tourism last year, Lai said that she felt that while she had helped many during her three decades as a civil servant, she had done almost nothing for her hometown.

While the residents in the area were mostly Hakka, the surrounding area was populated by people who mostly spoke Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) or Minnan, causing much of the younger generation to be unaware that they are actually Hakka.

“I grew up in ‘Tianliao’ listening to the Hakka bayin [客家八音, Hakka music] played by elders,” Lai said, adding that she wanted others to learn about their origins as well.

Using her past contacts at the office, she was able to find government information and corroborate the data with oral accounts by elderly people.

Her work for the book was a race against time, a fact that hit her after she had arranged to interview two nonagenarians, but one passed away before she could visit them, Lai said.

Lai said she also attended the National Pingtung University of Science and Technology’s graduate institute for Hakka cultural industry to better learn how to deal with large amounts of data.

Her research also enabled her to find the local bak gong (伯公), a statue or shrine to the Minnan god of the earth, Lai said.

Hakka tend to use the temple, or the location of the bak gong to demarcate the boundaries of their villages, she said, adding that the bak gong also serves as a religious entity for local Hakka residents.