Sing Me a Lullaby director Tiffany Hsiung on how Lunar New Year can connect family beyond words
A visit to her mother's birthplace of Taiwan to celebrate the new year changed their relationship forever
Sing Me a Lullaby is the emotional and award-winning story of filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung's quest to find her grandparents, whom her mother was separated from in 1965. During this year's Lunar New Year celebrations, Hsiung reflects on the power of family and the decade-and-a-half journey of making the film for the first edition of our personal essay series Cutaways.
Around this time two years ago, my mother Wendy Tan and I decided to go back to her birthplace of Taiwan to celebrate the Lunar New Year. For those who may not know, Lunar New Year is one of the most — if not the most — important East Asian festivities, quite different from the night of debauchery associated with New Year's Eve in western culture. Aside from the auspicious traditions and rituals to ward off bad luck, Lunar New Year is fundamentally about spending time with family. Celebrations last up to 15 days, and over the weeks you make your way to the homes of relatives to eat and celebrate the new year together.
My mom has not celebrated Lunar New Year with her birth family since she was a little girl, before she was separated from them. I remember being on the train from the airport to Taipei City and asking her what her last memory was of celebrating Lunar New Year. She looked out the window into the dark sky with speckles of city lights and said, "I don't know; I can't remember. Everything was dark."
I've become accustomed to this sort of answer ever since I started asking her about her past when I was a kid. At first I thought she just didn't want to talk about it, but over the years I realized she had only fragmented pieces of memory of her birth family.
It was 16 years ago when I first set out to look for my mother's birth parents. I was overly ambitious, stubborn and determined to prove wrong everyone who doubted me — middle child syndrome.
Long before I could even see the top of a mah-jong table, I could read a room like a pro poker player. I noticed everything, even when the adults didn't seem to. I recognized my mother's quiet, withdrawn demeanour as part of her search for something that was missing. I'd especially notice this during our bedtime stories and whenever she sang us lullabies. Witnessing my mother's yearning would be the catalyst for my mission. Unanswered questions hung over our family, and I refused to let them haunt us.
I was 21 years old when I started documenting Sing Me a Lullaby in the summer of 2005. The intention was to make a film for my mother, to show her what it was like searching for her past. (I also wanted to prove to her and everyone else in my family that I wasn't goofing off with my friends in Taiwan.) However, once I started filming, my inspiration took an unexpected turn. I learned how strongly intertwined love and sacrifice were for my mother and grandmother. Their sacrifices in the name of love had a ripple effect across generations. I saw how connected their journeys were — to each other, and to me. I wanted Sing Me a Lullaby to honour that legacy.
Armed with a pocket translator and a couple of Chinese names scribbled on a napkin, I travelled to my mom's birthplace of Taipei with two friends, Eugene Weis and Luke Donato. A funny trio as none of us had ever been to Asia before and my Chinese was really only good for ordering food from a menu with pictures. No one expected me to find any answers; I also had my doubts at first. However, what I ended up discovering there — and eventually chronicled in my film — began to reverberate across my relationships with the many women who have come before me.
After the initial trip to Taiwan in 2005, I went back several times. Each visit was more and more difficult. I felt torn about making this film because it unexpectedly opened up wounds that I never knew existed — for both myself and my mother. I tucked it away in my conscious and, in 2010, started production instead on my feature documentary The Apology, a story that follows the lives of three grandmothers who were former sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II in Asia. Little did I know at the time that these grandmothers and I would form a very special relationship, and that the rapport I shared with these women four times my age would prepare me to make Sing Me a Lullaby.
My motto at the beginning of this journey was, "The truth will set you free." But what if it doesn't? In fact, what if the truth just makes things worse? Would it be better to go back to not knowing at all?
My mother and I finally came to terms with this question when we went back to Taiwan for Lunar New Year in 2019.
On that trip, I brought her to all the places I had gone when I first came to Taiwan in 2005. It was a bittersweet visit. There were moments where we could both be kids again, but she was also reminded of all the Lunar New Year celebrations she never got to spend with her birth mother. As my mother carried the weight of lost time, I held on tightly to every moment I could, knowing just how precious time is with those you love.
My hope is that Sing Me a Lullaby sparks a curiosity for viewers to connect with their own lineage — to see ourselves as part of a longer story arc, to know that we're part of something bigger, and to find lessons in the lives that have come before ours.
For my mother and I, the opportunity for us to both know her past and connect with the truth has inevitably brought us closer. These days, we still argue and bicker, but I know she loves me the way that she knows how and she knows I love her the way that I know how. Our learning journey continues well after the movie has ended, and I am beyond proud to have this document that captures the capeless heroes in my life.
Watch Sing Me a Lullaby now on CBC Gem.