Decades after being abandoned in Spain, an Ami sailor looks homeward

12/17/2019 02:41 PM
CNA photo
CNA photo

Taipei, Dec. 17 (CNA) Nearly four decades after being marooned by his seafaring father in the Canary Islands, Chen Chiung-ming (陳炯明), an indigenous Ami from Taimali Township in Taitung, could be coming home.

His chance to reunite with his family owes much to his sister, Chen Hsiu-lan (陳秀蘭), who promised their late father she would find him, and, having done so, navigated her way through the bureaucratic obstacles that kept them apart.

In a recent interview with CNA, Chen said financial hardship drove her brother, at age 17, to work for their father on a long-haul commercial fishing vessel.

In their months at sea, the two came into almost constant conflict, culminating in the elder Chen's order, in a fit of rage, to have his son locked up in the ship's refrigerator. The younger Chen was eventually freed and helped ashore by his friends after the ship docked in the Canary Islands.

When it came time to lift anchor, however, his still-furious father made no effort to get his son back on board. He allowed the ship to depart with his son's luggage, passport and savings -- everything the younger Chen would need to scrape together a livelihood in a foreign country or eventually find his way home.

When Chen Hsiu-lan's father returned to Taiwan a month later, he had already begun to regret what he had done.

But back then in 1981 -- before cell phones, before the internet -- there was simply no way to track down his son, other than to go out looking for him.

In order to do so, Chen said her father signed a contract for another three years on the fishing boat, and then renewed it again and again, working an additional 27 years before dying of stomach cancer in 2008.

She remembered asking her father, during one of his month-long periods of shore leave, why he continued working as a sailor.

"Because I left your brother over there," he said, "It's my fault, and I have to bring him back."

Her father's failure to track down her brother was one of many misfortunes to befall the family, Chen said. The family also lost their mother, and the family home was destroyed by fire, scattering her siblings across southeastern Taiwan.

It was in the wake of those challenging times that she received a call one day at her new home in the mountain village of Taiyuan from an acquaintance -- an Ami sailor who said he had found her brother and would give her the telephone number of the restaurant where he worked.

"It sounded like a fraud," Chen said, adding that she was so suspicious she went to a pay phone to make the call.

The man on the other end confirmed he was "Chen Chiung-ming, an indigenous Ami from Taitung," Chen says, but he spoke with a mainland Chinese accent.

She decided to test him, asking the man to say something in the Ami language.

"Nga'ay ho (hello)," he said, and she knew it was him.

Though he had forgotten much of the Ami language, and even spoke in halting Chinese, he told his sister he remembered her: "You were like my shadow when we were little, always following me around!"

In the course of their conversation, Chen learned that her brother now had a wife and seven children, and worked as head chef in a restaurant where he had started out washing dishes.

He said he felt no bitterness, and had forgiven their father years ago for what he had done.

By the time they hung up, Chen had dropped over NT$1,500 (US$50) in coins into the pay phone, but had kept her promise to find her brother, and even started making plans for a reunion with the family.

For more than a year after reconnecting with her brother, Chen sought assistance for him through various government agencies, all with little success.

A friend suggested she contact Chen Yun-ping (陳允萍), a Legislative Yuan candidate and civil servant at the National Immigration Agency's Taitung County Service Center.

With his help, Chen has been able to get a new passport issued for her brother and help him apply for various identity documents which he needed to settle his residency status in Spain.

Now, with the wheels finally turning on her brother's applications in Spain, Chen said her family is hopeful her brother will be able to reunite with them soon.

They are saving a seat for him at their Lunar New Year dinner.

(By Tyson Lu and Matthew Mazzetta)


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