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  • Catching Up: Santana, Taj Mahal and a déjà vu ‘Blue Christmas’

    Posted by Ben Fong-Torres

    By Ben Fong-Torres It’s short shrift time. I have a life that’s ripe (and slightly wrinkled) for blogs and tweeting; for facebooking and updating. I’m just no good at it. My last column here on AsianConnections was about the memorial in late July for my sister Shirley. My last posting on the authors’ site, Redroom, was about a radio promo tour I did (20 stops, all on the phone...

Prejudice, Pride and Perseverance

Ben Fong-Torres

From the Japanese internment camps came art. Beautiful art.

I am, as always, watching The Daily Show . The headlines are about George W. Bush approving the National Security Agencys wire- tapping of private citizens. We begin tonight, Jon Stewart shouts, as he is wont to do, with the war on terrorism! You know how sometimes during war time civil liberties take a back seat to national security? Nervous laughter from the studio audience.

Well, Ive got good news and bad news! The good news is this: No Japanese people are being sent to camps The bad news, of course, was a joke, about some horrible indiscretion of yours having been captured by the government.

Amazing. Just days before, Id visited a long-time friend, Delphine Hirasuna , to chat about her latest book, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946. (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California.)

To set the stage for her presentation of items created by internees who were being guarded by fellow Americans (Gaman is a Japanese word meaning enduring the unbearable with patience and dignity), Delphine tells how the government decided to relocate 120,000 Japanese Americans to ten hastily-constructed camps, in remote regions stretching from California to Arkansas.

If you take the premise that all of this had to be done out of military necessity, by June of 1942, after the Battle of Midway, the government knew there was no danger of a Japanese attack on the coast, says Delphine. But by then theyd already rounded up most of the Japanese. And they were spending $80 million to build the permanent camps, which werent all built yet. So they go ahead and put the Japanese into camps for three and a half years. That time could have been shorter, but the announcement of their release was held through the end of 1944, Delphine says, because it was an election year.

Shades of the Patriot Act and, now, Bushs justifications for spying on American citizens.

Delphine didnt know all that much about this shameful era of American history shameful for both the U.S. government and for the innocent Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans, the bulk of the population) who lost their homes, their businesses, their savings, their reputations and, in too many cases, their futures. Like most Issei and Nissei, Delphines parents didnt want to talk about their time in camp.

But, in 2000, her mother Kiyoko died, and, while going through a dusty wooden box in her parents storage room, she found a small wooden bird pin. From the safety-pin clasp on the back, she writes, I concluded that it must have been carved in the concentration camp where my parents were heldThis prompted me to wonder what other objects made in the camps lay tossed aside and forgotten, never shown to anyone because they might generate questions too painful to answer.

Delphine, whos a successful corporate editorial consultant and writer, showed the pin to her friend Kit Hinrichs of the design firm, Pentagram, and he suggested that there might be a book. When her uncle, Bob Sasaki , asked her help with an exhibit about the internment camps, she agreedif, in turn, he would help her locate art and craftwork made by internees. She wound up with 150 pieces, from both individuals and from museum collections. They include lovely, flowery brooches made of hand-picked shells and those shiny birds, their feet made from wire snipped from the fencing that enclosed the camps. There are playing cards and Japanese dolls; handmade pliers and scissors, and a three-drawer chest constructed from scrap wood.

Delphine is particularly amazed by teapots carved from chunks of slate. But its all amazing, especially when you learn that 80 to 90 percent of the pieces were made by people whod never done artwork. They were farmers, fishermen, midwives, says Delphine. They didnt think of it as art. Maybe thats why they never showed them to anybody for so long.

Now, the arts and crafts resulting from gaman are available. The Issei are gone now, and the Nisei are elderly, Delphine notes. But the book is a beautiful and touching reminder of what they went through, and how they persevered, for the sake of the Sansei, the Yonsei, and beyond.

MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS: The rewards from producing the Larry Ching CD, Till the End of Time , just keep coming. The pianist on the recording session, George Yamasaki , was Larrys pal and regular accompanist at various community events, and, until Larry passed away, just a few weeks after his CD was released in June, 2003, they had made regular appearances at the Berkeley Chinese Community Church Senior Center.

Last spring, George invited me to join him and his wife Ann at one of the groups weekly lunches, where director Dorothy Wong put together programs of music and hula dances. Although I managed to get through three songs, no one mistook me for Larry.

At that lunch, I met several people who told me they knew my parents from our years in Oaklands Chinatown. I loved hearing them talk about the old days; the stores and restaurants on and around 8th and Webster Streets; the way things were. And so, when George told me the seniors wanted me back for a Christmas program on December 13th, I readily agreed. We worked up three tunes: Let It Snow! Let It Snow, White Christmas, and, of course, a little Elvis , with Blue Christmas. Ann did a hula to a Hawaiian version of Silent Night, there was a handbell choir directed by Vicky Jennings , caroling led by Pastor Rodney Yee , more hula dancing from a troupe of lovely gals called the Wahines, and some corny jokes (I think they were jokes) from MC Benton Shou .

But mostly, there was lunch afterwardsand a chance to say hello to old family friends. I met Lilly , who told me that she was a bridesmaid in the wedding of Nancy and Wayman Fung , in which I served as ring bearer. (A photo of me on that day serves as the cover of my autobiography, The Rice Room .) and I got some shocking gossip from Alice Leong , who told me that she had an older sister, Laura , and that my father had a crush on her. Now, my Dad came to the United States by himself in 1921 and didnt marry for almost 20 years. The fact that he might have shown some interest in a young woman shouldnt have come as a surprise. But what can I say? It did. And I'm still shocked I was seated in a place of honornext to Dorothy Wong, who, now in her 80s, was surrendering her role as producer of these programs to Helen Chun, a relative young pup in her 70s. But Dorothy was sharp as a Ginzu knife, introducing George by detailing a recent honor hed received in San Francisco, and chiding me for a joke Id made. I asked George, at the piano, when our last time was at this church. All I knew, I said, was that it was our last time, because Dorothy had told me afterwards, Youve sung here for the last time!

A few days after the Christmas program, George called with the news. Dorothy Wong had just passed away. I thought of Larry Ching. It was as if they knew theyd done their work, and it was time to move on. This, the members of the seniors group know all too well, is the cycle of life. Still, come next holiday season, theres no question. Theyll have a blue Christmas without her.

DEDICATION: This column is dedicated to Tsuyako Kitashima , far better known as "Sox." She passed away December 29 at age 87. Sox was known and loved throughout the Japanese American community, not only in the San Francisco area, where she lived, but around the country and through several generations, as she helped people who were placed in internment camps, and their families, to gain redress. She was a spokesperson for the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations, and, she was a volunteer at Kimochi, a Japantown organization that provided services for seniors. She prepared sushi and other food every day for guests at Kimochi Home. And she was a presence at numerous community events, fundraisers and celebrations. She was a sparkling, energetic, giving woman who was always a great pleasure to see. We gathered to celebrate her life on January 8th at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. About 500 of us packed the gym to hear about Sox and to lend support to her family. True to her spirit of getting things done, Sox provided her own speech of farewell and thanks, written years ago and read by her friend, Sandy Mori of Kimochi, Inc. As she said, through Ms. Mori, she'd had a good, full life. And she enriched so many others.

For more on Sox, check out her memoirs, Birth of an Activist: The Sox Kitashima Story , written with Joy Morimoto , and published by AACP in San Mateo, California (800-874-2242).

Long before blogs, Ben was writing this bloggy little column. And he plays host on his own home page. He doesn't do any blogging, but he's stocked the site with celeb photos, articles and goodies, all at www.benfongtorres.com.