Mia Kato interned this past summer with JANM’s facility maintenance and rentals department. She offers the following account of her experience.
When I first started interning at the Japanese American National Museum, I thought I would be doing such typical intern tasks as getting coffee, making photocopies, and stapling documents together. Little did I know that my summer was going to be filled with different tasks every day—from designing a website to tasting sushi at a hotel.
I was pretty nervous in the beginning. Learning where everything was and how to use it was very overwhelming at first. Not to mention, remembering everyone’s names was a challenge—thank goodness for name cards! When I was presented with a desk in the facilities office and a building access badge, I felt official. Having sat in classrooms all of my life, the work setting felt a lot different to me. I felt like a real grownup for once and it was great.
Over the last couple of months at JANM I learned a lot. I initially came here because I needed to complete a 400-hour course credit requirement for school. As I put in these hours however, I was exposed to many different aspects of museum operations, including visitor services, public programs, and facility maintenance and rentals. These different departments taught me a lot of things and I am so thankful for the people who took me under their wing.
In visitor services, I experienced what it was like to be the first person to represent the museum. To be able to answer the numerous questions that always came in, I had to expand my knowledge about the museum, Japanese American history, and Little Tokyo. Being in the front of the museum also brought me closer to the visitors that came in, because I got to learn their stories and their personal connections to Japanese American history.
When I worked in public programs, I was amazed to learn how many little details go into each event. I learned to think outside of the box and to look at not only the bigger picture but the smaller details. This department helped me understand a lot more about my hospitality administration major and everything that it takes to organize an event.
Facility maintenance and rentals was the primary department that I was assigned to. At first, I was a little wary about being in this department because I did not know what kind of work it would entail. To my surprise, this was not your average 9-5 job; every day was a different adventure. My supervisors were amazing and always included me in the various activities that went on throughout the day. I was able to go on walkthroughs, join food vendor tastings, and even climbed to the roof of the building at one point.
Together, our department worked on marketing and advertising facility rentals for the museum. We worked on a new website, a brochure, and a rentals packet. They taught me the process of organizing event rentals, which requires a lot of paperwork and attention to detail. I also got to work on my correspondence and communication skills.
Overall, I had a wonderful experience at JANM. I came in very hesitant and nervous, but I am leaving with new skills and experiences that I never in my life thought would happen. Each department taught me something a little different that I will be able to apply to my studies at school and in the future, at work. I appreciate everything that I got to do this summer through JANM and I hope that the next group of interns will have as much fun as I did.
Mia Kato is studying hospitality administration at Boston University.
The following guest blog post, announcing the launch of a new podcast exploring the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans, is contributed by Eric Muller, a law professor and longtime friend of the museum.
After the election of Donald Trump, many people were asking themselves: “How can I help counter what lies ahead?” I decided to create a podcast called Scapegoat Cities, which is launching today.
The idea is simple. Over the course of two decades of deep research in the National Archives for my books and articles, I’ve gathered many touching but unknown stories of the forced removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II—stories that put a human face on the gross miscarriage of justice. Scapegoat Cities lets me tell a handful of those stories in an accessible and compelling way.
I believe that if we want to ensure that something never happens again, we need to first ensure that we really know what it was that actually happened. That’s what this podcast is for: to help listeners know in detail and also feel how Japanese Americans experienced unwarranted confinement by the US government. My hope is that this will contribute in some small way to resisting the dangerous religious and ethnic profiling that the policies of the Trump administration threaten to enact. It will remind people of the real human costs of these seemingly abstract policies.
The first two episodes, available now, give a good idea of what the podcast will do. “The Desert Was His Home” tells the story of the disappearance and death of Otomatsu Wada, an elderly Issei, from the Gila River concentration camp in Arizona. In “The Irrepressible Moe Yonemura,” an extraordinary young man defies all odds and becomes one of the most popular and respected members of his class at UCLA. He brings the same indomitable spirit to his time at the Heart Mountain camp—and then he volunteers for wartime service as part of the renowned 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Both of these stories are based on real events that took place at those two camps. Each of the stories, in its own touching way, reveals something important about the nature and impact of confinement.
It’s surprising how much information survives that helps me tell these stories. I learned the story of the disappearance of the Issei gentleman from the records left behind by Gila River’s “Project Attorney,” the white government lawyer who both helped run the camp and who served as a legal adviser for inmates. The story was also extensively covered in the camp’s newspaper and in Arizona newspapers. I first learned about Moe Yonemura from the pages of the Heart Mountain Sentinel, the camp’s newspaper, and then discovered the UCLA campus newspaper and yearbooks and the narrative records of his battalion’s service in Italy online.
There are lots of ways to listen to the podcast. The easiest is to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or wherever else you like to find your podcasts. You can also go to the podcast’s website, which has each episode available for download along with additional background information, including photographs and suggestions for further reading.
I hope people enjoy the podcast, and that those who do will leave a review on iTunes and tell their friends!
Eric Muller is a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Muller has for two decades focused his research and scholarship almost exclusively on the wartime removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. He’s published two monographs and a third edited volume as well as many academic articles. He’s also proud to have led the creation of the main historical exhibit at the site of the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, which won museum awards.
On Saturday, September 9, JANM will premiere a new jewelry workshop titled The World of Washi. Led by Reiko Nakano, this introductory class will teach participants about washi, a traditional Japanese handmade decorative paper, and how to apply it onto a variety of wooden shapes to create jewelry.
Washi, which literally means “Japanese paper,” dates back to the seventh century, when paper was first brought to Japan from China by Buddhist monks. The Japanese quickly developed their own methods for making paper, using fibers from three plants native to Japan: kozo (mulberry), gampi, and mitsumata. The handmade process was passed down from generation to generation, and the quality of the paper, which was stronger and more versatile than its Chinese predecessor, became highly renowned and sought after. By the late 19th century, there were more than 100,000 families in Japan making washi.
As demand for paper grew, machine-made papers from the West grew in popularity, and handmade production of washi declined. By 1983, there were less than 500 papermaking families left in Japan. Washi, however, remains an important and cherished part of traditional Japanese culture; it is still used in religious ceremonies, and can be seen in a variety of applications from fine books and artworks to stationery and crafts.
Reiko Nakano, a lifelong teacher, discovered what she likes to call “the wonderful world of washi” on her trips to Japan. “Being made from three different plant fibers, washi is natural and resilient,” she enthuses. “It is the perfect medium for calligraphers and designers, who decorate it with historical patterns and modern motifs.”
Nakano discovered that washi is also great for making jewelry because it’s so adaptable. “Washi can cover any surface: round wooden beads, cardboard trays, glass pendants, steel plumbing tools, cork coasters,” she says. Her class on September 9 will focus on making a souvenir washi pendant necklace using wooden beads; in the process, participants will learn techniques of looping and wrapping, how to make an adjustable knot, and how to lacquer washi projects. Another class on December 16 will utilize plumbing hardware, like washers.
Washi is acclaimed for having properties like no other paper: it is strong, light, acid-free, translucent, and uniquely textured. It also absorbs inks and dyes well, and resists creasing and tearing. Nakano is excited to share its possibilities. “With a few simple tools, some ‘tricks of the trade,’ and a lot of patience, anyone can enter the wonderful world of washi.”
This workshop is made possible in part by a grant from the City of Los Angeles, Department of Cultural Affairs. For more information and to register, click here for September 9 and here for December 16.
Holly Yasui is the youngest daughter of Minoru Yasui, the legendary Japanese American lawyer and civil rights activist. She is currently at work on a documentary film about the life of her father, titled Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice. This Saturday at 2 p.m., JANM will be hosting the Los Angeles premiere of Part One of the documentary, which covers his life up until the end of World War II. Holly will be present for a Q&A with the audience following the screening.
Below, we present excerpts from an interview with Holly, who graciously took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions via email. The complete interview will be published on Discover Nikkei shortly.
JANM: Your father was an extraordinary man. What was it like to grow up with him?
Holly Yasui: Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was an amazing experience to grow up with my dad, to be Min Yasui’s daughter. He was kind, loving, and patient. He taught me how to read before I started school, by reading out loud to me every night in bed before I went to sleep. He bought me books and a special illustrated encyclopedia, and when I showed interest in writing, he gave me my first typewriter and money to buy my first word processor. Though he worked almost all the time—he was a community activist, and like housework, that kind of work never ends—he was always home for dinner and he was always interested to hear from his family about our day. It never occurred to me that it was unusual that he went out to meetings and events nearly every night after dinner. For me and my sisters, that was normal—we thought everyone’s dad did that.
JANM: What inspired you to make this documentary?
HY: In 2013, JANM invited me to participate on a panel with Jay Hirabayashi and Karen Korematsu to talk about our fathers and their legacies at the museum’s National Conference in Seattle, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. I met up with Janice Tanaka, who was filming the event for JANM and who had been a classmate at film school in the 1980s. (I dropped out, but Janice made good!) We got to talking, and the idea for a film about my dad was planted in my mind.
After the conference I went to Portland to visit Peggy Nagae, who was my dad’s lead attorney in the reopening of his World War II legal test case. We discussed the conference and my dad’s 100th birthday coming up in 2016, and we hatched the idea of a Minoru Yasui Tribute Project. Peggy took on the task of getting a Presidential Medal of Freedom for my father, and I took on the making of the film. Peggy was successful in mobilizing a nationwide campaign to endorse the nomination, which resulted in a posthumous awarding of the medal by President Obama in 2015.
On my father’s 100th birthday, we screened a work-in-progress in his hometown of Hood River, Oregon. On March 28, 2017, we premiered Part One of the documentary, which covers his life up to the end of WWII. March 28 is Minoru Yasui Day in Oregon, and this past year was the 75th anniversary of the day he deliberately broke a military curfew to initiate his legal test case. I’m still working on completing the film, hopefully in 2018.
JANM: Most documentaries are made by third parties. You are about as close to the subject as you can get. Does this make the process easier or harder?
HY: I think that the best films are made by people who have some kind of personal investment or interest in the subject. Yes, I am very close to the subject of Never Give Up! and that has made the process both easier and harder. Easier because I have access to wonderful materials that our family archivist, my aunt Yuka (Dad’s youngest sister) has saved—mostly photos but also documents. Harder because I idolized my dad in life, but that’s not an effective approach to portraying a complex human being.
JANM: If your father were alive today, what would his take be on the Trump administration and its policies?
HY: I think he would be appalled by the thinly veiled racism and bigotry inherent in many current initiatives such as the Muslim ban and the wall between Mexico and the United States, as well as anti-democratic efforts like supporting charter schools, taking away Medicare from thousands of people, and putting the fox in charge of the henhouse on environmental and civil rights enforcement. I have no doubt that he would vociferously oppose any and all policies rooted in discrimination based on race, religion, and/or national origin. I remember in the 1970s and ’80s, when the Iran hostage crisis sparked xenophobia and hate crimes against Iranian students, legal residents, and persons who “looked like” Iranians, he spoke out and unequivocally condemned such attitudes and actions.
JANM: What kind of advice do you think your father would give to young activists today?
HY:Never give up! Keep on fighting, stand up and speak out! Work for the common good, help to make the world a better place in whatever way you can, according to your own convictions and passions and life experiences.
Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice will be screened at JANM at 2 p.m. this Saturday, July 29. JANM members can also attend an exclusive pre-event meet-and-greet with Holly at 1 p.m.
JANM recently welcomed Joy Teruko Ormseth to its volunteer ranks. Born in 2000 in Los Angeles and currently a student at Arcadia High School, Joy is, at 16 years old, one of our youngest volunteers.
This past April, JANM volunteers and staff organized a bus tour to join the annual pilgrimage to the site of the American concentration camp at Manzanar, where thousands of people of Japanese ancestry were confined during World War II. Joy, who had only briefly visited Manzanar as a child, decided to join the group. She graciously agreed to an interview, in which we learn about Joy’s family background as well as her impressions of Manzanar.
JANM: Why did you go on the Manzanar pilgrimage this year?
Joy Teruko Ormseth: I wanted to understand better about the whole situation because it was really hard for me to conceptualize what the people who were interned were going through. I obviously have never experienced that, and so it was hard for me to imagine having to go through that.
JANM: What’s your family’s background?
JTO: My grandma was interned in Poston as a child, and my great-grandpa on my grandfather’s side was interned at Heart Mountain. But my grandfather was kibei [a Japanese person born in the United States but educated in Japan], so he was still in Japan during the war. I’m half Japanese, so this is all on my mother’s side of the family. My dad is Norwegian.
JANM: When you were growing up, did your grandparents share any memories of their time in camp?
JTO: Not my grandfather, since he was in Japan during the war, but my grandmother would always tell me about the dust storms at Poston, how they would wake up and there would just be sand everywhere. She also told me that her mother—my great-grandmother—was from an upper-class family in Tokyo, so the other mothers would kind of look down on her because she spoke a different dialect of Japanese. Also, other families were put off by our family because grandma’s elder brother Tom volunteered to serve in the 442nd [Regimental Combat Team].
JANM: Did the other mothers look down on your great-grandmother because most of them were working class?
JANM: Why were they put off by the brother for joining the 442nd? I thought that was considered the height of honor and patriotism.
JTO: Grandma said the other families didn’t understand why he would volunteer, because they were put in camp [by the same government].
JANM: Your grandmother sounds like she has an amazing memory.
JTO: Yeah, she remembers a lot. She has a really good memory. She even remembers stuff from before the war!
JANM: Was she your main connection to this history?
JTO: Yes, she was. Out of all her siblings, she’s the one who talks about it the most, and she’s the youngest. She also knows a lot because she became a teacher and she likes to research everything.
JANM: Tell me more about your grandmother’s memories of Poston.
JTO: I know that my Auntie Mary, her sister, had a baby in camp who died because there wasn’t proper medical care. She had also lost a baby right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (My grandma had several siblings, and the oldest ones were a lot older than she was.)
JANM: Oh my God, that’s horrible. Were there any babies born who did survive?
JTO: Yeah, there was one daughter who’s still alive.
JANM: What did your grandma think of the food in camp?
JTO: Great-grandma worked in the mess hall. She always demanded that the family eat at least one meal together per day, to keep the family together. I think grandma said they ate a lot of Spam! She also told me that creamed chipped beef on toast was often served, which the inmates referred to as “SOS” (sh** on a shingle).
JANM: In total, who all from your family was in Poston?
JTO: My grandmother. Then there was Uncle Jack, Auntie Mary, and Uncle Tom, who joined the 442nd. My Uncle Harvey was the oldest of the siblings and he was already in the military—he was drafted before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and served in military intelligence. Another auntie, Alice, worked as a secretary in Minnesota during the war.
JANM: Did they find other families that they could get along with?
JTO: They never talked that much about other families. My grandmother did say that since she was so little, she never really considered the severity of the situation—she was just happy that she had other kids to play with. Before the war, they lived in Central California, and I guess there weren’t as many children around there. So when she went to camp she was like, there are all these kids here to play with!
JANM: How did you get connected to JANM?
JTO: My mother used to volunteer at the Little Tokyo Historical Society, so I grew up knowing a lot about Little Tokyo and JANM because my mom loves history, like my grandma. I just figured that I would like to volunteer here.
JANM: What volunteer duties are you taking up at JANM?
JTO: I’m still a trainee, so I’m still figuring out what I want to do. But last week, I volunteered at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center) and it was so cool! We have access to ancestry.com, and I didn’t know how many documents there were on that website. One of the other volunteers was showing me how to research everything. I find all the dates so interesting—it’s all just right there, right in front of you, but it happened so long ago.
JANM: What were your impressions of Manzanar?
JTO: It was really hard for me to visualize all the barracks, because obviously they’re not there anymore, but [the trip] did help me to understand a little better the thought process of the Issei, what they were thinking. It made me realize that they came to this country believing in the American dream—if you work hard, you can succeed—and when we were there, it was so isolated, so barren, it was like, is this the American dream that they came for? That made me really upset and frustrated, and helped me understand just a little bit what they were going through.
JANM: Was there anything from the ceremony that stuck out for you?
JTO: Well first of all that song “Sukiyaki”—I really liked it because it was a musical connection to the past that kind of made it more real. Also, Alan Nishio’s talk was very inspiring.
JANM: Are you interested in going on any more pilgrimages?
JTO: I’ve heard that Poston is really difficult to get to, but I might want to go there one day.
Leslie Unger, JANM’s Director of Marketing, reminisces about her professional encounters with the legendary photographer Nick Ut, who will be speaking at JANM on June 8.
Before coming to work at JANM, I worked for over 19 years at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (best known for presenting the Oscars), handling a variety of communications and media relations responsibilities. During my time there, I met Nick Ut of the Associated Press—one of the many, many photographers who lined the red carpet on Oscar night.
Shortly after meeting him, I learned that Nick had taken one of the most famous, iconic images in the history of photography, that of a young Vietnamese girl running toward the camera, her clothing burned from her body by napalm. I was astounded—and proud!—that I now knew this acclaimed photographer, and somewhat puzzled that the person who had captured an image that literally helped change the world was now taking pictures in the entertainment world.
I guess when you win a Pulitzer Prize at age 22 for a wartime image that is seared into the minds of millions, snapping some celebrity shots might be a welcome change. Not that Nick didn’t take this work seriously, but let’s face it: while red carpets may be full of battling egos, there are no napalm bombs getting dropped.
Each year after, when Nick would come by the press office during the days leading up to the Academy Awards, I would make sure I stopped what I was doing in order to say hello to him and, more importantly, make sure that new people working in the office knew who he was—that he had taken a photo that was truly historic. I wanted to make sure everyone knew about Nick and about that photo. He was always gracious during these introductions. I never knew him to be boastful of his accomplishments, but I felt he was rightfully proud and not embarrassed to be called out for them.
After I left the Academy, I went to work for the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association. It didn’t occur to me that my path would cross with Nick’s there, but sure enough, it did. On the morning of a press conference to announce the year’s Royal Court, there was Nick. After smiles and hugs—typical of his warmth and friendly demeanor—I once again made sure that my co-workers knew exactly who Nick was.
By 2015, I was working at JANM and hadn’t seen Nick for a couple of years. One day, I met Stefanie Davis from the Museum of Ventura County, who was visiting JANM. In the course of casual conversation, she mentioned that her museum was going to be presenting an exhibition and public programs tied to the anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Hearing this, I immediately thought of Nick and I asked Stefanie if she knew of him. She didn’t, but expressed interest in getting in touch to see if he might participate in a museum event.
I emailed Nick about what was happening in Ventura and was thrilled to receive a phone call from him that same day. We spoke for several minutes and he gave me the OK to share his contact info with the Ventura museum person. I did, but I’m sorry to say I don’t know what, if anything, came of the connection.
That was a little more than two years ago. Nick has since retired from the AP—in fact, he did so just recently. But he’s going to be at JANM on June 8 for a discussion about his life and career and you better believe I’m going to be there, too. I won’t have to tell anyone who Nick is—he’ll be telling them himself.
Volunteers are at the heart of the Japanese American National Museum, an institution that was founded through a tireless grassroots volunteer campaign. Today, volunteers continue to play a crucial role in the museum’s operations: leading docent tours and representing the museum to our visitors, staffing the Hirasaki National Resource Center, helping to count and restock inventory for the JANM Store, helping to organize the annual Gala Dinner and Silent Auction, and leading activities for the School Visits program, among numerous other tasks. Some of our volunteers are camp survivors or descendants of camp survivors, providing a critical link to the past.
To recognize the outstanding commitment of our volunteer corps, JANM annually gives out awards to those volunteers who went above and beyond the call of duty in helping the museum fulfill its mission. On May 13, 2017, awards for outstanding service in 2016 were announced during our special Volunteer Recognition Event.
Ben Furuta, who photographs many of our public programs, won the Administration Award, which recognizes outstanding service and achievement in an administrative/operational capacity. Sharlene Takahashi, one of our docents, received the Community Award, which is given for outstanding service and achievement in working with visitors, with the public, and in the community on behalf of the museum. The Program Award was given to Patricia Ishida and Linda Fujioka to recognize their outstanding service and achievement in educating visitors through public and school programs. And finally, the Miki Tanimura Outstanding Volunteer Award, named after a passionate volunteer who passed away tragically in 1992, was given to Ken Hamamura, who assists JANM in many different areas, including photo archiving and preparations for the last two National Conferences.
Volunteers also receive pins to recognize the number of years of service they have given to JANM. This year, pins were given out as follows: One Year—Noreene Arase, Yoshiko Ehara, Teri Lim, Melinda Logan, Keiko Miya, Michael Okuda, Sandra Saeki, William Teragawa, and Tomi Yoshikawa; Five Years—Peter Fuster and Kyle Honma; Ten Years—Terri Kishimoto, Carol Miyahira, Grace Yamamura, and Mas Yamashita; Fifteen Years—Eiko Masuyama, Fred Murakami, Julia Murakami, Larry Oshima, and Mitsuyo Tanaka; Twenty Years—Marge Wada; Twenty-Five Years—Kimiko Oriba, Bill Shishima, and Helen Yasuda.
As always, the staff at JANM thanks our volunteers from the bottoms of our hearts. Without their efforts, the museum would not be able to organize nearly as many programs or serve nearly as many visitors in its ongoing quest to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience.
For information about volunteering with JANM, please visit janm.org/volunteer or contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 213.830.5645.
JANM’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Gala Dinner and Silent Auction, happens this Saturday at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites. Among the many fantastic items that will be up for auction is the handmade quilt pictured here, a memorial to the World War II incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry created by JANM volunteer June Aoki in collaboration with her mentor, Maria Reza.
The quilt is sizeable, measuring 58 x 54 inches, and includes many wonderful details. A reproduction of a Civilian Exclusion Order, posted to inform Japanese Americans of their impending forced removal and incarceration, sits at its center, surrounded by photographs of all ten of the American concentration camps where they were housed for the duration of the war. A barbed-wire border encloses them. Images of notable persons and moments, as well as the Japanese saying gaman (perseverance or “keep on”), line each side.
In addition to the wonders of photo-printable fabric, the quilt is helped along by a suitcase-patterned fabric that Aoki happened to stumble across in a downtown fabric store. Seeing that the pattern evoked the suitcases carried by those bound for camp, who were limited to “only what you can carry,” Aoki used the fabric to make the quilt’s backing.
A former LAUSD schoolteacher, June Aoki has been volunteering at JANM since her retirement 15 years ago. Although both of her Kibei-Nisei (second generation, educated in Japan) parents were incarcerated at Poston, she herself avoided that fate because she happened to be in Japan at the time, being cared for by her grandparents. Born in California, Aoki went on to finish grade school and junior high school in Japan before rejoining her parents in the States.
Aoki, who has been quilting for as long as she’s been volunteering at JANM, recently joined a quilting group called TELAS (The East Los Angeles Stitchers). The group was largely working on religious imagery inspired by the Catholic backgrounds of many of its members. Since Aoki isn’t Catholic, she wondered what she could work on. Fellow member Maria Reza, who also happened to be Aoki’s former supervisor at LAUSD, suggested that she focus on elements of her own Japanese American history, and offered to help develop an idea.
The two met several times at the museum, and finally settled on “Executive Order 9066” as a central theme. Over the next two months, they worked together on the design and construction of the piece, enlisting several helpers along the way. Fellow TELAS member Gloria Flores did much of the quilting, while Alhambra quilter Sandra Kurosaki did the embroidery. JANM volunteer Henry Yasuda did the calligraphy for the gaman panel, and JANM Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee helped to find and sort through appropriate historical images.
Aoki initially offered to donate the quilt to JANM, but was told there was nowhere to hang it at the moment, and the quilt would wind up in storage. She decided instead to contribute it to the Silent Auction. If you are attending our sold-out dinner event this Saturday, be sure to bid early and often if you want a shot at this beautiful quilt!
New Frontiers: The Many Worlds of George Takei, which has been on view for a little over a month now, features a cornucopia of fascinating artifacts from the life of the noted actor, activist, and longtime friend and supporter of the Japanese American National Museum.
The exhibition, whose format was inspired by Takei’s role on the iconic Star Trek television and film series, is divided into five “voyages” exploring the many aspects of Takei’s life: his childhood spent in a World War II incarceration camp; his rise in Hollywood as a pioneering Asian American actor; his civic engagement and community activism; his groundbreaking all-APIA Broadway musical, Allegiance; and his current status as a social media icon.
George and his husband, Brad, have been collecting and organizing their various possessions for years. The 200 artifacts that are currently on view in New Frontiers represent just a small portion of The George & Brad Takei Collection, which was donated to JANM last year and is still being processed as we speak. During a recent Members Only Learning at Lunch event, Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee regaled an enthusiastic audience with tales of the 300 boxes and nearly 200 framed objects that she and her team collected from the Takei home. The exclusive gathering focused on a selection of objects that did not make it into the exhibition.
These included Boy Scout photos from George’s childhood, a personal scrapbook that George himself put together, samples of fan mail he has received, and a copy of the script for the January 15, 1987, episode of Miami Vice, on which George was a guest star. Wetherbee also shared a number of interesting stories that she heard during the process of reviewing the items at the Takei house.
If you have not yet seen the exhibition, we offer a few highlights in this blog post, along with a bonus image that was taken at the Learning at Lunch event. Note that another Learning at Lunch event will take place on June 3 and will also spotlight items from The George & Brad Takei Collection that did not make it into New Frontiers. If you are not yet a member, click here for information on how to join and enjoy great benefits like this one.
This Thursday evening, JANM hosts the latest edition of East West Players’ A Writer’s Gallery Reading, a semi-annual series featuring new work by Asian and Pacific Islander American writers. June is the First Fall, written by Yilong Liu and directed by Jeff Liu, follows a Chinese American gay man who returns home to Hawai‘i after a painful breakup. He must confront his sister, his father, and himself about an unspeakable past that separated them, and a tender family history that held them together.
Born and raised in Chongqing, China, Yilong Liu has an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Hawai‘i and is the recipient of a 2016 playwriting scholarship from East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Writers Institute (DHHWI) in conjunction with Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theatre (APAFT). His work has been produced or developed at Kumu Kahua Theatre, New York International Fringe Festival, New York Indie Theatre One Minute Play Festival, Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and Queens Theatre. We sat down with him via email to talk about his new play, and what it’s like to be a gay Asian writer.
JANM: I’m intrigued that the inspiration for this play is a portrait of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to immigrate to America. Moy was “imported” from China by two enterprising traders, who put her on display as a publicity stunt to sell more exotic Chinese goods. The portrait shows her surrounded by said goods. What was it about this portrait that inspired you?
Yilong Liu: The first time I saw this picture, I was taking a seminar on Asian American theatre history in grad school. We were talking about the performative elements of her “exhibition” and how those were founded on exoticism. However, other than her being exploited and objectified, I myself as someone who was born and brought up in China, wondered how she was feeling personally as someone who also came to the US as a young adult, whose worldview had probably been largely shaped already in her home country. Because essentially, the immigration experience for someone who comes here at a younger age and those who are older can be very different. There is much complexity and nuance in the Asian and Pacific Islander identity spectrum that is often lost in the way outsiders look at us. The challenges faced by various APIA and API immigrant groups are not all the same, so it is important and necessary to encourage a deeper understanding.
On the other hand, I also find myself responding to this image on an emotional level. Having worked as a Chinese instructor in Hawai‘i, I was touched by many of my second-generation Chinese American students’ stories. Their fathers, or grandfathers, travelled great distances back to China to get married, then started the long journey of bringing their families to the US, but it would take years and years before they could reunite again. And when they did, unlike the kids, who would continue their education in American schools, the mothers usually stayed at home and weren’t able to speak any English. What was it like for them? What did they do when the rest of the family all went to school or work? What were they thinking, when they were sitting quietly in their rooms, just waiting for the ones who meant the whole world to them to get home? I kept thinking about Afong Moy when I thought about them.
JANM: LGBTQ stories are a major focus of your work. Were you out when you lived in China, and if so, what was that like? How would you compare the LGBTQ scene in China with the experiences you’ve had since you’ve been in the States?
YL: I was out to my friends and some of my cousins back in China. Being in a tight-knit society and a whole generation of only children have definitely complicated the coming out process for LGBTQ youth back home. More often than not, the kids’ coming out of closets are likely to put their parents into “closets” instead. The parents will go through the stages of confusion, anger, and fear, and eventually struggle with whether they should and if so how to “come out” to their own extended family members, friends, and colleagues, because of the way Chinese and most Asian societies function. Therefore, many kids don’t want to inflict the same kind of pain they have gone through on their parents. In June is the First Fall, although coming out is not an issue, we can still feel how the father, influenced by Chinese and American culture at the same time, is dealing with his mixed feelings about his son’s sexuality.
JANM: I read in an article that you have already been made aware of the paucity of representation of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in American media/arts—for the APIA LGBTQ community, even more so. What kind of reception are you experiencing to your work, which is a very rare foregrounding of issues faced by these communities?
YL: Coming from China, where LGBTQ people as a marginalized group strive for visibility, understanding, and acceptance, I understand the significance of positive representations in arts/media. When I was a teenager, the only gay characters allowed on screens were almost always demonized, exaggerated, cartoonish, and heavily stereotypical. I found that distressing. The lack of representation—and the level of misrepresentation—make it even more difficult for people struggling with their sexuality, and will lead to unavoidable feelings of alienation and self-denial. I can only imagine when the situation is complicated by races, cultures, and politics.
So far, I think audiences have responded well and warmly to what I have to share. Being a bilingual writer, and brought up in the southwest of China, I find it specifically challenging but just as equally fun and rewarding when writing. I feel this urge, this responsibility, and this deep desire to write the stories I am telling, about queer people caught in between worlds, not only because it’s a way of empowerment, or that it’s even more needed in light of the recent political climate, but also because the stories are so beautiful and so heartbreaking that they deserve to be told. I feel audiences really respond to the perspective I bring in and the journey I am going through. They make me feel that my voice, although different and still raw, is appreciated and needed, and for that I am very grateful.
Join us for a reading of June is the First Fall this Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.