Notes from the Diaspora: an artist’s tales of joy and despair
Inspired by a once-hidden diary, artist Brenda Wong Aoki reveals ‘100 years of legalized racism’
In the 1950s, a vast area of some 60 blocks of the Western Addition in San Francisco was razed for new development. It was the second time that a vibrant community was practically destroyed and dispersed to the netherworlds of Bay Area suburbia.
That community around Fillmore was predominantly African American, but included Japanese Americans and Filipinos and, among other things, it was the heart of the San Francisco jazz scene.
The first time the Japanese American community was torn apart was in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor when Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066 forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of Issei and Nisei (immigrants and first generation-born Americans) to internment camps in the bleakest corners of America such as Poston, in the middle of an Arizona desert.
The destruction of community, and the need to preserve its collective and individual histories is the core thrust of storyteller, dancer and performance artist Brenda Wong Aoki’s new work Aunt Lily’s Flower Book: 100 Years of Legalized Racism, which recently played as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival.
The titular Lily is the aunt of Wong Aoki’s husband, Japanese American jazz musician Mark Izu. Discovering the hidden diary after Lily’s death opened a trove of unspoken memories and thoughts from this quiet woman who moved from Japan to the US at the age of 10 during the Depression.
Not speaking a word of English on arrival, she eventually became an articulate and moving chronicler, in English, of her life and times from community comfort in the 1930s, to internment camp trauma in the 1940s, to attempts at integration in postwar America.
Across the the course of the show we meet various characters, such as Izu’s father, who served in the US Army’s segregated 442nd regiment composed entirely of Japanese American soldiers, who fought in Europe, and remains to this day one of the most highly decorated outfits in the US military.
To this in-law narrative, Wong Aoki adds the equally if not more dramatic story of her own family. Her Japanese grandfather was a founder of San Francisco’s Japantown, while her Chinese grandmother was a leader of the first Chinatown garment workers’ union.
Her great uncle Gunjiro was a pastor in the city’s Grace Cathedral who scandalized San Francisco society by marrying a white woman. Their church eventually banished them and their children to Salt Lake City Utah with the mission impossible of converting Mormons to Presbyterianism.
On stage, accompanied by bass-playing husband Izu (who also composed most of the show’s score), and the masterful koto player Shoko Hikage, Wong Aoki channels the stories of her mixed families’ past against a backdrop of slides that variously display racist comments from the early 20th century press, the predictably stiff family portraits of the time, stark black and white photos of relocation and the bleak landscapes of Poston and its drab and rickety huts, and home movie footage of suburban family life in the 1950s and 1960s.
Her stories are both amusing – as a stunning young Asian American dancer, getting a gig on a Jefferson Starship music video which called for a leggy blonde – and tremendously moving, such as Aunt Lily’s account of the three-day train ride from San Francisco to the internment camp with no water, and only one serving of spoiled milk and moulding meat sausage.
Those circumstances, combined with the callous indifference of the military, caused the death of the newborn baby of her close friend Michi. After the war and to the end of her life, Michi would not see Lily because she reminded her of the tragedy.
Wong Aoki’s skill as a storyteller lies in navigating between the big and small stories to create a topography of emotions and connections. On a trip to Europe, she and Izu visit Bruyeres in France because they heard that is where his father saw action with the 442nd in World War Two.
In bad French, she explains to a bar owner who immediately understands, closes the bar, drives them deep into a forest and shows them a cliff face with a plaque which commemorates and thanks the sacrifice of “American soldiers of Japanese descent” in the liberation of their town.
This brightly told episode is darkened by an end note that the assault up the cliff led to the deaths of many of the 442nd soldiers who fell silently, not making a sound that could alert the enemy.
What is tragic, and the motivation for Wong Aoki’s piece, is that in America today it is all happening again.
The talk about internment camps for Muslims is shocking to the Japanese American survivors now in their 80s and 90s; the stirring of xenophobia to justify the closing of borders to Mexicans among others, has its deep roots in the Chinese exclusion acts of the 19th and 20th centuries; the nation’s continuing ingratitude to the ultimate sacrifice of US soldiers from repressed minorities whether from the 442nd to Captain Humayun Khan; the forgotten contributions that diverse communities have made to American life.
As storyteller, Wong Aoki has taken on the tales of struggle, sorrow and achievement – giving personality, individuality and dignity to communities that Donald Trump’s America – in a hark back to McCarthyism of the 1950s – would rather forget or demonize.