A Shadow Following the Light in the Little Tokyo River
by Jeff Chop. Posted June 22, 2022.
Every year, I wait for rain.
Hard to imagine Little Tokyo as a place, where people once lived in huts made with bushes. Trails with no tire tracks, no streets, and no noise. Before skyscrapers, the people living here, knew about earthquakes. They didn’t build with steel and concrete, just reeds and bushes. Less than a mile away, a village called “Yangna,” was home to the “Tongva” or “Kizh”(the people who made reed houses). Yangna, near the Los Angeles River, thrived for thousands of years. Earlier in time, saber tooth tigers and giant sloths, roamed Little Tokyo, when it was a wild place before the first man, evidenced by finds in the La Brea Tarpits. And before the massive cats, the ocean covered Little Tokyo. Fossil whale bones are commonly found, even today, during construction of Los Angeles, revealing a deep, rich past life. Perhaps, the Japanese pioneers felt the presence of all who lived here and that made them want to find refuge in this corner of Los Angeles.
Walking down 3rd Street, a flicker of light from a second story, reminded me of Bob, Duane and Eddie housed in a warehouse, gathering creative young Asians and creating Visual Communications(VC), the first Asian American media group. VC made “Hito Hata,” in 1980, the first modern feature length film made by and about Asians in America. My mind, dives deeper in the rain waters, vivid scenes of the Spanish invaders washed down splashes of rain. The Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in ships in 1519, convinced they would find golden cities. After plundering Central and South America, in 1542, Spanish kings granted enormous land grants to the favored. The invaders ventured into California, building “haciendas” on the land grants from San Diego to San Francisco for next 200 years. Twenty-one missions from San Diego to San Francisco were built, exploiting the natives to sustain these missions and keeping the natives from their own beliefs.
Tables would turn. The California gold, the Spanish never found, was waiting in rivers. The California Gold Rush would bring Americans and make a nightmare for the first conquerors. I blink, walking on, for a moment, the rain silenced the horror unfolded. Another heart stopping scene plays in my mind. On 2nd Street, I could hear the English patter of Americans, the Whiteman cometh, carrying torches and weapons, a mob attacking any Chinese in sight, a riot in this shabby rundown part of town, a few blocks away from Little Tokyo, turning into a killing field. A rumor of a white stabbed by a Chinese brought out a mob to burn and loot Chinatown, killing 14 including a kid and a doctor. The “Chinatown Massacre.” Chinatown is a mile away from Little Tokyo.
I looked down the street, in the ’30s, when the City Hall was built, right across the street, Little Tokyo’s largest department store was on Main Street. In a few years, the city would take that department store and the whole block around it and expand City Hall. This was a time when Japanese people were just getting respect in the eyes of the establishment, the white world.
What the rain allows me to remember, since the 1930’s, with the Nisei (the second generation) with the heritage of being Americans, they wanted a show, a parade, a celebration, events for a week with beauty queens, dancers, drummers and, how about, with Charlie Chaplin, the first superstar of Hollywood? The future was bright! In 1900, there were fewer than a hundred Japanese in all of Los Angeles. The first generation, the Issei were mainly farmers. In 30 years, the Issei spawned the Nisei, born and raised as Americans. This generation became baseball players, college students, musicians, teachers and business owners. The Nisei had the gumption to organize the Nisei Week parade. A showcase of Japanese American lives. In August, coinciding with Obon and Tanabata, a 1000 years of tradition, now, was here in America on First Street. Not only a parade but beauty pageants, cooking demonstrations, baby contests and other carnival activities. As Americans, the Nisei showed their pride. With this event, perhaps white and other tourist will venture into the Little Tokyo. Charlie Chaplin came to the first Nisei Week parade. No one snapped a picture of him in the final night’s Ondo but his spirit validated the community celebration. Nisei Week was the Japanese opening their hearts to all of Los Angeles.
In the summer of 1941, Mayor Fletcher Bowron was the honored guest of the Nisei Week Parade. In the shadow of the growing war in the Far East, the mayor proclaimed, “We know you are loyal.” The Los Angeles Times encouraged readers to enjoy Little Tokyo: “Japanese Americans had no part in and no responsibility for causing war clouds to gather in the Orient.” But on December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In following days, Mayor Bowron lead the hysteric charge. “Right here in our own city,” he warned, “there are those who may spring into action at an appointed time in accordance with a prearranged plan.” Bowron screamed, “Concentration camps for the Japs.”
Yangna in the rain. I could imagine 3rd Street and San Pedro, old trees planted by the ancients, providing shade from the brutal sun. A natural sanctuary from the hot dry summer heat. Today, no refreshing grove of trees exists in Little Tokyo. Undoubtedly, droughts came for Yangna., But the Kizh, endured for 10,000 years. Is rain enough to quench the land today, in the worst drought, ever known in California?
I dream on, in the night of rain.
The land was at peace. In a flash of lightning, the Tongva were evicted from their lands. In a second flash, even the mighty Mexican land owners had they lands stolen. Los Angeles became America. But not all who lived here, were thought of as Americans. Pearl Harbor was bombed, and the entire Japanese population of Japanese were blamed for this act of war. No Japanese American was ever convicted of acts of treason against America.
In a strange moment, after 1942, Little Tokyo with no Japanese was empty and with a war machine to build, jobs were plentiful. African Americans were lured to Los Angeles to work in the war machine factories. Little Tokyo became “Bronzeville.” African Americans made a home. Music and clubs sprung up, after hour jazz clubs with the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and all the hep cats of Bebop.
a rain garden in my heart.
I paused in the Japanese Village Plaza, admiring all the sharp colors of neon and brightly lit stores and cafes, wishing there was one ice cream store open. On this quiet night on 1st Street, I imagined an August night, Nisei Week Parade, happy people laughing, munching on Fugetsu Do’s mochi, Mitsuri Sushi and Grill’s bentos, as a Taiko group filled the air with thunder pounding drums, with graceful Ondo dancers. In silence, crossing First Street, near the temple hidden down an alley, I wondered, in the time of Bronzeville, did Far East Cafe cook collard greens, black eyed peas and smothered chicken? I could only dream. In the rain, looking across San Pedro Street and First Street, almost close to where the Finale Club once stood, a sad soggy homeless encampment rose, surrounding the entrance to Judge Aiso Parking, the metro bike stand and Toriumi Plaza.
In a blaze of lights, I go back to the present. I live here and everyday, I go out, I see a familiar face. Little Tokyo is a little worn down these days, but there is still life. I can eat good sushi or ramen or coffee, pizza, Dulce’s treats and shop at three markets. I walk to the Japanese American National Museum, East West Players, the 442nd memorial, the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, which is now the Go for Broke Museum. And despite a large part of Little Tokyo becoming the Arts District, it is a cool part of Little Tokyo. I can even ride a bike, take a light rail or shuttle bus to Union Station. Chinatown is close. Olvera Street. The Broad. The Museum of Contemporary Art. The Chinese American Museum. A Siqueiro’s mural. Street art. In 1942, the internment began for many, right outside the Union Church, at Central and 1st Street. And a block away, an amazing art piece of stones. In the rain, my shadow followed the neat bricks of the stately plaza of the Japanese American Cultural Community Center, designed by Isamu Noguchi, a native of Los Angeles. The Plaza is the first and only public installation created by Noguchi in his hometown. It was a good night and I was glad that I live here. Certainly, there is plenty to eat. Where else can you get the Yokohama treat, Okonimiyaki?
A rainy night inspired me to make A SHADOW FOLLOWING THE LIGHT IN THE LITTLE TOKYO RIVER, a short visual tone poem of my home. The echos of Bronzeville and the Finale Club inspired me to compose the score. Visual Communication’s Digital Histories, a film making project for seniors, gave me the space to make this film and show the work in the 2022 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Author’s Bio: Born restless in Oakland Chinatown. Swim team Oakland Tech. Asian Student Union. Chinese Progressive Association. I Wor Kuen(IWK). League of Revolutionary Struggle(LRS). Got arrested at SF State and fought for the I-Hotel. Commercial salmon and crab fisherman in Puget Sound. Explored the Yangtze River to two sources with National Geographic. Ran the LA Marathon twice. 100th Boston Marathon once. Raised a daughter. Visual Communication’s Chilivision, only two time back to back chili champion.