Evoking the Postwar Seattle Chinatown of John Okada

two buildings
A slide from the presentation of Dr. Marie Rose Wong

THERE ARE STORES on King Street, which is one block to the south of Jackson Street. Over the stores are hotels housed in ugly structures of brick more black than red with age and neglect. The stores are cafes and open-faced groceries and taverns and dry goods shops, and then there are the stores with plate glass windows painted green or covered with sun faded drapes. Some bear names of exporting firms, others of laundries with a few bundles on dusty shelves. A few come closer to the truth by calling themselves society or club headquarters.

Emily Lawsin and Frank Abe.
Emily Lawsin and Frank Abe. Photo by Emily Lawsin

The opening paragraph of Chapter Four from No-No Boy as read by moderator Emily Porcincula Lawson set the tone for the third and final panel November 19 of the Seattle Public Library’s celebration of the John Okada Centennial. It was a reminder of how the sense of place in the novel is so strong that it becomes like another character.

man with microphone
Shokichi Tokita, aka Shox. Photo by Emily Lawsin.

Our panelists brought both a warm personal connection to these places along with a scholarly one. Shox Tokita shared stories of growing up at the New Lucky Hotel owned and operated by his mother on South Weller Street, just a few doors down from the Pacific Hotel at 6th and Weller, which was managed by John Okada’s family upon their return to Seattle from confinement in Minidoka. Shox recalled he was most acquainted with John’s younger sister, Arlene. After helping mop the floors and learning light electrical and plumbing for maintenance, he would join friends heading to the Main Pool Hall on the ground floor of 507 South Main Street, the likely inspiration for the pool hall scene near the end of No-No Boy.

woman with microphone
Dolores Sibonga. Photo by Emily Lawin.

Former Seattle City Councilmember Dolores Sibonga — introduced by Emily as Madame Mayor — delivered a lyrical portrait of her teenage years among the Filipino community on King Street, with barber shops, meat markets, and taxi dance clubs, near where her family owned the Estigoy Cafe on Maynard and King. 

woman at podium
Dr. Marie Rose Wong. Photo by Emily Lawsin.

Dr. Marie Rose Wong provided a container for the personal stories with her study of the history of single-occupancy residential hotels in Seattle and Chinatown. Pick up her book from Chin Music Press, Building Tradition: Pan-Asian Seattle and Life in the Residential Hotels to get the full story on why so many Chinatown hotels were left to decay in the 1970s (hint: it was due to a city ordinance). 

Connie Okada and Shox Tokita
Connie Okada with Shox Tokita.

We were honored at the panel to have the presence of John Okada’s youngest sister, Connie Okada, who was born in 1943 inside Minidoka when her brother had already relocated out of camp to Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska. Connie was a child at the Pacific Hotel near the Tokita family and grew up to become the art librarian at the University of Washington Suzzallo Library.  

A question from the audience. Photo by Emily Lawsin.

This had to be the most warmly received and best-attended of the three panels in this series. I want to thank Stesha Brandon, the Literature & Humanities Program Manager of The Seattle Public Library, for the invitation to serve as guest curator this fall. It was a unique opportunity to bring John Okada and his story to the city that he so lovingly memorialized in fiction. Here is the Seattle Channel’s video of the entire program:

This program would not have been possible without the support of Stesha and The Seattle Public Library, The Seattle Public Library Foundation, and the Gary and Connie Kunis Foundation. Thanks to all who joined in honoring the legacy of one of Seattle’s great native sons.

four faces in circles

From Page to Stage: Adapting NO-NO BOY for Today’s Theater

Photo: Elaine Ikoma Ko

Many thanks to Seattle Rep Literary Manager and Dramaturg Paul Adolphsen for so expertly leading the October 24 panel on our work to adapt John Okada’s No-No Boy for the theater. This was the second in the series of panels I’ve been curating for the Seattle Public Library on the occasion of the John Okada Centennial.
Continue reading From Page to Stage: Adapting NO-NO BOY for Today’s Theater

Full house for kickoff of the John Okada Centennial

John Okada never received the recognition he deserved in his lifetime. Since then, his work has earned him a place in world literature. I’d like to think Okada would have been pleased to see the turnout in his hometown on the occasion of his 100th birthday and the kickoff of the John Okada Centennial celebration.

audience Continue reading Full house for kickoff of the John Okada Centennial

New adaptation of “NO-NO BOY” workshopped at Seattle Rep

binderOne-hundred years ago today, John Okada was born in Seattle. It’s also a day on which I can finally reveal that I’m developing the script for a new theater adaption of Okada’s landmark novel, No-No Boy.

Desdemona Chiang
Noted stage directgor Desdemona Chiang

For four days this week I’ve had the privilege of working with the Seattle Rep, our flagship regional theater, under the auspices of “The Other Season,” its New Plays series. The Rep hired the brilliant theater director Desdemona Chiang to work with me and a talented cast of professional Equity actors. Under union rules we were not allowed to advertise or talk about the workshop until it was over. Continue reading New adaptation of “NO-NO BOY” workshopped at Seattle Rep

The Seattle Public Library celebrates the John Okada Centennial

John Okada © Yoshito Okada familyNovelist John Okada would have been 100 years old had he lived to September 22, 2023. To celebrate his legacy and honor his work in writing the great Japanese American novel, The Seattle Public Library has engaged me to curate a series of programs around the John Okada Centennial.
Continue reading The Seattle Public Library celebrates the John Okada Centennial

Coming May 2024: The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration

Floyd Cheung and I are pleased to announce that our new anthology, The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration, will be published as a Penguin Classic on May 14, 2024. You can now pre-order the book from your neighborhood independent bookstore, or from one of these online sellers.

cover of Penguin anthology

I am grateful to Floyd for inviting me on this journey six years ago. We kicked it around and settled on the narrative arc to frame the 68 selections in the volume.  While we wait for the chance for you to see it, please add it to your Goodreads queue and online wish lists. We will be arranging local book events next spring and summer. In the meantime, we’ve just revised the online metadata to better describe its content:

The Literature of Japanese American Incarceration – Paperback – May 14, 2024

The collective voice of Japanese Americans defined by a specific moment in time: the four years of World War II during which the US government expelled resident aliens and its own citizens from their homes and imprisoned 125,000 of them in American concentration camps, based solely upon the race they shared with a wartime enemy.

This anthology presents a new vision that recovers and reframes the literature produced by the people targeted by the actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress to deny Americans of Japanese ancestry any individual hearings or other due process after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. From nearly seventy selections of fiction, poetry, essays, memoirs, and letters emerges a shared story of the struggle to retain personal integrity in the face of increasing dehumanization – all anchored by the key government documents that incite the action.

The selections favor the pointed over the poignant, and the unknown over the familiar, with several new translations among previously unseen works that have been long overlooked on the shelf, buried in the archives, or languished unread in the Japanese language. The writings are presented chronologically so that readers can trace the continuum of events as the incarcerees experienced it.

The contributors span incarcerees, their children born in or soon after the camps, and their descendants who reflect on the long-term consequences of mass incarceration for themselves and the nation. Many of the voices are those of protest. Some are those of accommodation. All are authentic. Together they form an epic narrative with a singular vision of America’s past, one with disturbing resonances with the American present.

In Memoriam: Martha Nakagawa, resistance storyteller

This is one of the hardest things I’ve had to contemplate writing. These In Memoriam posts have mostly been devoted to celebrating the lives and marking the passage of Nisei wartime resisters and those whose lives they’ve touched. I know I’m not alone in still being in a state of shock at having to memorialize the life of someone so young and vital as Martha Nakagawa of Los Angeles.
Continue reading In Memoriam: Martha Nakagawa, resistance storyteller

Finding the true location of the Tule Lake Stockade

Hiroshi holding photoThe Tule Lake Stockade was “an instrument of terror in camp. You could be arrested with no hearing and no charge, just picked up. You didn’t know who you could talk to safely, or what to say. If you were picked up, what you said was the reason. And whoever heard that might be the inu who informed on you. This created real paranoia in camp.”
Continue reading Finding the true location of the Tule Lake Stockade

Putting John Okada on the Seattle Literary Map

mapThanks to Seattle City of Literature, we’ve put John Okada on the map — the Seattle Literary Map

It’s with good reason that Seattle is one of two U.S. cities to be designated as a UNESCO City of Literature. Besides our active literary scene, it was the birthplace or home to some of America’s most notable writers, including the author of No-No BoyContinue reading Putting John Okada on the Seattle Literary Map

The history and literature of Japanese American resistance to wartime incarceration

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