The Olympics are a celebration of pride — so we should never forget the JA who set records in the 1950s

(Photo courtesy of the Center for Sacramento History Sacramento Bee Archives)

(Photo courtesy of the Center for Sacramento History Sacramento Bee Archives)

I’ve been watching the Olympics when I get tired of obsessing about the presidential campaigns. I’ve been a fan of the Olympic games since I was just a kid – I remember vividly watching the 1964 games in Tokyo when my family lived in Japan.

I was not quite 7 years old at the time, and the coolest part of that year’s competition was that my dad took the whole family on a day trip on the new “Shinkansen” Bullet Train, the fastest in the world, from Tokyo to Osaka and back. I remember the hubbub over the Olympics because Japan was even more hyped about that year than the Tokyo games coming up in 2020.

In October of 1964, Japan was to host its first-ever Summer Olympics. The honor was originally scheduled for 1940, but those games had been first oved to Helsinki, then cancelled entirely because of the conflict already engulfing Europe and the tensions with Japan over its invasion of China, a major step towards the start of World War II in 1941.

After its defeat in 1945, Japan had been focused on rebuilding and modernizing, and by 1964, the country was ready to show itself off as a member of the world’s first tier of nations. Facilities including an iconic stadium were built, and the entire country, not just the city, was abuzz with anticipation.

We didn’t see any of the games live, but I remember we watched every day on our flickering black and white television sets.

Later from the US, we watched the 1972 Winter Olympics which were held in Sapporo, Japan – the first winter games to be held in Japan. My mom is from Hokkaido, the prefecture where Sapporo is, so we were glued to the (color) TV for those games.

The Olympics is a showcase of the world’s greatest athletes, but let’s face it, it’s also a chance for all of us to feel proud of our own countries (or countries where we have roots). There’s an element of patriotism that creeps close to nationalism. I’m proud of the US athletes who’ve medaled in Rio de Janeiro, especially the athletes of color who are making their mark on the world stage, or track, or court, or pool. And who isn’t amazed by Michael Phelps, who’s overcome personal adversity to extended his legacy to retire on top of the swimming world?

But fame is fleeting, and some of the greatest athletes in the world can become forgotten heroes over time.

How many people know the name Tommy Kono today? A Nisei athlete who was unknown at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, he won the Gold in weightlifting and set a new Olympic record while he was at it – by 20 pounds more than his closest rival, from Russia. But today?

When TV reporter Ryan Yamamoto saw the name Tommy Kono in 2012, he wondered, “who?”

Unfortunately, most people today might ask the same question about Tommy Kono. But thanks to Yamamoto and his wife and fellow TV reporter Suzanne Phan, Kono’s legacy has been captured in a half-hour documentary, “Arnold Knows Me: The Tommy Kono Story,” that’s making the rounds this month on PBS stations across the country, just in time for the Rio Summer Olympics.
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Meet Leroy Chiao, a real-live AAPI astronaut

Note: This post was originally published on AARP’s AAPI Community Facebook page.

26-_MGL0235“The Martian” starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet curiously won the Golden Globe Award in December as the best musical or comedy (hint: it’s really not either, though there’s some funny lines) but on Oscar night, despite being nominated for six awards; the Academy Awards left the movie stranded.

The lack of awards hasn’t hurt the film, which is also now available on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming services. It’s a commercial hit.

But it took some critical hits when it was originally released in 2015, because two of its characters, who were Asian American in the bestselling book by Andy Weir, were played by Caucasian and African American actors on the big screen.

The switch was called “whitewashing” by Asian American groups who accused director Ridley Scott of depriving Asian American actors of significant roles. Both characters kept their Asian names from the book – one NASA scientist is named “Park” and her background is never explained while the other is named “Kapoor” and is explained in the film as half black and half South Asian.

The lack of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Hollywood is an old complaint, and especially in the science fiction genre. George Takei’s “Sulu” in the 1960s Star Trek series and subsequent films is a big exception. As an example, the “Star Wars” franchise features scant few Asian faces (unless they’re ugly aliens who dress and sound vaguely Asian). It’s as if in the future, Asians just never make it into space.

That lack of role models didn’t stop Leroy Chiao, who is one of only a handful of Asian Americans who have flown in space as a NASA astronaut. He flew on three Space Shuttle flights and was Commander of the Expedition 10 crew and lived on the International Space Station.

Chiao grew up in the Baby Boomer era when Asians weren’t generally included in mainstream American culture (except as the Chinese cook in “Bonanza,” the POW houseboy in “McHale’s Navy” and Kato, the martial arts-fighting chauffeur in “Green Hornet”). So he didn’t really think he was being ignored with the lack of role models.

He didn’t need an Asian role model to find his calling: after he watched Neil Armstrong make his historic moonwalk, young Chiao was hooked.

“When we landed on the moon in 1969, I was 8 years old. I was building model airplanes and model rockets even before we landed. When we landed, I thought ‘wow, that’s where I want to be.’ That’s where it started in my mind.”
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George Takei’s “Allegiance” is a timely historical musical for today

AllegiancePlay

After a November performance at the Longacre Theatre in New York’s fabled Broadway district, AARP members were invited for a “talkback” with George Takei and other cast members answering questions about their powerful musical, “Allegiance.” (NOTE: This post was riginally uploaded to the AARP AAPI Community Facebook page.)

“I remember we started the school day, each day, with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. I could see the barbed wire fence and the sentry tower right outside my school house window as I recited the words, ‘with liberty, and justice for all.’”

Takei recalled his experience as a child, sent with his entire family to a concentration camp along with more than 110,000 people of Japanese descent – including, like Takei, half who were born in the US and therefore American citizens – during World War II.

Now, at age 78, Takei is pledging again, making his Broadway debut in “Allegiance,” which tells the story of Japanese American incarceration inspired by Takei’s childhood. The parallels between the 1940s incarceration and the national mood today are striking. The news is filled with politicians speaking out against accepting refugees from the Middle East, and some are stoking a palpable fear within the public over Muslims.

Takei has spoken out eloquently on his vast social media networks in response to the hate-filled climate – he even invited David Bowers, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia to come see a performance of “Allegiance” after the mayor announced he didn’t want any Syrian refugees in his city, and cited the Japanese American incarceration as a model. The mayor said the threat from ISIS via refugees is “just as real and serious as that from our enemies then.”

Takei criticized the mayor for his “galling lack of compassion” and added, “…one of the reasons I am telling our story on Broadway eight times a week in ‘Allegiance’ is because of people like you. You who hold a position of authority and power, but you demonstrably have failed to learn the most basic of American civics or history lessons. So Mayor Bowers, I am officially inviting you to come see our show, as my personal guest. Perhaps you, too, will come away with more compassion and understanding.”

Educating the public about what happened to Japanese Americans during World War II, when 120,000 people of Japanese heritage (half were US-born American citizens) were removed from the West Coast and sent to nine concentration camps as far east as Arkansas, is one of Takei’s lifelong goals. His family spent the war years in Rowher, Arkansas.

“I’m always shocked when I tell the story (of Japanese American incarceration) to people that I consider well-informed,” he said, “and they’re shocked and aghast that sometime like this could happen in the United States. It’s still little-known. So, it’s been my mission to raise the awareness of this chapter of American history.”

“Allegiance” accomplishes Takei’s goal with Broadway grandeur that matches any hit musical, with songs that soar and tug at heartstrings, tight choreography and a storyline that is familiar to many Japanese Americans, but not to the public at large.
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Meet Frank Jang and the Chinatown Photographic Society

Frank Jang at the Chinatown Photographic Society in San Francisco.

Frank Jang at the Chinatown Photographic Society in San Francisco.

As a visitor walks down the steps to the gallery space, he’s greeted by the buzz of people discussing photography. Bright lighting illuminates dozens of great photographs mounted, framed and arranged on the walls. Photographers are looking through their portfolios of work, giving each other advice. In a separate room, a group of photographers is crouched around a computer screen, clicking through images and discussing which is best.

This is the Chinatown Photographic Society (CPS) in San Francisco, and it’s a hub of creative energy, humming with purpose and resulting in an incredible high level of artistic work on the walls.

And, surprisingly, most of the photographers in the room are 50+. Many of the Society’s members are in their 60s, 70s and 80s. The oldest member is 94. He, along with several other current members, were on hand at the start, when the CPS was formed 48 years ago. Just think: in 1967 San Francisco was in the throes of “The Summer of Love” and Chinatown was the undisputed center of Northern California’s Chinese community and culture.
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Veronica Li’s “Confucius Says” will resonate with Asian American families

7-30-2015 11-26-10 AM“Confucius Says” is an engaging novel about Cary, a Chinese American woman who takes in her aging parents largely because of the ancient cultural values and traditions expressed by Confucius, about filial piety and respect for elders.

She has siblings who live far from northern Virginia where she lives, so she becomes the primary caregiver as the novel follows her parents’ slow deterioration and her Caucasian husband’s (and dog’s) struggle to accept this role she has taken on.

Asian Americans will recognize much of their own lives and family dynamics in this serious but often quite funny, and always thought-provoking story.

Veronica Li, the author, recognizes herself, and her parents, who moved in with her.

“It’s completely based on my experience with my parents,” she says. “The reason I did not write it as a memoir, all memoirs written by caregivers is written purely from their point of view.”

In fact, the first draft of the book was written as a memoir.

“When I was writing it I was so depressed,” she admits. “Aging is not fun, as we all know. There were episodes at the ER, the ICU, one after the other.”

She finally realized she could free herself from her personal perspective and have the freedom to tell the same story within a larger, more expressive narrative. So she fictionalized the characters and changed situations to suit the overall wisdom she was trying to share about her experiences.

“It was a very important part of this equation,” she says. “I wanted to have my parents have their say. This was for a selfish reason: Today I’m the caregiver. Tomorrow, I will be the care receiver. So I decided to make this a novel. (Now I’m) telling the story from the omniscient viewpoint of the narrator. I can get into each person’s head and tell each of their point of view.”
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