Tag Archives: Japanese-Americans

Movie Review: “East L.A. Interchange” – A Documentary

east la interchange

Does a documentary film about the Hispanic community of Boyle Heights shy away from tackling the major issue of the day?

Boyle Heights, a community just east of downtown Los Angeles, is a very interesting place. When I lived in Los Angeles, I would often head there on the weekend to make use of the parks, eat at the fine hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or soak up the multicultural feel of the community. “The Heights” was once known as the “Ellis Island of the West” because of its multiracial nature (it was once the largest Jewish community on the West Coast until the end of World War II), but tensions have hit the barrio. As the Los Angeles Times (“Gentrification pushes up against Boyle Heights – and vice versa”; March 6, 2016) recently noted: “Once the landing spot not only for Mexicans, but also for Japanese, Russians, Italians, and Jews, Boyle Heights has long been perceived as a neighborhood sitting on the brink of the next metamorphosis.”

Yes, the dreaded Spanish word gentefication, or gentrification in English, has now struck. Like Brooklyn, Sacramento (Oak Park), and San Francisco (The Mission District), Boyle Heights is trying to decide whether it wants to be old, interracial, and comfortable; or hip, progressive, and an expensive place to live. Community activists vociferously argue that there are too many art galleries in the city and they rail against the replacement of neighborhood bars by overly cool brew pubs.

brooklyn theater boyle heights

Against this background, I had high hopes for the documentary East L.A. Interchange, a one-hour documentary film narrated by actor Danny Trejo. It’s a film that’s currently being screened at selected colleges. To my eyes, it’s a missed opportunity.

One problem is the title. East L.A. Interchange leads people to think this is either a program about East Los Angeles – which is just east of Boyle Heights, or about the Los Angeles freeways. A better title might have been La Colonia: Boyle Heights.

I will return to the problematic issue of gentrification. What Interchange does well is to deal with the history of Boyle Heights, as heard mostly from U.S.C. professors. And one of the intriguing points made in the documentary is that social discrimination issues began to ease as the predominantly Mexican-American students at Roosevelt High School began to learn about the history of their city: “One of the cradles of Mexican-American culture in the U.S.” Knowledge precedes pride.

To its credit, Interchange is not only well researched but beautifully filmed. And yet its Achilles heel is that the documentary refuses to take a stance on the key issue of gentrification. We learn that Jews first left the community, then Russians were forced out by freeway construction, and now the low to middle-income Hispanics who live in Boyle Heights are threatened by newly prosperous Hispanics and rich hipsters.

BH protest

In order to afford a typical new housing unit in the area, one needs an income of $90,000 and above. Yet the median household income in the Heights is $41,821. It’s a big problem and results in stress, grief and anger. As one current resident states, in Spanish: “I would like it to stay just as it is.” Gentrification, of course, will make this impossible.

The creators of Interchange, after illustrating how the poor have been displaced from the area in the past, inform the viewer that 1,187 affordable housing units are scheduled to be destroyed and replaced by 4,400 new and pricey units. And yet, even after imparting this information, they remain neutral.

The documentary asks the question, “What constitutes beneficial (versus harmful) development?” but fails to answer it. Instead, at its conclusion we hear an elderly Jewish gentleman assure us that, despite recent changes in the neighborhood, everything will be alright. It’s hardly convincing.

Boyle Heights

One key statement heard in Interchange is, “We’re not trying to get out of the barrio. We’re trying to bring the barrio up.” Fine, but in life one must ultimately choose between stasis and change. In electing to support neither the status quo nor change – neither the past nor progressivism, East L.A. Interchange loses its raison d’etre.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was provided access to a press screener. The film was directed by Betsy Kalin.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

Movie Review: ‘East L.A. Interchange’ – A Documentary

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All the Way from Memphis

Nightingale Palace 2

The Secret of the Nightingale Palace: A Novel by Dana Sachs (William Morrow, $14.99, 346 pages)

By the time the train arrived in New York City… Goldie Rubin Feld was ready. Somehow, through the force of her will, the past had grown smaller and smaller in her mind until, finally, it disappeared.

If you loved the novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, you owe it to yourself to check out the second novel by author Dana Sachs (If You Lived Here). As with Hotel, Sachs’ story deals with Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II and afterward. In Hotel, the city of Seattle served as the stage on which the story’s events took place; in Nightingale Palace, the city of San Francisco – past and present – serves as the primary stage.

As the story opens, thirty-five-year-old Anna is called to New York City by her grandmother Goldie – a relative she has not spoken to in five years. Anna is a widow and has never quite forgiven her grandmother for the way she spoke so poorly and disrespectfully about Anna’s late husband Ford while he was alive. Goldie is Jewish, in her eighties, twice-widowed, rich – she owns a Rolls Royce, and is extremely inflexible and demanding. Goldie wants Anna to drive her across the country to San Francisco in the Rolls Royce she’s named Bridget. Goldie left San Francisco in 1944, and she wants to return some artwork to a member of the Nakamura family. The Nakamuras lived in, and maintained, the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park befor they were rounded up and placed in a relocation camp.

Anna agrees to her grandmother’s unusual request because she’s become frozen in her grief and has no idea what’s going to happen to her next. Both Anna and Goldie seem to sense that something will occur during the cross-country adventure that will provide an impetus for Anna to decide what she wants and needs out of her life. (Ford has been dead for two years. Anna is alive, but barely so.) At the very least, it’s going to get her out of Memphis and give her the opportunity to see how other people live.

All that matters is elegance.

This is not a novel that can be read quickly, or should it be. Sachs has a great sense of style and elegance in the way she writes and it must be appreciated. Here’s an example:

…then, without fail, Henry (Nakamura) would pull out whatever beautiful object he had brought to the store and show it to her. Goldie would become transfixed. Carefully his slender hands would open a box, unfold a velvet wrapper, unwind a leather strap from an ivory clasp. Goldie would become almost immobile with pleasure. She would remember experiencing similar sensations when she was a child, watching her mother braid her older sisters’ hair, or do needlework, her fingers piercing the fabric as rhythmically as a musician strumming a guitar. For some reason, observing the fine, precise movements of someone else’s hands gave Goldie a peculiar, almost physical delight. When those hands were Henry’s, though, the experience became exquisite… those moments spent gazing at his hands moving across a little tea set or carved wooden box offered, for Goldie, a fleeting but almost divine consolation.

Nightingale Palace offers up, in the form of a novel, life’s lessons. These are lessons that in earlier times we might have learned from our elders. The story teaches us that everyone finds happiness and fulfillment in their own way, regardless of race, age, sexual preference, religion. It also teaches us that love is not always lost and that every new day holds out the promise of something better.

Something good might happen today.

We all have a chance to be happy here.

The unforeseen ending of Nightingale Palace is life-affirming and uplifting. It brings to mind the truth of Jackson Browne’s words, that sometimes it would be easier to change the future than the past.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the author.

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics Books site:

http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-the-secret-of-the/

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Homeward Bound

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (Berkley Trade, $15.00, 352 pages)

dilloway housewife

“The person I used to be could have only made one choice; the grown up (me) might have made a different one.   That was how life was.   You only figured out the right thing after you were too old.”

This is a finely told story of two persons and two cultures.   It may well appeal to those who loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford or The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz.   The many fans of Lisa See are also likely to be drawn to it.

This is, first, the story of Shoko, a young woman in Japan at the end of World War II who marries an American G.I. – one of the many occupiers of her island nation – and then moves with him to San Diego.   In the USA she finds great prosperity, but also some loneliness accompanied by discrimination.   Her transformation is assisted by a guidebook, printed in Japanese and English, labeled How to Be an American Housewife.

The character of Shoko is based on the author’s mother, Suiko O’Brien, who told Dilloway that “her life would make a great book.”   It does, and Shoko relied on a book that her American husband had given to her called The American Way of Housekeeping.

The second story is the tale of Shoko’s southern California-raised daughter, Sue, a character who might be reflective of some of the author’s own experiences growing up.   Sue is a divorced mother who perhaps does not properly appreciate her own mother until Shoko begin to experience serious health problems.   Shoko understands that her time on earth may be short and she wants nothing more than to visit her estranged brother Taro in a village in Japan, one not too far from Nagasaki.

As children Taro and Shoko were told that they shared the blood of the Emperor’s royal family.   When Shoko, attempting to live on her own as a young woman, begins to spend time with a lower-caste man, Taro sees this as bringing shame upon their family.   He vows to never forgive her, and Taro also hates the Americans who bombed his country; thus, Shoko’s marriage to an American (a”Charlie”) is another sign of Shoko’s betrayal to family and country.

Once its determined that the elderly Shoko needs a life-saving heart operation, she is set on convincing Sue to visit Japan in her stead.   She wants Sue to find Taro and deliver to him a request and a message.   This may be the final thing that Shoko asks of her daughter and Sue elects to honor her mother’s wishes.

One one level this is about persons of one culture trying to find acceptance and peace in another one, one that is initially alien (“San Diego had become a foreign nation…”).   This is true of a Japanese woman suddenly transported to the U.S. and of her daughter who, several decades later, finds herself in older parts of Japan.   Shoko eventually finds the peace to state, “I became an American…”   Sue makes a transformational journey to the Land of the Rising Sun with her own daughter and she finds that she’s “homesick” for a place she’s never been to before.

On a second level, this is about the interest and spice that’s added to life when one accepts cultures, and the habits, traditions and foods of “the others.”   In the end, the differences between us add to our experiences rather than subtract from them.   Dilloway’s story is a much-needed tribute to multiculturalism.   It is a telling that is an extremely effective one precisely because it includes examples of the sad destruction brought about by hating and fearing those who are different from us.

And finally, this is a tale of forgiveness.   It is one thing for Taro to be asked to forget the mistakes he and his sister made while they were young; it may be another to ask him to forgive a nation whose planes shot at him and dropped bombs on his village during the 1940s.   Yet, because Shoko married an American serviceman the issues become joined in his mind and heart.

The best scene in How to Become an American Housewife is the one in which Sue’s Japanese relatives take her to visit the Peace Park in Nagasaki, ground zero for the dropping of the second atomic bomb.   When the bomb exploded over Nagasaki, Taro and Shoko were close enough in the nearby village to see the lights from the explosion and hear the sound.   As Sue walks through the park, she comes to understand the horror of war, the terror of how it ended, and the fact that nothing can change the past.

Dilloway’s characters come to understand, as we all must, that the pain of yesterday is no reason to destroy the present.   This debut novel is an impressive tribute to one woman, a mother, who lived a true and large life.   It is also a tribute to the best characters of people in two very different countries who, separately yet together, seek to find comfort in the noisy turbulence of life.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Free Food for Millionaires

free-food

Free Food for Millionaires: A Novel by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing, $9.99, 592 pages)

This is a fascinating novel by Min Jin Lee, but then it would have to be to pull a reader through its 560 pages.   The telling of the story, though, has its faults which helps to explain the divergent reviews upon its initial release.   One reviewer found it to be “extraordinary,” another found it to be the “best novel” he’d read in a long time, and another said it was “a pleasure” to read.   But Kirkus Reviews decided that it was “fitfully entertaining but not extraordinary.”   Well, perhaps this is a story that the reader simply loves or can do without…

Millionaires is set within the multi-generational Korean-American community that inhabits the Bronx and Manhattan boroughs of New York City.   This is primarily the story of one Casey Han who graduates from Princeton and may serve as the alter ego of the author, a Yale and Georgetown Law graduate.   Casey finds that her Ivy League degree fails to open the doors of success for her, and she knows and believes that she’s seen as a failure by her parents.   She’s also unlucky in love which calls forth one of the issues with this initial novel from author Lee.   There’s far more soap opera than needed, and it seems that every adult who occupies the story cheats on a loved one (spouse or partner) and then feels compelled to confess his/her infidelity.   This seems just a bit over the top.

To her credit, Lee inhabits the tale with numerous fascinating characters, about equally divided between Korean-Americans and non-Koreans.   The main character, Casey, works on Wall Street – underemployed for her level of education – and comes into contact with Type A Caucasians and super-ambitious Korean-Americans.   One would think, however, that in the real business world some of the Asians in the city would happen to be Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc.

Then there’s the conflict and tension that the author seems to feel about her own people.   There are many – probably too many – negative statements made about Koreans; some stereotypes, some quite troubling.   Here’s a sampling:

“Everything with Koreans, Casey thought, was about avoiding shame…”

“Korean people like her mother and father didn’t talk about love, about feelings…”

“… Casey was an American, too – she had a strong desire to be happy and to have love, and she’d never considered such wishes to be Korean ones.”

“… she came from a culture where good intentions and clear talk wouldn’t cover all wounds.”

“This is why I never work with Koreans.   They are so goddam stuck.   You must choose yourself over the group.”

There’s also an instance where Casey thinks about Korean weddings and the “five hundred uninvited guests” who show up at them.   Ah, well, maybe Lee felt the need to include some material to get the novel some attention.   In this respect, it probably worked.

The story is actually much more about the conflict between the “old country” family members, and the younger “new country” and “American” relatives who view the world very differently.   In this respect, it could have been set among any multi-generational ethnic group.   In the end, both love and forgiveness – massive doses of each – are required to get past the intra-family differences that exist.

The author is talented and I look forward to her next work, which hopefully will be less narrow in scope.   Free Food for Millionaires…   flawed…   recommended…  but just barely.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

Note:   Thank you to Daniel D. Holt, co-author of Korean At A Glance: Second Edition, for providing technical assistance on this review.free food 3

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We’re extending a contest…

Hotel on the corner audioAs we announced on October 16, 2009, we have an autographed trade paperback copy of the novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet to give away.   This story by Jamie Ford, set in Seattle, is rated 4 stars out of 5 by Google Books which means it’s well worth adding to your collection!   We’re extending the entry deadline until midnight PDT on Tuesday, October 27, 2009.   The giveaway rules are quite simple…   Just send your name and e-mail address to: josephsreviews@gmail.com.   This will constitute one entry.   To be entered a second time just complete this sentence: “Seattle is famous for_______________.”  

If you want or need additional details on this contest, just scroll down to re-examine the original posting of October 16th.   Thanks and good reading!

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A Bittersweet Story

hotel kindle

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (Ballantine Books, $15.00, 301 pages)

“Sometimes you just have to go for it.   Try for what’s hardest to accomplish.”

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a charming tale about what’s hardest to accomplish – accepting the choices one has made in life.   The story is about Henry Lee, a Chinese-American boy who attends a white school in Seattle during World War II.   There he meets Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl (born in the U.S.A.) who becomes the love of his life before she’s taken away to an internment camp.   Henry vows to wait forever for Keiko’s return only to marry another – the mother of his son – while thinking each day about what’s happened to the beautiful Keiko.

Life goes on until 1986 when the long-closed Panama hotel – a place where Japanese-Americans lived in the 1940’s – is scheduled for renovation.   Then things are found…  things which belonged to the families that were forced to leave with only a single bag per family member.   These events prompt Henry to re-examine his life and his choices and to commit himself to finally finding Keiko.

The author Jamie Ford is himself Chinese-American (his great grandfather was Min Chung, a miner who came to the U.S. in 1865) and well describes the tenets of Chinese and Japanese culture.   His writing is often inspiring and philosophical:   “Henry understood.   Honestly he did.   He knew what it was like to leave something behind.   To move on and live the future and not relive the past.”   But this well-publicized first novel would have benefited from a better job of editing.   At one point, the adult Henry’s wife is quite ill and their son wants Henry to place her in a hospice.   Henry refuses and elects to take care of her at home and with the assistance of in-home (visiting) hospice workers.   But then we read that the dying Ethel wants to “leave this place” and go home.   Clearly there’s confusion here and in a few other places in the book.   (The son supposedly reads about his  mother’s death on the internet while he’s in college in 1986.)

Nonetheless, this is a quite worthwhile read.   Like The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz, it takes us away from the standard American family we typically read about and places us among those with different values and belief systems.   Having grown up among Japanese and Chinese-Americans, I know that so much of what Ford has written here rings absolutely true.

I generally attempt to avoid quoting the remarks of others about a particular book but author Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain) said of Hotel, “(This is) a tender and satisfying novel set in a time and place lost forever.”   True, and this novel is a satisfying celebration of life and living.   It reminds us that “beautiful endings (can) still be found at the end of cold, dreary days.”

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note:   This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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Coming Up Next…

hotel audioA review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford.

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