The Yellow Peril?

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“Chink Rink?” No, that can’t be right. Chink Rink? I’m going to have to take a closer look, I told myself as I stopped my car, turned around and then pulled into the parking lot of the skating rink on the outskirts of Pekin, Illinois (reportedly named after the Chinese city of Pekin, which was the common spelling in the 1800’s). Unfortunately, my eyes were not playing tricks on me because there it was: a sign with the words “Chink Rink” and a caricature of a person dressed in Chinese garb wearing roller skates. And it got worse. I would later find out that the Pekin High School mascot was the “Chinks” and that during their homecoming celebrations they would crown the head Chink and Chinkette.

Fortunately, not too long after my visit, the Chinks were renamed the Dragons, in 1981; but unfortunately, America has a shameful history of mistreatment of Asians, which in some instances continues to this day.

I visited Yuba College, my alma mater, on February 19, 2015, to hear two elderly Japanese-American brothers, Jim and Mori Tanimoto, tell their stories of  being forced into internment camps as a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066. That order, signed on February 19, 1942, authorized the incarceration of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry.

Tanimoto reads
Mori Tanimoto reads his account.

Ninety-four year old Mori Tanimoto of Yuba City, California, stood at the podium and read an account of his forced relocation to an internment camp in Tule Lake, California. And even though seventy-plus years have passed since Mr. Tanimoto was incarcerated, I could still hear the anger in his voice when he exclaimed, “I had no freedom! I had no justice!”

Both brothers told stories of camp guards roughly removing them from their internment barracks in the middle of the night, and blinding them with bright spotlights when they went outside. As they struggled to see, the sound of loading weapons pierced the night air.

“I thought we were facing a firing squad and we were all going to be killed”, said Jim Tanimoto. Thankfully nobody was murdered, and it appeared the Camp Commander was just trying to scare them.

Eventually, The U.S. Government recruited many American-born Japanese to form the 442 Regimental Unit. These soldiers fought bravely on the European continent. The 442 combat team received eight Presidential Unit Citations and became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare. Despite these accomplishments, when the war ended and New York City held a massive parade to welcome home the troops, the Japanese-American soldiers were made to march last in the parade.

As the war drew to an end, internment centers began to close and Japanese-Americans tried to return to their old ways of life. But for many, their homes and businesses were no longer there. And in many cases they were not welcomed back.

(For photos documenting the internment of Japanese-Americans visit: Photo #41 shows a photo of Mr. Yamamoto of Marysville, leaving the Granada Relocation Center, Amache, Colorado.)

Austin Amson, the managing-secretary of the Salinas Vegetable-Growers and Shippers Association proclaimed in a 1942 issue of the Saturday Day Evening Post, referring to the interned American citizens of Japanese descent, “…we don’t want them back.”

Fortunately not everyone in America shared those negative sentiments. While the war was still raging, aboard the naval destroyer the USS New Mexico, a young Marine was ordered, “Hit him where he’s injured and don’t let him sleep!”

“But I couldn’t do it,” my dad recently told me when he was recollecting his experience of guarding a Japanese kamikaze pilot who survived a suicide attack against the ship.

“I ended up spoon-feeding the guy because he was so injured. At first he wouldn’t eat what I was trying to feed him. Maybe he thought I was trying to poison him. To show  it wasn’t poisonous, I ate it too.”

After the war was over, and my dad eventually settled in the Yuba/Sutter region of California, he became close friends with Frank Itano, a Japanese-American who had spent years in an internment camp.

With the exception of my dad complaining about Chinese food because “they don’t cook their vegetables”, or his racial-profiling of Asians who would pull up to his fruit stand in Wheatland, to ask directions to the Thunder Valley Casino (and he would tell them how to get there, even before they asked), for the most part, he really didn’t have too much prejudice against Asians, or anybody else, as far as I could tell.

Wheatland Fruit Stand

He always did have a soft spot for the underdog. I guess that’s why he was willing to marry my mother, even though she had tuberculosis. Or why he gave up fur-trapping when a fox had chewed off its leg to free itself. Or why he was always giving produce away to those less fortunate than himself.

Apart from Michael, a Chinese-American who helped me keep the bench warm for the Marysville High School sophomore baseball team, I never really knew any Asians while growing up. However, since I was so shy and quiet, it wasn’t just Asians I didn’t associate with. It was anybody. But that began to change when I eventually moved to Las Vegas to attend college.

Man, I don’t know if I want to live with those Chinese people, I told myself as I left the apartment I had just checked out near the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus. I need a place to stay, but that place smelled a bit funny. It must’ve been that squid or octopus, or whatever that was they were eatin.’ Maybe I’ll have better luck at the next apartment that’s looking for a roommate.

I walked down the stairs, and started to walk away, then suddenly stopped. What’s wrong with you? You shouldn’t be like that! You didn’t even give those people a chance. I turned around, walked back to the apartment and knocked on the door. “I’ll take the room,” I quietly offered, as the unfamiliar cooking smells wafted past me and into the desert air.

“Lots of people came for room, but only you took, how come?” My new roommate asked me after I had moved into the apartment.

“I don’t know. Maybe I was hoping you could teach me how to cook some of that Chinese food I smelled,” I responded.

“That’s not good.”

Vegas Roommate

“Why’s that?”

“I’m terrible cook. My girlfriend was cooking for me. I can’t teach you.” He answered back thinking I was serious.

“Don’t worry, I’m just joking. I can take care of myself. In fact I’m a pretty decent cook. Maybe I can teach you.”

“Instead of cooking, could you help me with English?”

“Yeah, I could do that,” I replied.

As I got to know Li better I learned that his father had been a famous General in China, but when the Communists seized power, he fled to Taiwan with his family.

“Our escape was very dangerous. There were posters everywhere offering a reward for my Father’s capture,” he told me.

Li shared about his life as a young boy growing up  relatively privileged in China and how his family lost everything during the Cultural Revolution.

Cultural Revolution-Era Clip Art Book, P by Oldtasty, on Flickr
Long live Marxism! Long live Leninism! Long live the theories of Mao Zedong!

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License

   by  Oldtasty 

“Many people died. At least we lived,” Li recalled somberly.

Li spent very little time at the apartment since he was working on his PhD in Physics and also taught at the university. Our English lessons primarily consisted of me explaining American slang and what swear words meant.

“What’s shit mean?” Li asked one Sunday morning.

As I proceeded to define one of America’s favorite old swear words, he wrinkled his nose and looked bewildered.

“That doesn’t make sense.” Li remarked.

“Why’s that?”

“Sometimes, when I explain something to my students they say: “You’re shitting me. I’m not doing that to them.”

I chuckled softly as we went on to the next word.

“Why do some people say to me, ‘Don’t be a pussy?’ They don’t want me to be a cat?”


As I began to explain the difference between the feline pet and a part of a woman’s anatomy, I realized that living in this apartment was going to be very interesting. And although teaching a foreigner about swear words may be of dubious merit I was happy to be helping my new Asian friend. However, never in my wildest dreams could I have believed that in less than a year’s time I would be standing in a rundown bar in Seattle, Washington defending a Korean religious leader.

“Joe. Do you want me to punch this f…ing Communist Moonie in the face?” the burly redneck shouted as he cocked back his arm and shouted to the bartender.

“Why you out begging for that Chinese guy from Hawaii?” the scholar slurred.

Since this was the first bar I had ever walked into while fundraising for the Unification Church I was not expecting such a negative and uninformed response.

“You must have us confused with someone else,” I countered. “We hate Communism and Reverend Moon’s from Korea.”

“I don’t give a damn where he’s from. Those gooks are all the same. Get the hell out of here!” the inebriated bar patron shouted as he stood up and another man joined him.

I turned around and quickly headed for the door. As I opened the door, someone pushed me from behind and I tripped on the threshold. Luckily my flower bucket cushioned my fall as I fell onto the cement outside, but most of my flowers were ruined. As I brushed myself off and started to gather up the flowers, I began to doubt if I could continue.

Is it always going to be this tough? Why do people hate us so? I wondered. It just doesn’t make any sense.

I would later realize that much of the negative attitude towards my newly found religion was not simply because we were the new religious kid on the block, but because of the anti-Asian attitude of many Americans.

The racist encounter I experienced inside that bar in Seattle would occur again and again, hundreds if not thousands of times, in various forms, as I continued to work for the Unification Church throughout the years. Even Spider-man joined in the racist mania.

A young man invited me into his home to look at some pictures I was selling and told me to make myself comfortable. I sat down on a couch and when he excused himself for a moment to use the bathroom, I picked up a Spider-man comic book lying on a coffee table and started to read it.

In an obvious spoof of the “God Bless America Festival” held by Reverend Moon at Yankee Stadium to honor America’s 1976 bicentennial anniversary, Spider-man was called upon to save the easily-duped young people of New York when they were held for ransom by the notorious Reverend Egg Foo Yung and his henchmen: 3X Moo Shu Pak, Number 1 son Egg Drop Stoop and Won Ton Dupe.

Reverend Egg Foo Yung
Reverend Egg Foo Yung

Is it unreasonable to assume that if a comic book had vilified someone like, say, Argentina born Luis Palau and portrayed the evangelist as Reverend Em pu nada and his henchmen as Chorizo Sausage Plate and Tortilla Dupe there would have been an outcry? I think not.

As the presentation at Yuba College drew to an end, the current Executive Dean for Yuba College’s Sutter County Center, Walter Masuda, spoke about how his grandparents were forced to live in an undesirable area of San Francisco because of their Japanese heritage.

I may not have been forced to live in an undesirable area of a city, but when Masuda spoke about the tribulations of his grandparents, I thought back to when I was living in New Zealand and a neighbor put his home of over twenty years, up for sale because the “Moonies” had moved in next door.

My neighbor confided in me that he changed his mind after I gave him a bottle of whiskey which a supplier had given me when I was  managing a seafood business. Since I didn’t drink, I asked my neighbor if he wanted it.

I’m taking this bottle of delicious @Tee by Lesage Stefaan, on Flickr

His eyes lit up as he said, “Yeah, I’d love it. Good on ya.”

Funny how the simple gestures of spoon-feeding your enemy, renting a room or giving away whiskey, can help break down prejudices.

When my dad told me those stories of what it was like to be a Marine aboard the USS New Mexico, he also informed me he had a bottle of Crown Royal whiskey someone had given him months ago for his ninetieth birthday. Since he didn’t want it, he wondered what he should do with it.

“Maybe I should send it to 250 Hudson St., Suite 1002 in New York City,” I commented.

“Who’s there?”

“That’s where TED is, it’s a long story Dad.”

(Read “Tiff with TED”:

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