We stepped off the plane. The gentle island breeze smoothed and soothed. A scent of plumeria flower wafted between the bustling tourists and relieved weary kama aina (Hawaiian local) homecomers. We’re at the confluence of the Asian and Pacific world. We have landed in Oahu to begin our interisland tour of community centers, schools, libraries, the Talk Island Festival and the University of Hawaii’s concert at Orvis Hall. Organized by several partners (Thank you Jeff Gere, Tim Slaughter, Colleen Furukawa and a host of many educators and librarians).
After dropping off our luggage, a quick glass of ice cold Chai- our hosts Dominique and Jeff ask “ready to go to the Bishop Museum?”. Of course we say YES! The Bishop Museum is the premiere place to experience the culture, history, and arts of the Hawaiian people.
That afternoon we spend the hours perusing the life work of Barbara Kawakami, a textile folklorist and natural storyteller in an exhibit titled “Textured Lives: Japanese Immigrant Clothing from the Plantations of Hawaii”. Bishop Museum partnered with the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) to bring its special feature exhibition to the Castle Memorial Building. The exhibit showcases historically important plantation clothing and textiles that present stories of Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i, and is a very fitting partner to “Tradition and Transition: Stories of Hawai‘i Immigrants” now presented on the second floor of Castle Memorial Building.
As we gaze at the indigo patterns upon simple garments worn by pineapple and sugarcane cutters and the photos showing throngs of workers standing in the fields, we are reminded of the rich heritage of our immigrant beginnings.
It was the last day of the exhibtion. Ms. Kawakami was there to greet the visitors, pouring out from her vast memory reserves, the stories of these emerging Americans of Japanese ancestry that she so meticulously gathered through 30 years of in-depth interviews. She showed us displays of fabrics, pointed at the family photos, and told the narratives of Japanese immigrants, particularly the Picture Brides, that first came to Hawaii starting in the late 1860s.
She points to one of the worn-out shirts in the glass case. The shirt has dozens of quilted repairs and areas where the threads are mere wisps of fabric. “You see? They wore that shirt everyday to work. Sometimes the only shirt they had. That’s why it’s patch-patch!” We are amazed at the great detail she has at her disposal… a veritable “living intangible treasure”. She’s 91 years old and sparkles!
Here is storyteller and festival organizer, Jeff Gere, founder of Talk Island Festival, one of her loyal and local storyteller fans. Jeff has had a longstanding friendship and professional relationship with Ms. Kawakami and marvels at the universe of stories and knowledge that she has accumulated.
Along side us were also visitors from Japan who never knew that their countrymen and women played such a significant role in shaping the economic and cultural landscape of Hawaii. As we hear Barbara’s words and see the exhibit, we find ourselves wondering ourselves: “What kind of strength and perseverance would it have taken to do what these Asian pioneers did? What any pioneer did! What kind of hope and aspirations did they hold? What dreams were dashed, AND what new opportunities unfolded? Would we have the kind of stamina these immigrants had to endure the harsh working and living conditions?”
An interesting side observation: In the exhibit it showed a timeline of Asian immigration to the Americas, including the government’s attempt to keep America monocultural. The date 1882 stood out, the year the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Having recently presented Nancy’s family immigration story it was interesting to note that when the Chinese were forbidden to enter the country, it marked an opening for Japanese immigration to swing even wider, albiet shortlived, to fill in yet another need for cheap labor for Western economic expansion in the Pacific region.
We congratulate the life’s work of Barbara Kawakami, her ability to listen and tell the stories of this great American legacy. She illuminates and brings honor to the word “immigration”. This word is one that no American should ever slander or twist into a derogatory. Immigration is the sacred journey toward a new possibility that has benefitted us all.