Michael G. Malaghan
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: We continue Michael G. Malaghan’s serialized historical novel, “Picture Bride — A Family Saga,” based on the Japanese immigrant experience. Malaghan’s trilogy takes readers from turn-of-the-20th-century-Japan to Hawai‘i in the picture bride era; the Islands during World War II, highlighted by the exploits of the Nisei soldiers; and beyond.
The novel began with 12-year-old Haru-chan, fleeing her home in Amakusa, Kyüshü, for Hiroshima, where she becomes the picture bride of a Buddhist priest in Hawai‘i.
Author Michael Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Florida and Japan.
A block onward, the street morphed into a retail valley lined with two-story buildings. Balconies hung over wooden sidewalks, where well-fed, wrinkled-faced Hawaiian wahine strung fragrant pïkake lei in front of pharmacies, millinery shops, hardware stores and jewelers.
Bishop Imamura asked Haru about her health inspection during the immigration process.
“We were led into a room in groups of six, where a doctor and a woman from the Japanese Consulate waited,” she replied. “We were told to disrobe except for our bottom undergarment and then to turn around slowly. The doctor listened to our chest with a stethoscope. Then we left.”
“This is an improvement,” the bishop responded. “A completely naked exam has been required for Japanese only. We have vigorously protested against that for years. Yours is the first group allowed the dignity of partial clothing.”
“A good friend failed the health inspection,” said Haru. She explained Kame’s pink eye rejection. Imamura asked her a few questions about the condition of Kame’s eyes, but Haru could offer little information.
Haru’s carriage started up Nu‘uanu Street. Further up the block in a honky-tonk bar, Andy Pafko was pouring Jim Beam Black Label into two tumblers painted with pictures of topless hula dancers. Near the entrance, a silver-haired Hawaiian man plucked soft chords on his ‘ukulele and oozed Hawaiian love songs with a sad voice rasped by cheap cigarettes and cheaper rum. Lazy ceiling fans swirled the smells of fresh popcorn and stale beer. Two decades of cigar burns scarred the tops of the sturdy mahogany tables. While a Chinese cook could rally up a steak crowned with over-easy eggs, he was mainly for show, for this was a drinking man’s bar.
Pafko bragged that he knew his limit. The bar’s clientele was all men who were all white and all too talkative — a dream haunt for a reporter. Pafko pushed a tumbler to Bilkerton.
“The Brits know how to drink whiskey. You don’t ruin it with water and ice,” he said, taking a generous swallow, swirling the liquor with his tongue like mouthwash and letting it slide down his throat. “You wait to feel the warmth in your gut, then drink a glass of water so you don’t burn a hole.”
Bilkerton tilted his glass and swallowed. He skipped the side of water.
“Joshua,” said Pafko, “you got this Buddhist stabilization all backward. You didn’t learn a goddamn thing from the strike.”
“My Japs didn’t strike,” said Bilkerton. “I listened to their complaints, painted a few houses and halved the interest on the loans when they buy from company stores ahead of pay day.”
“It wasn’t about you, Joshua. All the workers on the outer islands were told not to strike. The O‘ahu strikers needed the money your workers sent them. All your shack painting did was to tell your workers that you were running scared. We are in a war, Joshua — a war between two cultures, two nations. It’s not just about cutting cane and picking pineapples,” continued Pafko.
“My Japs are hard workers. Weekend drinking and gambling are the main problems. That’s why I offered to pay the steerage fee for the picture brides and welcome the priest.”
“‘Picture brides for stability.’ ‘Stop the gambling.’ ‘Just calm the men down,’” Pafko parroted with a sneer. “That’s all horseshit promoted by those Jap priests. Look at all the kimono-clad women here dropping babies like coconuts from a palm tree in a typhoon. Those people are almost half the population. If we don’t stop them, they will be three-quarters strong . . . and voting.”
Pafko emptied his half-full glass in a single gulp and refilled it.
“If we hadn’t overthrown the Queen, you might be selling your plantation to some retired samurai,” he said.
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration,” Bilkerton slurred.
“You are not seeing the picture. The big picture, the long picture. Let me paint it for you.
“In 1885, King Kaläkaua goes to Japan and offers his kingdom to the emperor and proposes a marriage between his 5-year-old niece and some Jap prince. The emperor declines, but agrees to send workers.
“In 1893,” Pafko continued, oblivious to his bar patron eavesdroppers, “the sugar boys get the Marines to land and send Queen Lili‘uokalani packing and set up a republic, Texas-style. But Presidents Cleveland and McKinley refuse your bogus republic’s pleas to be annexed.
“In 1897, Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt wants to annex Hawai‘i; Japan sends a warship to Hawai‘i to protest, and McKinley backs off! Are you seeing what’s happening, Joshua?”
Pafko grabbed the bottle and filled both glasses nearly to the brim. Bilkerton nodded his head unsteadily and mumbled, “Yeah, yeah, I see.”
“Then, in 1898, some crazy Spaniard blows up the Maine in Havana’s harbor.” Suddenly noticing he had attracted an audience, Pafko made his listeners wait as he took a gentle sip of Jim Beam. He put his hand on Joshua’s arm. “If not for that little prank, Hawai‘i might be part of Japan’s Pacific empire, like Okinawa or Korea. Instead, the American Navy sinks the Spanish fleet in Manila.”
Pafko released Bilkerton’s arm, twirled the liquid in his glass, but didn’t drink from it.
“Thankfully, McKinley finally recognizes that Hawai‘i must be secure and annexes the republic. The sugar barons and Dole keep importing more Japanese labor like it’s just another crop — gotta keep those new pineapple fields going. Do you know how many Japanese landed here the first year after Hawai‘i’s annexation?”
Through the fog of his whiskey, Bilkerton managed a proud, “Twenty-six thousand!”
Pafko was on a roll. “But even though the Jap workers got a lot more rights with America, you still kept bringing boatloads of them here. Boatloads! Another 68,000 between 1900 and 1907 when that Gentlemen’s Agreement finally stopped the invasion.”
Pafko stood up, looked around at his audience like he was William Jennings Bryan about to deliver his Cross of Gold speech. “More picture brides. More kids. More Buddhist temples. More Japanese afternoon schools where kids are taught loyalty to their god, the emperor. Someday, Japan’s growing empire will bump into America. Whose side will these people fight on?”
Pafko hoisted his drink as if to make a toast and took his time emptying the glass down his throat. He eyeballed Bilkerton and lowered his voice. “Think about that, Joshua — while riding the boat back with your picture brides.”
Pafko turned his glass upside down, slammed it on the table and called over to the bar. “Put it on my tab, Mori.” His blurry eyes surveyed his audience. “School’s out.” He swayed and wobbled his way to the door, all the while imagining himself marching out like a victorious attorney after a contentious courtroom battle.
The carriage neared the Nu‘uanu-Beretania crossroads, where Japanese working girls trolled the notorious intersection in white, clinging holokü dresses draping from their shoulders to their ankles. Kenji made a show of squinting at the sun and tugged down his fedora. He did not see the woman he hoped he would never encounter again. Had she left the trade? Would she attend a temple ceremony some day with children in tow? Would she remember him?
The incident had happened two years earlier. Kenji had accompanied Imamura on a regular foray into River Street’s dens of iniquity, preaching a return to Japanese values among the gangsters, pimps and prostitutes. After each incursion, however, he returned to his room aroused. One restless evening, after they had returned from a brothel, trying to shame the women into forsaking their trade, Kenji had slipped out of the Hongwanji dressed in his garden clothes and beat-up straw hat. He was strolling along the side streets toward the river when he spotted her standing on a Nu‘uanu corner. She did not see him. Fearful of approaching her on a public street or calling out to her, he dropped a coin on the cobblestone road. Then two coins. She turned, spotted him and switched on her professional come-hither smile and then sauntered forward. She was older than he had first thought, but still in the bloom of life. He vacillated and considered retreating. After all, he was a priest who had pledged to end vice.
Kenji froze in place.
“I’m Cindy,” she hushed, using her contrived English name. She grabbed his hand gently and massaged it. “I can make you happy either for a short time or until morning.”
Kenji noticed the tiny wrinkles that had etched themselves in the corners of her eyes. He put his hand in his pocket and fingered his money.
“I have a dollar for a short time.”
Still holding his hand, she led him into a narrow dirt path and guided him inside a one-room wooden shack with a corrugated steel roof. “You can put the dollar on the table,” she said, lighting three scented candles.
She faced him. With a practiced hand she reached behind her neck and eased the single button loose of its confinement and shrugged her shoulders. The single-piece holokü dropped in a heap at her feet, revealing a body unconfined by any other garment. In the flickering light of the candles, Kenji saw that her breasts sagged and stretch marks streaked across her belly. He wondered who was taking care of her child.
Kenji had not moved. Sensing he was new to the game, Cindy stepped forward and began unbuttoning his shirt. Next, she loosened the knot on the drawstring holding up his trousers and let them fall to join her holokü on the thin carpet. Smiling seductively, she slid her hand down his chest and under his shorts. He had gone flaccid. She tried massaging it back to life. He did not respond. His knees trembled.
She looked up at him. “What’s wrong?”
Guilt had triumphed over desire, then turned into embarrassment and settled on righteousness.
“Nothing. I . . . I just wanted to talk for the time I paid.”
Kenji willed his eyes to stay focused on hers.
“Why do you do this? You could marry, get a job, build a future.”
A flash of anger crossed her face. “I am married, although my husband may have divorced me as a runaway wife. He wrote to me, claiming he owned a farm. I was only hours off the ship when he admitted that he was just a laborer working for a Chinese duck farmer in Waikïkï. I tried to live with him for a month. He beat me for complaining that he had lied. I ran away.”
“You could find a new husband. A life with dignity,” said Kenji.
“Dignity?! I send $50 dollars a month to Japan for my parents to buy land. Where is the dignity in getting paid $14 dollars a month on a plantation for the privilege of getting up before the roosters and looking like a hag before my 30th birthday? You feel shame for coming here. I feel proud. I broke the shackles of an evil man and will be one of the few who return from these islands with money.”
Kenji had not moved during this exchange, despite the absurdity of standing in his undershorts with his trousers bunched at his feet. The discussion had calmed his nerves.
Cindy noticed that he was beginning to get hard. Her smile came back. This time he responded to her touch. With her other arm on his shoulder, she pushed him gently onto her bed, where she straddled his thighs, all the while maintaining a coy smile. She sensed this was his first experience. She knew that her face and this act would be etched into his memory forever. She wanted to perform for him, and for herself, not for the physical satisfaction she never felt. But a great experience meant a return visit, or maybe a regular customer. She placed his hands on her breasts and then reached over to her nightstand and dipped her fingers into a cup of coconut oil. She lubricated herself, then raised her body and slid down on him. It did not take Kenji long to complete his mission. He tried to roll out from under her, but she leaned over.
“Stay,” she whispered. “Let’s go a second round, so I, too, can feel the clouds and thunder.” Oh, how men love to hear those words, she thought to herself.
Kenji shook his head. Spent, a resurgent guilt rushed over him. He forced himself up. Cindy rolled off of him.
“Wait. I need to clean you.” She dipped a small towel into a basin and wiped him. She helped him dress and returned with him to the street. As he turned to walk in the opposite direction of his destination, she said, “Good-night, Reverend.”
Memories of the incident flashed before Kenji’s eyes as the carriage continued to their hotel. Along the way, Bishop Imamura pointed out landmarks to Haru, although Kenji did not hear a word of what he said.
“Isn’t that right, Kenji?” said Imamura.
The daydreaming Kenji replied, “You are usually right, Your Excellency.”
“Well, in this case I am. We need wives for our ministers who act as partners. Your parents are great role models.”
The blast of a horn prompted Haru to look up. A car was just about to ram their carriage. Haru instinctively grabbed Kenji’s hand. Her body jerked at the horse’s sudden stop, and the horse rose on his hind legs.
The Packard stopped under the horse’s hoofs.
The driver, who was Chinese, jumped from the perch of the carriage.
“So sorry! So sorry!” he pleaded as he approached the furious-faced white driver.
“Forget the sorrys, coolie! Get your hack out of the way!”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Kenji reassured the carriage driver. “You had the right of way.”
“No want police . . . all haole. Better to apologize.”
The carriage stopped at the Honolulu Hotel. Although Kenji and Haru would be living at the nearby Hongwanji Temple complex, Imamura had suggested that Kenji treat Haru as a typical picture bride on her first day in Hawai‘i. Despite his intention to send Haru back to Japan at the docks, Kenji had booked one of the hotel’s two bridal suites.
A Hawaiian ‘ukulele band strumming “My Waikïkï Mermaid” welcomed the couple ascending the stairs. The bellman grabbed Haru’s luggage. Although Judith had told the girls about the American habit of tipping, Haru was still surprised at how casually Kenji handed the Japanese porter a quarter and the bellhop’s perfunctory “Thank you.” What a strange custom, she concluded. People expecting extra money to do their job, and a Japanese tipping a Japanese!
The hotel manager, the Nisei son of one of the earliest 1880s immigrants, recognized Kenji and escorted the honeymooners to their room. Haru stepped into the room with the same reverence with which she entered her hondo’s Golden Pavilion. Sweet flower fragrances that she did not recognize rode rays of sunlight streaming through open shutters. “So gorgeous, Otosan,” she said softly.
Kenji turned to Haru. “Let’s take the Rapid Transport street car to Liliha and buy you a set of Western clothes.”
Haru’s heartbeat spiked. She had hoped Kenji would be such a husband, one who started their marriage with this special wedding gift. Judith had told her that such a trousseau would be worn only on their wedding day and then placed in a trunk as a memory. When not wearing work garments in the fields, most Japanese women in Hawai‘i continued to wear their kimono, as they did in Japan.
Haru’s eyes brightened. “Oh, how delightful!”
To be continued . . .