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, which is now available as a printed softcover book, opens 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, Georgia and Japan.
Mosquito Flats. Taka stood next to its edge, looking at the piles of trash piled high against the unpainted back concrete wall of the Nippon Theater at the corner of ‘A‘ala and Beretania Streets. So different from the movie theater’s regal front entrance. A rat too big to fit into a shoebox showed its disdain by ignoring Taka’s footsteps and kept chewing on something smeared red. Ketchup, Taka hoped.
He glanced down at his notes detailing Candi’s circuitous route to her Cunha Lane home. Looking right as Candi’s hand-drawn arrow indicated, he studied the faded three- and four-story tenement buildings streaked with industrial soot and cooking oil. From postage stamp-sized länais, blouses, trousers, bras and panties danced on stubby clotheslines. Underneath the balcony’s bent rebars, wrinkled-faced Chinese men with long-hair queues and their aging picture brides with bound feet mingled with Japanese teenaged prostitutes in high heels. The whiff of sweet opium masked the stench of garbage. A shout in Tagalog caught Taka’s attention just in time to see a shirtless young man toss a pair of dice hard against a wall down a nearby alley. He shook his head thinking about how the Mosquito Flats families had arrived on the same boats as the Mö‘ili‘ili families — full of the same dreams. How did this separation happen?
Taka took a deep breath, as if he was about to step into a sewer, and began snaking through the narrow urine- and cabbage-scented alleyways of Blood Town, Tin Can Alley and Hell’s Half Acre, following Candi’s map. So, he thought, this is where Horace’s Kalihi gang and the neighboring School Street gang fought border skirmishes to control their turf.
“Don’t worry about your safety,” Candi had said. “Our streets are crime-free in the sunshine . . .” She couldn’t resist an impish smile. “Most of the time.”
“See the parade,” she said. Taka’s mental light bulb switched on. A vanilla blur of white canvas “Dixie cup” caps, white poplin shirts and white drill slacks prowled the grey ghetto canyons. Navy payday. Admiral Stirling’s “stay on base” orders had been lifted. The flesh hunters trolled, their eyes roving like snipers choosing a target. Pouting lips and sly eyes in hip-slit dresses promised an erotic interlude without having to order a watered-down whiskey for a bar whore plying her wares in a nearby River Street speakeasy.
Taka forgot his mission momentarily as he caught a come-hither set of eyes drawing his attention to the girl’s black hair draping to her narrow waist, contrasting dramatically against a red Chinese cheongsam tight at the neck. He turned away just long enough to spot a street sign nailed askew to a telephone post: Cunha Lane. He found the house number smartly painted on a sturdy wooden postbox at the edge of the road. A surprise. A real house. Tiny, but still a house — corrugated roof bent at two edges, yellow paint fading, but clean and graced with a porch just wide enough for a row of mismatched straight-backed chairs. The royalty of slum dwellings, thought Taka.
At his knock, Candi opened the door.
Taka caught his breath. The lady who smiled at him with soft, red lips and peacock-blue eye shadow was not the woman who had attended the trial, nor the one he had shared coffee with at the hospital. She stood taller in a blue silk kimono with a white crane in flight that seemed to glide as she moved aside and back to let him in. Her hair, as silky as her kimono, hung straight to her shoulders. The smell of incense and lemon permeated the home — a welcome relief from the streets.
“Taka, hello,” she said in a deep-throated voice. Seeing his startled look, she laughed. “I don’t normally greet visitors so fashionably, but after we talk, I must hurry to the teahouse. Today is payday for officers, too.”
Inside, Taka’s pupils widened, adjusting to the dimness. Narrow streaks of sunlight squeezed through four wooden louvers. The home’s cleanliness, which would have passed his mother’s close scrutiny, impressed him. He felt a shiver of shame at this reaction, realizing he had fallen into a Pafko-fed stereotype of scruffy expectations for anyone living in the Flats. He surveyed the cherry wood hutch with glass doors, revealing its contents of cups, saucers, plates and treasured bric-a-brac. Six hardback chairs surrounded a matching dining table. A plastic-covered couch, upholstered in a lively fabric decorated with red hibiscus flowers, hugged the wall on the right; the opposite wall displayed an array of family pictures circling the emperor’s portrait. He looked at Candi’s smile, almost smug. You wanted me to see this, he thought. You knew what I expected.
Taka followed Candi’s eyes to an older woman and two barely teenage girls sitting on the floor around a short-legged pinewood table playing pinochle. “This is my mother and my two sisters,” said Candi. The girls were dressed in matching outfits — spotless red-gingham dresses set off with high, white collars. They sported identical curled hairdos in the Clara Bow style, rather than the traditional straight Japanese hair. Their mother was dressed as if she were going to temple.
“You look so cute,” greeted Taka, smiling at the girls, who giggled back.
“We’re going to our first taxi dance,” said the girl nearest the door, referring to the practice in which dance halls recruited girls to dance with patrons for five cents a dance. To the chagrin of the mostly military patrons, the younger girls were chaperoned. Not every sailor spent all his time chasing working girls.
“It’s time they pitched in and helped with the rent,” said Candi. “We don’t want to live like those people,” she said, pointing to the back of a five-story tenement building. “More than three hundred people sharing seven bathtubs, six toilets and five kitchens.”
Candi gestured at the dining table. “Please, sit down.”
Taka took a seat; he noticed the porcelain tea set. “A busman’s holiday,” he chuckled.
Candi flashed her teeth at the remark, sat down and began pouring green tea. “This is not the life my father envisioned when he moved our family here from Maui. He was a fisherman, worked hard, up early every day. A good provider. We moved into a five-room cottage in Mänoa a year after we arrived — not much, but big enough for a garden and a swing set.” She smiled at the memory. “Sundays were the best — we always had ice cream. Even today, I never buy ice cream on any other day.”
Taka lifted his teacup toward Candi as though making a sake toast. “If your walking-through-a-maze directions were intended to give me a new perspective of the Flats, it worked.”
“This is the neighborhood of broken dreams. Or for those born here, no dreams. They think hopelessness is the norm.” She sipped the steaming tea, taking time to form her next words. “I was so mad when Horace dropped out of high school. He is the only man in our family, but didn’t act like it. He was smart, but the neighborhood sucked him in. Hanging out at the pool hall, he primped his wavy pompadour like a tough yakuza, Mr. Swagger in the neighborhood gang. He was handsome enough to be a beach boy, but lacked the confidence to approach stateside girls looking for a brown thrill.”
Candi swirled her teacup in both hands. Taka had seen his mother do this during a pause in conversation and understood that there was more to come if he stayed silent.
“He was angry,” said Candi. “Angry with the haoles who control our lives. Angry with the
Hawaiians, even though they’re fellow gang members, because they are allocated half the government jobs. Angry with the Koreans and Chinese for being losers in wars with Japan, and angry with our mother for taking in their laundry as a washerwoman. Angry with me for working as a geisha.” She took a deep breath to calm herself, but still her eyes misted.
Taka suddenly realized that the slapping of cards on the table and playful chatter had stopped. He didn’t have to turn around to see the perked-up ears. There were no secrets in such cramped houses.
“But deep down, I think he is angry with himself. We live in a castle compared to our tenement neighbors. So many of the boys feel trapped seeing Japanese from most other neighborhoods working in restaurants, or hiring themselves out as maids or gardeners. Smart ones like you go to the university. But this place just traps your mind. You know there is a better world out there — so close, yet so far — because you’ve convinced yourself that the better world is beyond your reach.”
Her face turned earnest. “I gave him money to go to California to look for work. If only he had found a job, if only he had stayed a few more weeks . . .” Her gaze faded into the world of what could have been.
Taka waited, not sure what to say.
Candi suddenly remembered her guest and focused intently on Taka. “But your column cannot be just about Ida. Tell the story of this neighborhood.”
Taka nodded his head. “That’s why I’m here.”
“None of these boys did it,” said Candi with conviction. “Horace, a rapist? Why? In this neighborhood, force is not necessary. Raping a white woman? Never! It’s taboo!”
A good word, thought Taka, and he knew he had the lead paragraph for his next column.
“Do you ever go to Waikïkï on the weekends?” Candi asked.
“Not often,” he said. “It’s mostly tourists.”
“Think of your high school days. Native beach boys and white female tourists. You want a Coke? A beach boy was there to get it for you. Want to learn to surf? Ten copper-skinned, grinning guys are eager to teach. Do you remember seeing the local boys rubbing suntan lotion on the girls’ backs?”
“Sure, but what’s that got to do with Horace?” Taka asked.
“Now what do you see on weekends since the Navy increased their fleet stops? Hundreds of Navy boys. The Navy is big on recruiting good ’ol boys from the South where coloreds know their place. You can see the disgust in their eyes when they watch brown boys and white girls laughing together, sometimes walking off the beach together, hand-in-hand.”
A gust of wind from the hills blew through the open shutters. Candi refilled their teacups.
“All that anger just waiting for an incident to redress the abomination.”
“I hadn’t made the connection,” said Taka.
I am sure you didn’t, college boy, thought Candi, but she moved on. “It’s not just the enlisted men, Taka. My teahouse is upscale. We cater to officers and local businessmen. The officers talk in front of me as if English were not my native language. At some point, there’s usually talk of war with Japan — when and where it will start. Then someone will always have to remind the group, ‘We’ve got to keep our eyes on our local Japs.’ I smile. It’s my job. I’m good at it. I hope my gracious service and impeccable English make them question their feelings about their assumptions of our disloyalty and inferiority.”
“Candi, you speak so well. You would have been a good UH student.” Taka regretted uttering those words as soon as he spoke them.
Candi nodded. “That was my parents’ dream. My father was saving money to buy his own boat. Then all the profit would be his. There would be money for college.”
“Then your dad disappeared at sea?” said Taka.
“Yes, they never found the boat or any bodies.” Again, Candi seemed to drift somewhere else, a profound sadness in her eyes. Then she lifted her gaze and gave him a wan smile. “Shikata ga nai,” she said, using the Japanese expression meaning roughly, “What can we do? It can’t be helped. We must move on.”
* * *
Across town, Haru sipped her afternoon tea as she listened to Lowell Thomas on the radio.
“American Secretary of State Stimson has declared the Stimson Doctrine proclaiming America will not recognize any Japanese government inside China. The League of Nations has passed a resolution condemning the Japanese violation of Chinese sovereignty. However, despite the international censuring, Japanese troops continue to push south into Manchuria.”
As she always did when listening to reports of war, Haru gazed up at the photos of her four boys on the wall. She tried to push away visions of them carrying a rifle dressed in black-laced boots, green khaki uniforms and brown metal helmets. But she couldn’t.
* * *
For the next three days, after finishing his classes, Taka biked to Mosquito Flats to spend time with the four other rape defendants and their families. While Pafko had simply written them off as unrestrained animals, Taka humanized them: They had families, jobs, ambitions. They were troubled young men to be sure, but nothing in their background suggested they were capable of the violence that Thalia Massie accused them of committing. Taka did not sugarcoat their character — he portrayed them as the young men they were, struggling to survive in a world that offered them few opportunities.
The spirit of Christmas papered over the racial tension in Hawai‘i. Christmas lights brightened the longer nights. Department store Santas settled children of every skin hue on their knees. The YMCA and Rotary sold Canadian evergreen firs in church lots. People belonging to different ethnic and religious communities, including the Buddhists, went out of their way to wish “the others” a Merry Christmas.
Behind Honolulu’s veneer of tolerance, its worried citizens waited for the judge to set a new trial date that would certainly reignite the fire under the pressure cooker.
Grace Fortescue was tired of waiting for Hawaiian justice. With each passing day, she drank more and slept less. The etching around her eyes grooved deeper. She had the shoe repairman punch a new notch on her belts to cinch a thinner waist. The daily humiliation of living on charity had shorn her regal airs.
She saw another trial ending with the same result: the same people refusing to convict their own, even with the guilt of the accused staring them in the face. Nothing but a confession would save her daughter. Nothing but a conviction leading to a lifetime of hard labor would satisfy her thirst for revenge. These thugs had sullied the Fortescue name — an honorable name dating back to the American Revolution.
On the evening of Jan. 6, 1932, Tommy Massie entered his mother-in-law’s suite at the Moana Hotel. Grace greeted him, drink in hand, but offered him nothing. She snapped.
“Why aren’t you doing something to defend your wife’s honor?”
Tommy had heard the taunt before — from his fellow officers. Before he could respond, Grace fired on.
“Your Navy buddies beat up Ida, the strongest of the five by all accounts. But they didn’t finish the job.” She paused to take a long swig from her martini, but her eyes never left Tommy’s. “We need a confession to end my daughter’s nightmare. I am not having her humiliated on the stand again. You are her husband for God’s sake. You’re the one who needs to fix this.”
“What can I do?”
In the silence, Grace refreshed her drink. She mixed one for Tommy, too, and handed it to him.
“Sit down, and I will tell you . . .”
To be continued . . .