Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: “A Question of Loyalty” is the second historical novel in Mike Malaghan’s trilogy on the Japanese American experience in Hawai‘i. Prior to “A Question of Loyalty,” the Herald concluded chapter-by-chapter publication of his first novel, “Picture Bride,” which chronicled Haru Takayama’s escape from Japan to begin a new life in Hawai‘i as the picture-bride wife of Kenji Takayama, a Buddhist priest. In the second novel, we follow Haru and Kenji’s children through the World War II years.
Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Georgia and Japan.
Pleased with the seeds he had planted, Hung Wai Ching surveyed the street for a luncheonette. He could have eaten at his hotel, but he knew that a local diner would give him better insight into the community. He almost thought he was in Honolulu as he caught sight of three Asian ladies walking down the street, umbrellas shielding them even though the rain was now just a drizzle. He recognized one of them — Judy Oda, wife of Mathew Oda of the 100th Battalion. The other two women looked vaguely familiar, but he could not attach names to their faces. He cupped one hand around his mouth.
“Judy! Judy Oda!”
All three women raised their umbrellas and turned their heads, shouting in a chorus.
They started heading toward his curb, but Ching raised his hand like a school crossing guard.
“Wait right there, I’ll come over!” he shouted.
Much against his law-abiding nature, he glanced left and then right and then quickly jaywalked across the street. He barely heard the honking of an annoyed driver as he calibrated this unexpected intelligence opportunity.
Ching skipped to the curb and bowed low.
“Judy, so nice — so nice to see you. I heard that some of the wives had followed their husbands here.” He smiled at the other two happy ladies expectantly.
“Mr. Ching, this is Mary Sato from Maui and June Okamura from Kāne‘ohe.”
Ching’s smile held a question.
“You most likely met them when they were Hitomi and Megumi,” explained Judy. “But even those who are not Christian like me take on Christian names so Mainlanders can pronounce and remember them.”
Ching nodded. “Ah soo desu ka.” He patted his flat stomach and asked, “Where can I take you ladies to lunch?”
“We’ve already eaten, but we would love to have some coffee and cake while you have lunch. We can go to the Dixie Grill, just around the corner.”
The dwindling all-white lunch crowd turned to the high-pitched jangle of the bell above the grill’s front door. One diner frowned as the four Asians entered; the others, many in uniform, gave them a curious glance and then continued eating. The waitress, just a year or two out of high school, flashed a smile of recognition. She wore a pink blouse, its top two buttons opened to reveal a glimpse of generous curves, and a short skirt with a white ruffle trim hugging its hem. A matching bow adorned her blonde bangs. Ching wondered how she could stand all day in high heels more suited for a night on the town.
“Ohayo gozaimasu, Judy. We didn’t fill you up the first time around?”
“We have a new customer for you, Mabel-san.” Judy did not correct Mabel’s misuse of the greeting, which meant “good morning.” “This is Mr. Hung Wai Ching, from Hawai‘i. He would like to order lunch. And we will have some of that German chocolate cake we passed up earlier.”
Once he had ordered, Ching lowered his voice and asked, “Is everyone as friendly as Mabel?”
“We wish,” said Mary softly. “But almost everyone treats us at least civilly. Sometimes we have to pretend we don’t hear someone mutter the word ‘Jap.’”
Ching pulled out a pack of Luckys from his coat pocket and offered them to the ladies, who demurred. He lit up. “What about housing?”
Mabel arrived with four cups of coffee. Only Judy added cream, although she didn’t bother stirring it in.
“It’s sure not Wisconsin, where so many people remember the anti-German discrimination they faced in World War I. In Hattiesburg, it took a lot of ‘I just rented my last room’ rejections before we finally found a widow who had sent her three sons to join Eisenhower in North Africa. She said she heard how neat the Japanese were and rented us her boys’ rooms. The first weekend that our husbands joined us, she insisted on cooking us a real Southern dinner.”
“To be fair,” said June, “housing for army wives is tight. If any wives of the 442nd boys follow their husbands here, they’ll have a tough time finding rooms.”
“But getting a job is easy,” said Judy. “We all work at Best Clean Laundry as seamstresses. They like hiring us Japanese because they rarely hear complaints about our work.”
Mary cleared her throat. “Most of the boys here in the 100th Battalion are single. The one time they went to a USO dance, they were allowed in with the white boys, but most of the girls refused to dance with them and after a while, they gave up. It’s not a big problem since the 100th is on maneuvers in Louisiana and will be shipped overseas soon after they get back. But the 442nd boys might have a problem with it.”
A look of concern suddenly filled Ching’s face. As he gathered his thoughts to respond, Judy leaned over and gripped his arm. “We all know you are trying to help us. We’re not worried about the insults. But, Mr. Ching … I’m pregnant. You know my father. He ran a Japanese language school and is now in a POW camp in New Mexico. I don’t want my baby to be treated like him or me.” She tightened her grip. “Our husbands are fighting so our children can live with honor as loyal Americans. Please see that my husband is sent to fight. We …” She paused as her eyes moistened. “We know that some of our husbands and brothers must die. Guarding prisoners of war or moving supplies won’t bring us the respect that only … only death can bring.”
“Wakarimashita,” said Ching, assuring her he understood.
The conversation moved to updates on the 100th boys. As he took the last bites of his meal, Ching motioned Mabel over, marveling at her thick makeup. “Could you please put an extra piece of cake in a paper bag for Judy’s landlady, Mrs. …” He turned to Judy.
“White. Mrs. Betty Lou White,” Judy responded. Her eyes crinkled in pleasure.
To be continued …