Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Editor’s note: In honor of our Maui-themed issue, author of “Char Siu,” Scott Kikkawa, has deep Maui roots. His maternal great-grandfather was an early Japanese luna at Pu‘unene, where his son, Kikkawa’s grandfather, was born on the plantation. Kikkawa was recently invited to the Nisei Veterans Memorial Center and the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum to do research within their archives for an upcoming book.
Author Scott Kikkawa’s third book of noir fiction published by Bamboo Ridge Press begins with a crime – or more accurately, a series of crimes – in Honolulu’s Chinatown in January 1954. Hawai‘i was still a territory of the United States at that time, and the city he describes bears little resemblance to the flowery narratives that would later be constructed by the state’s emerging tourism industry that were designed to attract visitors to the sunny paradise.
Instead, the Honolulu of Kikkawa’s imagination and historical research reveals the dark underbelly of a society where criminal syndicates operate establishments of ill-repute and then pay off members of local law enforcement to look the other way. It’s a city in which public corruption and criminal enterprise co-mingle and thrive. True to the noir genre of detective stories, “Char Siu” (a book title that has both literal and symbolic meaning) involves a detective protagonist trying to solve a mystery in the bleak, gritty shadows of the urban core.
In this mix of gambling, prostitution, drugs and other vices is detective sergeant Francis Hideyuki Yoshikawa of the Honolulu Police Department’s homicide detail. Also known as “Frankie” and “Sheik,” this Japanese American veteran of World War II is far from squeaky clean. In fact, we first meet him at the Jade Garden Chop Suey, where he arrives to collect “protection money” from the establishment’s owner, a task he sometimes does to fill in for a fellow detective known as Johnny D. Included with the envelope of money is a gift of food, in this case, char siu, wrapped in the pink butcher paper so familiar to patrons of Chinatown’s meat stalls. For his part in the scheme, Sheik gets a cut of the illicit proceeds, funds that he can use to help ends meet at home, where he has a loving and pregnant wife waiting for him.
Sheik turns out to be a complex character, neither angel nor devil, even though in chapter one he suggests that of all the devils engaged in criminal activity at Jade Garden, maybe he was the worst of them all. Without explicitly saying so – the book is written in the first-person point of view with Sheik as the storyteller – this confession suggests that Sheik actually has a conscience and foreshadows a transformation of sorts as he decides that he can only bend his moral compass so far. In his mind he could rationalize being an occasional “bagman,” but when the crimes going on around him start involving multiple murders and the information he learns from informants implicates high-ranking members of his own Honolulu Police Department, the homicide detective in him kicks into action as does the book’s plot that takes the reader on an exploratory journey through a particular period in Hawai‘i’s history that has been neglected as a backdrop for detective fiction.
For readers who are familiar with Honolulu of the 1950s, before statehood was achieved later in the decade, Kikkawa’s “Char Siu” will bring back memories. For those unfamiliar with the time period, the book may be instructive. While the plot is fiction, the setting is historically plausible. Most of the places he writes about still exist today in different form. Sheik graduated from McKinley High School, as did many Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) of his generation. The street names are familiar – you can still find them on a map today – as are a good number of the buildings and businesses. He mentions Maunakea Street, Kapahulu, Kaimukï, Harding Avenue, Liberty House, English Standard schools like Roosevelt and so on.
On page 64, he writes: “Near the corner of Nu‘uanu and Pauahi, we ducked into the Pantheon, an old saloon that was usually quiet and cool that early in the day.” The Pantheon saloon may be a lesser-known icon to contemporary readers, but local history buffs who do some sleuthing of their own will find that places like this have a dynamic and fascinating history in their own right.
This air of authenticity of place and history is half the fun of reading “Char Siu.” As Sheik goes about his crime-solving escapades through the darker elements of territorial Honolulu and describes the streets, buildings and businesses along the way, many readers will be able to say, “I know that place” or “I remember that business” or “I think that may be historically accurate.”
There are a number of reasons this work of fiction can seem reality based. For one thing, Kikkawa has done his homework. At a “talk story” session at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i on Saturday, April 22, Kikkawa acknowledged the organization’s Tokioka Heritage Resource Center for its role in helping him with historical research and framing a historical backdrop for “Char Siu.” Another thing is that Kikkawa’s long career in federal law enforcement – his real job – gives him insights into criminal operations and history that are grounded in reality. And his upbringing in Hawai‘i before moving to the U.S. continent for education and work has given him a unique perspective of place, culture and ways of doing things that distinguishes Honolulu from other cities that harbor organized crime.
Kikkawa was drawn to the noir genre because of writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, author of “The Maltese Falcon” (1930), which was later made into a 1941 film of the same name. Noir fiction is typically written in the first person, as “Char Siu” is, and contains a lot of introspection, dialogue and darker themes. The writing style has a certain cadence and rhythm, and the characters a certain style or look. A femme fatale or mysterious seductive female figures importantly in the story in some way. The plot is less about solving a problem or mystery and more about the journey of trying to do so. The ending does not have to have a “clean resolution” where everything gets tidied up and good overcomes bad. As in reality, good and bad co-exist both in the external world and within the human psyche.
Kikkawa said he did not grow up wanting to be a writer, but during a conversation with his friend in a bar on Wai‘alae Avenue one day, he mentioned the lack of mystery fiction set in Hawai‘i, and involving people from Hawai‘i, where culture was integral to the story and not just used for props. “We should probably do better than that,” he said. His friend encouraged him to do it, and the draft for his first book, “Kona Winds,” was born. It eventually ended up at Bamboo Ridge Press. That 2019 publication was followed by “Red Dirt” in 2021.
Kikkawa said that he did not create the character of Sheik based on himself, which is something he gets asked now and then. But insofar as all of the fictional characters in his book originated as a figment of his imagination, to a certain degree there is a part of him in all of them.
“I am none of the characters, and I am all of them,” he explains.
An interesting character trait, if you can call it that, is Kikkawa gives Sheik a surprising facility with Shakespearean dialogue. He’s a literary cop whose rough exterior seems softened and enlightened by the higher arts almost like a samurai warrior whose violence is tempered by the focused and disciplined study of beautiful calligraphy. With the publication of three works of fiction and multiple speaking engagements where he is asked to wax poetic about the art of writing, Kikkawa, too, has become a law enforcement officer with a literary flair whose taste for local culture and history gets embedded in what he writes. If others share this passion, “Char Siu” should be added to the menu of things to read this summer.
To order Scott Kikkawa’s books, visit bambooridge.org or spdbooks.org. His books are also available at The Islander Group and local bookstores da Shop, located at 3565 Harding Ave., phone number 808-421-9460 and Native Books, located at 1164 Nu‘uanu Ave., phone number 808-548-5554.
Born and raised on the island of O‘ahu, Kevin Y. Kawamoto, Ph.D., is a communication and social work educator and has been contributing articles to The Hawai‘i Herald for more than three decades. He is a former Crown Prince Akihito Scholar and East-West Center graduate student fellowship recipient and has lived in Seattle, New York City, and Nagoya, Japan for work and school.