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1-Introductions & Early Life
Hi I'm Nate, I'm Jane, I'm Glynis and we are here April 21, 2005 to interview Bess K. Chin in Berkeley, California.
Please tell us your full name and your date of birth.
You want my whole name? It's Bessie Kieko Kawachi Chin.
And your date of birth?
August 14, 1922.
And what city or town were you born?
Alameda, that's right across the bay from here.
How many siblings do you have?
I have, I have to count, I have three sisters and a brother. My older sister—eleven years older than I—was born here in Berkeley but she went to Japan. She recently died. Then I have one brother, elderly getting forgetful. And then I have a younger sister who has emphysema. I'm the one healthy one right now.
My name is Amanda, my name is Mario, and my name is Will. Today is May 17th, 2006, and we are interviewing Bess Chin in El Cerrito, California.
What is your earliest memory? If you look all the way back what is your earliest memory?
I have been doing my biography so I have gone all the way back looking at photographs of when I was an infant. I don't remember those things, but I have pictures of them. My father was, what did he do? He raised canaries. I don't know that you do that anymore, the kind that sing. And he had goldfish, so he had goldfish ponds and all that. So I remember as a child my younger sister and I opening the cage and letting them go. Other than that I don't remember earlier, oh I do remember my mother's discipline was when I did something bad she put me into a dark closet. We never got spanked. That wasn't the thing, but we were put into a closet.
How long were you put into the closet for?
Oh maybe half an hour. It seemed like forever, right? It's a dark closet. My brother who was the only boy in the family, when he was disciplined he would have to stay upstairs somewhere, and he learned to climb out the window and get out, get outside that way. So that's about ways of disciplining.
Then I lost my father when I was just six years old. This was during Depression. My mother was having a hard time. She had the three kids, and my older sister. My father died the day after she graduated from high school. So any plans for her to go ahead on to college was no, was not something that happened because she had to help raise the rest of us.
So my mother was a Japanese language school teacher, she taught. In the days when we were growing up they had regular school and then after school there was a Japanese language school, and she taught in one of those. We would go to those after school.
Depression, and times are getting hard, and so she decides she needs to do something, and so she remarried, and married a farmer out in Campbell which is near San Jose now. We were city kids and we went to the country, and I must admit that we weren't very nice to the Japanese country kids. So that my friends were the Caucasians who lived in town, and this is how I grew up there. This was from about fifth grade through high school.
Then I went through a time when my mother decided we needed to learn more American ways and the best way to do that was to go live with an American family. In those days they called us "school girls," and we would go and live with a family and help out with dishes or ironing or take care of the kids, this kind of thing. So I did that during my high school. All my friends were Caucasian.
I had just finished high school, started San Jose State when December 7th came along. I had started college, but in those days it was a quarter system. I had just gone one quarter and started the next and decided I couldn't, well, the executive order came out that we had to be leaving, and so then I left the family and went back to live with my mother. The family that I stayed with, they were wonderful. They were just like family, they treated me like family. So that when we go off to camp, oh they thought maybe if they knew someone in the Midwest maybe I could go there, but they didn't. My school teacher thought of this too, and my mother did too. She had a friend in Salt Lake City, and thought maybe we could go there, but her friend said there was nothing for her there, for her to be able to support her family. So we just have to go along with whatever is going to happen to us. So this is why then we just pack up then and go into camp. That time then my mother had married this man who had children, by then he had a son, a daughter who was married and had a child, and a younger son who was about my age.
There were nine of us sent off to the Assembly Center. This was in Pomona Assembly Center, which was, I said, on the Los Angeles County fairgrounds. Their parking lot. That's where we were. A group from San Jose was sent there, so we were there. So there were nine of us in one room. Then my mother got sick, and my sister and I thought we didn't like that set up with my stepfather and his family. They had a social service agency within the camp. We appealed to them and said we would really like to separate, and by the time we moved to Heart Mountain, Wyoming we had our own unit. We took my mother and my sister and I. We had a little end room in the barrack in Heart Mountain. So that's camp, going from Pomona then to Heart Mountain.
Has anybody told you what it was like traveling from an assembly center to the relocation area? Where we went on an old train, five days or more, every time you come to a city you have to pull down the shades. It was an old train, that's all I remember. My mother decided, I had just started college, I could be the spokesperson for the whole car. I'm the one who told them when it was lunch time or meal time. I think I even gathered money for a tip for the people in the dining hall. Of course there must have been two MP's—Military Police soldiers—assigned to each car, so that I would be talking with them. You know I'm young then, I'm still eighteen or so, so at least I had something to do.
After that then we traveled to Wyoming and assigned to our little room. Then my mother still being sick, they decided she had diabetes, so she had to have special food. She couldn't go to the mess hall that everybody else went to. Special food was prepared for her from the hospital kitchen. I think maybe sometimes my sister and I would go to the hospital to get the food, and later on I think they would deliver to what we called the mess hall. That was the dining area where we all went.
Did you face any anti-Asian sentiment as a child before Pearl Harbor?
As a child I did not. The thing was, however, I grew up in Alameda. Alameda had a segregated section for the Japanese, so that the Japanese went to their own church. School, as a kindergartner I went to school in the afternoon. The Japanese children went in the afternoon, the Caucasians went in the morning. This was because we spoke mostly Japanese at home, and it was for us to learn more English. So by first grade we were mixed, but kindergarten, we were segregated.
Church was pretty much segregated. I never thought of going as a child to another church other than the Japanese church. Alameda had a Methodist church, it also had Buddhist temples. There are more Japanese who are Buddhist than there are Christians. So you will always find a large Buddhist temple in most of the communities and that's how it was. We did not associate too much with Buddhist kids, as it were, because we had our own. My brother tells a story of where he wanted to play basketball on the Buddhist temple courtyard and he was told not to because he's Christian. So there's, again, segregation within the community. But that would be the only thing that I would have because, I took piano lessons from the Caucasian woman. I had joined Girl Scouts for a little bit, and that was, I think I was the only Japanese in there.
Do you know the history of your family that led them to be Methodist and not Buddhist? Can you recount that?
It's interesting because my mother comes from a family where her sister married a Zen priest. She was Buddhist, and in Japan there are also Shintos. But somehow she came to this country. In those days infant mortality was high, and she had lost two infants. We have a picture of one of them where there's a Buddhist priest, so she was a Buddhist when she first came. I don't know what caused her to become converted into a Christian, but she became a very devout Christian. So that my name, the Japanese name, Kieko, comes from a book written by a well-known Japanese evangelist [Toyohiko Kagawa]. Kieko meaning "blessing of happiness." She became a devout Christian, and we were raised Christian.
So as a child what were some of your hobbies or what did you like to do when you were a little kid?
Oh, that's interesting. Beause what did I do, what do you do as a child? I think there was a neighborhood group and I remember we had like a porch where we could play games or putting on plays. What else would we have done? You play house. I was not athletic, so I don't remember doing anything, playing any sports. We went to watch them because there'd be a Japanese baseball team. We'd go watch that. My brother was interested in track, but I was not athletic and I am just trying to think what else would I have done. I read a lot. My brother tells me we had rented this big house, and he said up in the attic there were all these books. That's where he learned to read. He learned all the classics by reading those. Some of that I think trickled down to us.
Did you have a lot of close friends in your neighborhood?
Kids in the neighborhood, yes.
Were they mostly Caucasian?
No, because the Japanese had to live only in a certain area in Alameda. The neighbors were mostly Japanese. However, you know I gave a talk in Alameda at a senior center and my picture appeared in the paper. The organization got a phone call, and it turns out he knew me back in kindergarten. Kindergarten through fourth grade and I said, "Winterbauer"? The name doesn't mean anything to me." A German name, because you know when you are kids you only call them by their first name. Then I said, "I know who you are. I've got a school picture of you and you are sitting there in overalls." He said, "Yes." He said, "You were there until about the fourth grade and you disappeared." Because that's when my mother remarried then we left. But he remembered oh so much about grade school. It was interesting. He was German who lived through World War II.
Were you close with your mother? What was your family dynamic like?
Close to my mother, I think my mother kind of ruled the roost as it were. As a child I did a lot of Japanese dancing. It's not exactly folk dancing, but it was dances that go along with the Japanese songs for children. I did a lot of that, and my mother was always pushing me. I don't know why I did it, because my younger sister didn't. Then I also learned, there's a Japanese classic, the Noh plays, and as a child I learned some of those, the Noh dances. That was what I did.
Would you say that your family was more culturally Japanese or culturally American, when you were growing up?
Growing up was more Japanese because we were told you speak English outside, but once you come in the house you speak Japanese. Our food, of course, was all Japanese. I think this is why as I grew up later, my mother would say she wanted us to learn the American ways, so this is why we go live with an American family.
Can you tell us more about your mom getting remarried? How did you feel about that? Did you like the man?
We knew nothing. That time, children weren't told anything. All we were told was we were moving. Didn't even know where we were moving to, and we move. On the way, we stop off in San Jose at a church. I thought my sister, older sister, who is much older than I had gotten married, and I thought this ceremony is just like hers. My brother walked out. He was a sophomore in high school and he wasn't told that we were moving because my mother was remarrying. Here we are, we have the ceremony and then in those days the reception was always at a Chinese restaurant. This was in San Jose, Japantown. Then we go to the house. In our room there's a girl already, because that was her room and my sister and I shared that. My brother shares a room with the young boy there. I think it was a shock for all of us. Here we are just uprooted from the city into the country into a family we didn't know. So it took us a bit of adjustment there.
How long do you think that took?
We were still kids though we were about sixth grade, fifth, sixth grade, so it didn't take too long. I think it was harder for my brother, but not for me or for my younger sister, because then we are going to school and we make friends. We're still, this is the day and the Santa Clara Valley was still a farming community. You don't see a farm there anymore. So we had to walk a half a mile to catch the school bus and there'd be kids along the way, and so we'd become friends with them. So it didn't take long, and then going to school make friends.
By seventh grade, though, my mother decided we should go to Japan and meet our grandparents, see what their life is like. We were there for two years. So I learned what living in Japan was like. This was seventh, eighth grade, and I went to an all girls' school. My brother went to a boys' school, and my sister, younger one, was put into first grade because she didn't know much Japanese and so here she was about third grade by then; she was the tall one always in the school pictures. It was an interesting experience going to a school in Japan because this was a private girls' school run by Presbyterians. It's the American Presbyterians that had started this school, so it's what we would have called the mission school. There were just a few of us from England, America. Where else were they from? Korea. We formed a group of our own called the English club, and were able to speak English sometimes, and meet each other, get together. The teacher who taught English was from the States; the principal for years had been American. That was an interesting experience, because I could speak Japanese but I couldn't read it or write it enough to know history or geography, manners, also customs. That was an interesting experience. At least I knew then I'm American and not Japanese.
How long were you there? Why and when did you come back?
Two years. My mother thought maybe if she could find work there, she would stay there with us, but she couldn't find anything really. She had been a kindergarten teacher, but I don't know that she wanted to go back to being a teacher, I don't know.
Did you move back to San Jose?
We came back to San Jose, yes.
Can you talk a little bit more about this relationship that you mentioned between you, the urban community, which moved to the country?
To the country and the way I treated the other Japanese? I think now, I was a snob. Because here I'm the city kid and I'm with the country kids. In Japan, depending on the area where you lived, there's the strong dialects. My mother being from Tokyo was very proud of that fact that she's from Tokyo, and that's how we grew up. These kids speak a different dialect, it doesn't sound Japanese and it took us a while to understand what they were saying. Their way of living was quite different from anything we had known. As an example, my mother, having come from the city, having taught there in this farmhouse, was invited to a neighbor's, a Japanese. I think the poor lady there didn't know how to treat my mother except serve tea. In those days they had candy, wrapped up butterballs or something. She put them in the dish with chopsticks. This was how she was going to treat my mother. My mother comes home and tells us that kind of story so you know, we are all more snobbish. I just was not very friendly with the Japanese kids. There weren't that many in Campbell anyway.
You said that their way of living was different. Can you give an example? Are there any other examples?
They have what they call the bathhouse. Did anybody tell you about this one? The Japanese way of taking a bath is quite different from ours in that they—lets see, what's a good way of saying it? There's a big tub and then outside would be all tiles, and you wash yourself clean before you ever get into the tub. The tub is deep and usually a big one. You know when we lived in Alameda we had regular bath tubs. We went to the country and here was this bath house outside, and it's a metal box-like thing and they have a rack which floats so that when you get on it, you know you go on down. This is outside and you build a fire under it to get the bathtub hot. This was a brand new experience to us and you have to be sure, someone says, that you wash yourself before you get into the tub because everybody else is going to be getting into that tub and there's to be no soap scum. Soap scum is it? That was a brand new experience. You'll find if you go to Japan that's the way they bathe. You wash yourself clean first then you hop into the bathtub.
So the purpose of the bath is different?
That's right. You get warm in the bathtub; you get clean before you get in.
Did you live in the country when Pearl Harbor happened or were you living back in the city?
I was in Saratoga living with this American family, and my mother was teaching. In the country she taught on weekends, because the kids couldn't go after school to the Japanese language school, so they went on weekends. She was teaching, Pearl Harbor that day, and I was with this family in Saratoga.
How did you get to work for the family or live with them?
How did I get there? My mother must have put an ad in the paper. "Mother's Helper" I think is what they were called. A lady came and interviewed me, and I went to live with the family. On weekends, Sundays was my day off, so I would go home on Sunday. Pearl Harbor is when my mother was teaching. My brother by then had been drafted into the army, and he was at Camp Roberts and he would come home on weekends. So he was home that weekend and my mother's teaching, 'til about noon, she comes home and there's the radio. We hear Pearl Harbor. Of course my brother immediately went back to camp to his headquarters. We didn't know what was going to happen, so we just went on living as usual. Until we get the order in February.