by Glenn Nelson, contributing columnist
The first major local protest ignited by the murder of George Floyd swelled in downtown Seattle and started exhibiting elements of violence. It seemed almost predictable when the flummoxed police force began funneling the mostly white crowd of vandals south. Already in coronavirus lockdown, Lei Ann Shiramizu watched it all unfold on television.
Reports Shiramizu heard about police tactics indicated the group was being herded straight into the Chinatown-International District (C-ID). The mounting images being beamed to the public, of busted windows and other forms of vandalism, were like zaps to her psyche.
“My baby is out there,” was the urgent thought that crossed her mind.
One of the culturally important intersections in Seattle’s C-ID is South Jackson Street at Sixth Avenue South, the unofficial starting point of the city’s revitalized Japantown. Nihon Machi, as it’s known in Japanese, had been disintegrating in earnest since the World War II mass incarceration of people of Japanese descent. Precisely on that corner sat Shiramizu’s “baby,” Momo, next door to another Japanese American business Kobo, which occupies the historically significant Higo Variety Store space.
Shiramizu and her husband, Tom Kleifgen, had opened Momo more than 12 years earlier. They named it with the Japanese word for “peach,” signifying longevity and a happy, lucky life. They intended to be literal about it. Now her small business, and its mission of spreading joy, seemed on the verge of being sacrificed to protect Seattle’s downtown-based (read: white) power elite.
“We’re expendable,” Shiramizu recalled thinking. “Our neighborhood often gets short-shrifted. It seemed so unfair to me.”
Because the idea of Asian American expendability crashed the American zeitgeist after the murders in Atlanta-area massage parlors, it seems like a recent concept. But define “recent.” We’re as intimate in this region with the dirty little secret of Asian hate as anywhere. Seattle infamously and violently expelled more than 200 people of Chinese descent, chasing them down to our now ballyhooed waterfront in 1886. Bainbridge was the first place in the country from which people of Japanese descent were forcibly removed in 1942, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.
And if those citations seem too ancient, it was barely over a year ago that Gayle Coston Barge, a Bellevue College vice president, defaced a mural about the World War II incarceration by artist Erin Shigaki, who is Japanese American.
Asian Americans have been the largest non-white population in this city, by a wide margin, since forever. Yet this place has rarely felt like a haven.
I grew up in Seattle hearing my mother being called a “dirty Jap,” then trying to furiously scrub out my own dirty Jap-ness in the bathtub. I coached a mostly Asian American basketball team called the Dragons, which felt inspired until opposing crowds suggested our girls learn to play with rice balls instead of basketballs and mock-Asian, “ching-chong, ah-so” gibberish became a constant soundtrack for our games. The fan mail from my writing includes a substantial share of racially inspired death threats, including an offer to send me back to Japan in a pine box.
But we’re mostly not invisible or unforgotten, just unconsidered. Until, that is, America needs takeout or a scapegoat. It certainly cannot be a surprise that Donald J. Trump’s “China flu/Kung flu/Wuhan flu” racist naming conventions were not original. During my lifetime, we’ve also had the “Asian flu” and “Hong Kong flu” as official influenza designations. We’ve also had the “swine flu,” even though H1N1 originated in Mexico and had its breakout moment in California. Where we once fretted about the so-called “Africanized killer bees,” we now fear the “Asian giant hornets.” If goods are inferior, they must have been made in Japan, then China, and now, I suppose, Vietnam or Thailand. Asians routinely are mocked for absence of originality in product design, even though two of the world’s most notorious knockoff artists are U.S. companies based in Seattle — Amazon and REI.
Asian Americans have long occupied a racial netherworld in which other groups of color presume us as essentially white, even though white people don’t accept us as even marginally close to being like them as other non-white groups assume. That makes us convenient wedges in the usual Black/white binary of racial discourse in America. Recent examples include the fight over affirmative action in places like Harvard or Washington State during the I-1000 debate as well as the media focus on Black suspects in some attacks against Asian elderly.
There is plenty of anti-Blackness in Asian American communities, but we, of course, are not deploying ourselves as wedges. When I went to photograph the C-ID last summer, a sea of Asian-owned businesses stood in solidarity, through their murals, with the Black Lives Matter movement. I think that surprised a lot of non-Asians who just don’t view us the way we view ourselves — as supportive, bona fide members of the same racially discriminated and oppressed club as our Black, Latino, and Native sisters and brothers.
Still, it chafes to even refer to Asian Americans (which I’ve been doing to make a point), as if we are a monolith. Asian immigrants come to the United States from more than 18 different countries, according to U.S. Census data. That means at least as many different customs and languages, longstanding divisions and rivalries, and a large spectrum of cuisine and skin tones. Many of us accede to the grouping because non-Asians cannot tell us apart, nor seem willing to expend any energy doing so, and it’s both a cultural imperative and a self-defense mechanism (given our history in this country) to not make waves.
The apparent duality of Lei Ann Shiramizu’s 2020 experience — her outward grace and cheer in the face of unrelenting, anxiety-provoking challenges — is evidence of how effectively she employed coping mechanisms Asian Americans and other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities developed over centuries in an othering, white-supremacist society.
Embracing the sense of being forsaken has prompted Asian American communities to become self-sufficient, even self-contained. This has led to being described by everyone else as “tightly woven,” “secretive,” or the unfortunate label, “exotic,” which plays into the kind of fetishization that likely contributed to the recent murder of six Asian women in Georgia. Truth is, the we-can-do-it-ourselves culture of Asian Americans has evolved from naked necessity and has become self-perpetuating by its success. Witness the stick-wielding elderly Asian woman, who put her San Francisco assailant on a stretcher last week.
Such Asian American self-care left Shiramizu feeling “alarmed and amazed” that day the Seattle police essentially bulldozed protesters into the C-ID. She was alarmed by the rampant vandalism that occurred on the south side of Jackson but amazed that the north side, with its parade of Asian businesses, including Momo, was left unscathed. Neighborhood scuttlebutt credits two local champions who stood watch and ensured that the unruly crowd left the businesses alone.
Residents and business owners have long believed the C-ID to be chronically under-policed. That frustration percolates at a high degree over the still-unsolved 2015 murder of Donnie Chin, the much-beloved champion of safety and justice in the neighborhood. That lack of priority, and the resultant invisibility of the neighborhood to police, probably most reveals the force’s lack of intention and consideration when they introduced potentially violent protesters into the C-ID — excusing neither.
Scrambling to save her business, Shiramizu started opening her shop while the C-ID was still a lockdown-mandated ghost town. Doing so made her more vulnerable, a target for some yellow-fevered white dude who could have been having a “bad day.” Of the some 3,800 anti-Asian acts of hate reported nationwide to the group Stop AAPI Hate since March 2020, 68% were committed against women of Asian descent. Washington state had the third most reported incidents, after California and New York.
Shiramizu found her own guardian angels — local restaurant workers who walked her to her car at night. She and Kleifgen also exercised self-defense, three times emptying Momo of its goods to make it a less-appealing target for looters. Hastily gathering and piling Momo’s inventory into her sister-in-law’s SUV took about four hours; restocking and rebuilding the shop’s displays required a long, 8–12-hour day. With the exception of some indignities that weren’t directed at her — the occasional human waste left in Momo’s doorway — she survived the ordeal without incident.
“I never felt in danger,” Shiramizu said. “I was either naïve or I just walked boldly.” She added that the intergenerational respect that is strong in Asian cultures helps the C-ID make up for the absence of traditional policing.
The undercurrent of race-based peril only increased the usual degree of difficulty for maintaining a business during a pandemic. Shiramizu tried just about everything. She and her workers photographed all their merchandise and created an online store; one of the offshoots was Momo To Go, in which customers supported the business in exchange for a cache of delicately gift-wrapped goodies. A couple once commissioned Shiramizu for $300 worth of personalized to-go wares; it made her feel like Santa Claus. An outdoor event in Chiyo’s Garden was washed out by a torrential downpour that prompted all goods to be relocated back to Momo in record time. But other special events attracted lines that stretched from the little shop with COVID-limited space, up Jackson Street.
At the end of August, Shiramizu and Kleifgen announced the inevitable — Momo’s permanent closure. The disclosure prompted many loving lamentations. By the end of October, it was over. A couple of former vendors have since opened Sairen at the location.
The pandemic and threat of vandalism did not cause Momo’s demise, Shiramizu says, but they accelerated it.
“I feel strangely lucky to have been able to experience it,” she said. “It was like going to your own funeral, except you were still alive and you got to hear what people thought about you. I know it seems kind of perverse that I — I don’t know if the word is ‘enjoyed’ — but it was really one of the most touching experiences of my life.”
While she plots her next move, Shiramizu has been operating Japantown Seattle’s social media channels. Her strategy with them is the same as it was at Momo — to lift others and spread cheer. That means as concerned as she is about the roiling anti-Asian climate, Shiramizu has refrained from any overt political messaging.
You consequently won’t find the wildly proliferating #StopAsianHate hashtag on any of Shiramizu’s posts. She isn’t keen on her cultural and racial appellation being sandwiched by two negative words — stop and hate. She’d much prefer something like “#StartAsianLove.”
Thirteen years after she came up with the peachily positive concept of Momo, Lei Ann “Lala” Shiramizu may be on to something once again.
A contributing columnist, Glenn Nelson is a Japanese American journalist and lifetime South Seattle resident who founded trailposse.com and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race. Follow him @trailposse on Twitter or @thetrailposse on Instagram.
Featured Image: Mural in the Chinatown-International District. (Photo: Glenn Nelson)
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