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JCCCW Omoide Story: The Big Bad Boys

By Bettie Luke, For the North American Post

During WWII, Japanese families were taken from our community in Seattle, Washington and forced into concentration camps. Public fear and hostility caused some in the remaining community, to express their anger and disdain. With Japanese gone, others became targets. As a young child, I remember the teen-aged boys.

Mid-morning sun shone through the old glass of the front window of our hand laundry. I looked at the faded, chipped, red letters outlined in yellow. The letters were painted backwards on the inside of the window. From the outside, the letters read; “Henry’s Hand Laundry”. I still remember the address– 907 James Street.

This laundry belonged to someone else in the Chinese community, who was moving away. Our family of eight was lucky to move here from our old laundry in the University District. That landlady evicted us, by tripling the rent. Her quote in the newspaper was “We’re at war and I can’t tell them apart!”

A brief shadow brushed the top of the padded ironing table set against the wall, as A-Bah (Pop) walked by. None of my brothers and sisters was home and the place was quiet as A-Mah (Mom) carried me across the room. She stopped near the counter where wood shelves held stacked packages of clean laundry, ready for customers. I liked the bright blue color of the paper wrapping these neat bundles tied with white string. I felt happy in A-Mah’s arms – this was my favorite place to be.

When A-Mah carried me, I got to look at her pretty earrings. Small precious opal gems nestled in a delicate swirl, made of heavy Chinese gold. I loved to stare at their iridescent colors that changed as I made tiny movements of my head. At just the right angle, a pinpoint of color would flash into a starburst.

Pink was the most common color, but I would keep making minute shifts, trying to catch my favorite color – a turquoise burst of light! The gold setting of her earrings curved up past the round opals into a mean-looking hook going through a hole near the bottom of her ear. It didn’t seem to hurt her though.

Without warning, I heard a crash! The big bad boys were back! A-Mah’s body jerked at the sound of a breaking bottle. Another, and then another– a quick volley of muted thuds against the window and glass door.

What were they throwing: fruit, rocks, eggs?

Then I heard mean laughter, “Dirty Japs!” and the vigorous slaps of leather shoes hitting pavement.

“E-Gah-Mah-Hoon!” A-Bah swore and charged towards the front door. Through the glass door, he saw the boys turn left at the corner. He knew there was an open field of grass next to an abandoned house in back of our laundry.

“E-Gah-Mah-Hai!” “E-Gah-Mah-Hoon!” A-Bah turned and dove down the narrow hall to the back room. I felt the squeeze of my mother’s arms as she quickly followed him.

Both doors to the cupboard were flung open as A-Bah reached for the top shelf. I heard rustling of the brown paper bag and a heavy thud on the wood counter

A gun!

In one swift movement, A-Bah was at the back door and jerked it open! This was a door with a sheet of metal covering the entire door, 3 click locks, a door handle lock and an iron bar across the door. Never had I seen that heavy back door opened so fast!

A-Mah’s mouth silently opened, as she stepped back in fear and put me down. I was drawn to where A-Bah was tensely poised. Quietly, I stood in back of his right knee, where my eyes skimmed the wrinkle patterns in the heavy tan fabric of his pants. He was silent now – not swearing.

A flurry of blurred movement and a couple of whoops, “Woohoo Chinky man!” A-Bah raised his right arm.

BLAM!

My nose twitched from the sharp smell as I watched thin swirls of smoke curling upwards. I scanned the grass field.

Oh Darn – A-Bah missed!

I must have said something out loud. The next thing I knew, I was no longer standing behind the wrinkled tan pants.

In a short time, I was happily propped back in A-Mah’s arms again. She stood in the front room. The sun produced oddshaped shadows from the smashed stuff thrown at our window.

I watched a blob of something — slowly slide down the window. It formed a gooey bulb perched on the edge of the windowsill and then plopped over the side, into a mess on the sidewalk.

A-Bah stared resolutely out the window. He would not be sweeping up the broken glass and rubble, until the police arrived. They had been called and we waited. I already knew the police station was just four blocks away, directly down James Street hill from our laundry.

After A-Mah took a deep breath and sighed, I asked: “A-Mah, why does it take the police so long to get here?”

In an instant, her normally pleasant, placid expression flickered off her face. It was replaced by an expression I had not seen before and could not explain: worry, fear, helplessness?

Although I did not understand how to interpret her expression, I understood that my question upset her. I immediately knew not to ever ask her that question again.

As for the big bad boys – they never came back.

Bettie Luke is a member of the well -known pioneer Seattle
Chinatown (ID) Luke Family Association. She is a certified cultural and diversity instructor. Ms. Luke is a longtime member of the Omoide writing group.

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JCCCW Omoide
Omoide is developed under an umbrella of organizations supported in part by the Nikkei Heritage Association of Washington and the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington. To date, the Omoide team has introduced the project to several thousand students, 200 teachers, and 400 members of the general public over the past 12 years. These personal accounts have encouraged open dialog and discussions of constitutional rights, personal history, cultural development, immigrant experiences in the US, family values, multi-cultural issues and much more.