Sun Café: Stories of San Diego

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Photo of the remodeled Sun Cafe interior in 1941. The Obayashi family, which owned the restaurant, were forced to leave San Diego along with 2,000 local Nikkei, many of whom ended up in Poston, Ariz. for the duration of the war. (Photo courtesy of Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego)

Photo of the remodeled Sun Cafe interior in 1941. The Obayashi family, which owned the restaurant, were forced to leave San Diego along with 2,000 local Nikkei, many of whom ended up in Poston, Ariz. for the duration of the war. (Photo courtesy of Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego)

SAN DIEGO — San Diego might have the most perfect climate on Earth, but it’s never been the easiest place to live.

Like America herself, the region has often had a prickly relationship with the multiple peoples and cultures who converge here. Over much of the last century, that was certainly the case for Asian immigrants, as well as their second- and third-generation descendants.

Asian Story Theater’s world premiere of “Stories of the Sun Café” opens Thursday, June 25, at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza.

These are stories of Japanese and Chinese Americans who grew up in San Diego, through the dramatized recollections of community leaders and much quieter voices — and from the perspective of an iconic café that saw it all. Scenes range from the 1920s to the end of the century, a huge range of social change, illuminated through the voices of San Diegans who lived it, and some who helped make it happen.

Subjects include political pioneer Tom Hom, the first Asian American on the City Council, and Joe Yamada, an enormously influential landscape architect whose work at the Embarcadero, UCSD and Sea World continue to shape that industry.

The Sun Cafe first opened in 1921, converted from a shooting gallery that had developed a reputation for also selling soup. From that modest beginning in the heart of the Asian business district on what is now Market Street, the Sun Cafe eventually earned the title of San Diego’s oldest restaurant. Founded by the first-generation Japanese Obayashi family, some 50 years later it was taken over by the Chinese Jeong family.

The café sat at the geographical hub of Japanese and Chinese life in San Diego all the way until 2008, when it was sold again, to become…Funky Garcia’s at the Sun Café.

Friends Umeko Kawamoto, former Sun Café waitress, and Umeko Ruth Voorhies, whose father owned a pool hall in San Diego’s Japantown. Both were interviewed for the Sun Café project. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Martinez)

Friends Umeko Kawamoto, former Sun Café waitress, and Umeko Ruth Voorhies, whose father owned a pool hall in San Diego’s Japantown. Both were interviewed for the Sun Café project. (Photo courtesy of Nancy Martinez)

Creating “Stories of the Sun Café” required more than two years’ collaboration between Asian Story Theater (AST) and two co-presenters: the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego, along with the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum. Each presenter has been integral to the development process, and generously shares historical photos and artifacts that bring the stories to new life on stage.

While the production is directed by Kent Brisby, there is a team orientation to other aspects of this project. Overall script development is by the trio of Andy Lowe from East West Players in Los Angeles, Gingerlily Lowe, and Brisby. Joyce Teague serves as project liaison for the Japanese American community, and museum curator Murray Lee for the Chinese American community.

To dramatize the interviews and source materials contributed by community members, a team of writers were recruited: Thelma Virata Castro, Kevin Six, Gingerlily Lowe, Carol Cabrera, Lloyd Ito, and KL Brisby. The large cast and production team is listed on the Asian Story Theater website (AsianStoryTheater.org), along with more information about each story.

Tickets are $16 general admission, $12 for students, seniors, or active military. Group sales are $10 each for 10 or more. Ticketing is through the Lyceum Theatre Box Office at (619) 544-1000.

The performance schedule consists of two evening shows at 7 p.m. (June 25 and 27), two 2 p.m. matinees (June 27 and 28), and two shorter shows for schools only (June 26). For additional information, contact Kent Brisby at (619) 200-7760.

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