What is there to see in Chicago, anyway? That’s what I heard from more than one person when I told them I was going there to visit. Our friends Yas and Nancy Gohata had gone there a few years ago for their 45th anniversary and brought back entertaining stories of the museums, boat rides and other attractions. The Chicago I remembered from 67 years ago was very different from the Chicago we experienced last week. There were flowers around the sidewalks, the streets were clean and the people friendly.
My divorced mother met my father-to-be in Santa Anita. My dad, Tunney, had raced hot rods in the dry lakes of Southern Cal and had a good knowledge of Ford engines, which enabled him to get a job as a mechanic at a cab company in Milwaukee, Wis. — about an hour’s drive from Chicago. Every few months we would drive to Chicago to get a 100-pound sack of rice. We relished stopping by in Chinatown for dim sum and took in a movie before heading back. We visited my Uncle Henry, who lived next to the elevated train. There was a housing shortage and that was all that was available.
We wondered how he slept at night with the trains rumbling by every few minutes. On our visit last week we made good use of the “L” going to some of the places of interest. The public transportation system worked very well.
Because of not being allowed to return to the West Coast during the war, Chicago was a popular place for resettlement. We know of a few JA men who got out of camp and because of the housing shortage, rented a one-room apartment. They worked different shifts at a plant, which allowed them to sleep in the same bed — in shifts! These men developed some strong bonds and remain friends to this day.
Marion and I were in Chicago with our friends Yo and Tak Motoyasu, Yo’s sister, Mits Tomita, and Sumi Yamaguchi. Tak has a friend, Bill “Wee Gee” Ujiiye, who was good enough to pick us up in his son’s van and give us a tour of the city. Bill, we found out, has a brother who was married to the sister of our friend, Mas Yamashita. Their daughter, Diane, is a director of the Asian and Pacific Islander California Action Network. Tak and Bill were in the All Nation’s Boys Club based in downtown L.A. before the war.
Bill and some of these boys were part of the 379th Drum and Bugle Corps in Heart Mountain. Fourteen of them, including Tak, have reunions when Bill comes to town to visit his daughter and her family in Pasadena. Bill has three other children whose families, with the exception of his daughter, live in the Chicago area. Bill says he came to Chicago from Heart Mountain at age 15. As we drove by, he proudly pointed out his alma mater, Lake-view High, which was located close to Wrigley Field. And we drove down Clark Street, where the Japanese businesses were located. The intersection of Clark and Division streets was the hub of the JA community in the north, and Hyde Park in the south was the other area where they settled. Hyde Park is home of the University of Chicago, where President Obama taught for 12 years in the 1990s.
Despite a labor shortage during the war, Bill’s father, as well as other JAs, had trouble finding jobs. Bill’s father got a job at a wholesale company, where Bill and some relatives and friends also got jobs later on. Bill told a familiar refrain: “When they found out how hard we worked, they hired a lot of us.”
Bill went to the University of Illinois and became a CPA. In the mid-1950s he had trouble finding a job. He was told, quite openly, he was not hired because he was Japanese. Bill credits the civil rights movement of the ’60s for opening the doors for employment.
Chicago was a great place to visit, and our encounter with Bill Ujiiye was the highlight for me. Some people yearn for days gone by. Forget the “good old days.” These days are the best days of my life, and I am glad to have had the chance to see Chicago once again.
Phil Shigekuni can be reached by email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.