INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Lester Chung Talks Story About ‘Manzanar Fishing Club’

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Ever since hearing about the recently released documentary titled “The Manzanar Fishing Club,” I’ve wanted to see it. When I learned that an old pal of mine was one of its filmmakers, I not only wanted to see it even more, I wanted to speak with him. His name is Lester Chung.

I’ve known Chung for more than 20 years, going back to before he got married to his wife, Jennifer Quong, whom I actually met before meeting him, when she and I were both active in the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association.

Lester and Jennifer were also involved with a made-for-TV magazine show in Gardena titled “U.S. Asians,” the brainchild of a fellow named Jon Sekiguchi, who at the time ran Rainbow Video, a video production company. I attended a couple of meetings to see about getting involved with the show, but my participation was pretty limited. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Sekiguchi is still sitting on the tapes from that show; it was a real pioneering effort, one of the first attempts to produce an Asian American-focused program.)

Back then I socialized a bit with Lester, a lifelong South Bay resident who introduced me to a place he worked out at, the IMB Academy. I also met his older brother, Barry. Jennifer, meantime, worked at KNX radio at the time, before moving to Toyota, where she remains employed. (Jennifer also is a producer-writer for Talk Story Media.) I’ve kept up with them intermittently through the years.

As I got to know Les better, I learned about his deep interest in videography, one that he continues today through his company, Talk Story Media. Also in the present, they have two daughters, Jackie, 16, and Jami, 12. The last time I bumped into Les was a couple of years ago when he was attending a basketball awards jamboree for his daughters. It was brief, however, so there wasn’t really a chance for him to tell me then about his involvement with “Manzanar Fishing Club.”

According to Lester, the roots of the movie go back about seven years. But he’d heard about incarcerees of Manzanar sneaking out to go fishing when he was a youngster. That because when he was growing up, his brother’s best friend was from the Hashimoto family, while one of his friends hailed from the Shimizu family.

John Gengl (with mic) and Lester Chung (with video camera) while on location to shoot “The Manzanar Fishing Club.” (Photos courtesy of Lester Chung)

“Both our friends’ parents were in Manzanar and they would talk about fishing at Manzanar. So, even as far back as elementary school I knew about these stories of these internees going fishing,” Chung told me. He also mentioned reading an article in The L.A. Times years ago about Manzanar incarcerees who’d sneak out of the camp to go fishing. He mentioned to his Talk Story Media partner, John Gengl, how this would be a “great story for a documentary.” This fit in with Talk Story Media’s mission.

“We knew when we started our company, we wanted to produce documentaries,” Chung said. “At the beginning, we were always having development meetings, looking for stories to produce documentaries (about).”

Shortly after mentioning the idea of making a documentary about fishing at Manzanar, Chung chanced upon a flyer posted at a Gardena sushi restaurant. The person who posted it was Cory Shiozaki, who wanted to interview still-living former incarcerees who fished so he could get their oral histories.

“I saw this flyer and saw this guy was researching this topic that we were interested in doing a documentary on, and so we were saying, ‘If he’s already done the homework, why don’t we partner up with this guy and do a documentary?’ ” said Chung. He cold-called Shiozaki and they were on their way. Shiozaki became the docu’s producer-director; Chung its producer-cameraman, Gengl producer-soundman and Richard Imamura producer-writer.

While they didn’t have any funding, they knew the clock was ticking, as many of those who they wanted to interview were elderly. Once they passed on, those stories would be gone. Fortunately, since Gengl and Chung already owned high-end gear to record the video and audio, they started simply by accompanying Shiozaki as he gathered his oral histories. Along they way, they got some grant money, but it really was a labor of love.

Chung sets up a shot at the entrance to Manzanar.

Now, however, after a long gestation, “The Manzanar Fishing Club” is a completed documentary. It presents a little-known, maybe even quirky aspect to the Japanese American WWII experience. Many studies, books and documentaries focus on how President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 uprooted Japanese American communities along the West Coast and what a major disruption it was to people’s lives, businesses, educations and so on, not to mention being completely un-American from a constitutional and civil rights perspective.

Meantime, here are these people going fishing while imprisoned? Doesn’t that sound, well, fun?

That, according to Chung, is one of the main points of their documentary. While acknowledging that forced removal and imprisonment of U.S. citizens and legal residents based upon one’s ancestry was wrong, the fact that there were those who risked getting into trouble — getting shot to death, even — to enjoy a bit of freedom, to mentally escape their captivity even for a short while to engage in something as elemental as fishing in the great outdoors, showed that they were able to retain some of the humanity stripped by government edict.

Chung also mentioned how instrumental was the participation of Alan Sutton, a former Universal Pictures executive, who helped guide the project toward becoming a completed feature-length documentary.

Chung noted that his while company does lots of industrial movie projects, it is always interested in producing new documentaries and hearing from people who might be interested in working with Talk Story and hiring its services. For example, right now he says the company is working with actor Jack Ong and the Haing S. Ngor Foundation to create a series on Asian American history. “We’re always interested in that next story,” he said.

To learn more about Talk Story Media, visit their website.

Meantime, “The Manzanar Fishing Club” is still in theaters. I know the lure (no pun intended) to see “The Avengers” is probably greater than seeing a movie about Japanese Americans going fishing, but if you want a break from costumed adventurers saving the world, click here for showtimes, theaters and tickets.

Finally, to see about 20 minutes of footage, click here. Not having seen the movie’s final cut, I can say that this footage shows high-quality production values and makes me want to eventually see “Manzanar Fishing Club” even more.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2012 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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