THROUGH THE FIRE: ‘Chronicles of a Sansei Rocker’: A Tribute to Sansei Coming of Age in the 1960s

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By MARY UYEMATSU KAO

Growing up in Sierra Madre in the 1950s and early ’60s created two Sansei girls starving for a Japanese American social life. My sister Amy and I experienced the common brush-off from the hakujin we grew up with when it came to dating. Amy felt it more sharply than I, being older, and belonging to an active social group of hakujin friends since elementary school. I was more the loner. This was life in a predominantly white small-town suburb.

Somehow, through a Long Beach guy named Walter Kurata, Amy and I were to enjoy occasional visits from Walter and his Long Beach buddies. Our family always marveled at how nice it was for these guys to travel all the way from Long Beach to visit us — some 37+ miles away. All the guys were seniors in high school, Amy was a year behind them, and I was a 9th grader in junior high. But what a glamorous world to be around these Sansei high schoolers!

This is how I met Harry Manaka. Harry, one of the Long Beach guys, asked me on a double-date with another Long Beach guy and Amy. I remember riding in the backseat with Harry, freaked out going on a date with someone so much older than me — like a whole three years older! Haha! I figured I was allowed to tag along on this double-date to chaperone Amy.

The only thing I remember from that double-date was going to Rodger Young and seeing the backlit profiles of guys in the darkened auditorium, with their pompadour “fronts” reaching out and up from their foreheads and then descending back down in a smooth wave. For a junior high school kid, it was beyond my imagination of what “cool” could be.

Harry and Chris Manaka (Photo by Ashley Manaka)

Come my senior year in high school, I was sewing a new dress every week to wear to the coming weekend dances. Sometimes, there would be dances Friday and Saturday night. For a teenage girl who’d been starved from growing up with other Sansei, the Sansei dance scene was the best thing happening since my grandma’s fried chicken. And that’s when I saw Harry again, this time as a performer on keyboards for Somethin’ Else. Now, he was **The Show!**

Fast-forward to May of this year, the silver lining of this pandemic reconnected Harry and me through our mutual friend, Nick Nagatani. Nick’s book “Buddhahead Trilogy” inspired Harry to try his hand at self-publishing his story from his Sansei rocker days. And Nick referred Harry to me — I was the connection to the printer as well as having three decades’ experience publishing books from my job at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center. I had just self-published my own book, so I thought I could give Harry a hand.

Through a volley of emails, Harry reminded me that our double-date was to a Don Julian and the Meadowlarks performance at Rodger Young Auditorium — home to many Sansei dances. And then the wow factor kicked in — Harry and his wife Chris were thumbing through the pages of my book “Rockin’ the Boat,” and Chris found a picture of her bachan in my chapter on the Pioneer Project wildflower trip better known as the hanami (flower-viewing). Even though Chris and I have never met, we now have an affinity with each other (besides Harry).

Harry described the evolution of his book in our catching-up emails:

“Nick was the first person who actually referred to me as a ‘fellow author!’ I started out wanting to document memories from my time playing in bands, for the sake of my kids and grandkids, who knew nothing about my younger days. I realized my past was intertwined with so many other musicians and performers from that era, that the story would be incomplete without getting their viewpoint of the dance party era.

“Since the pandemic had caused everybody to be sheltered in place, soon I had contacted over 45 different people from that era. What started out as a small project turned into 16 chapters!

“I write extensively of the evolution of the dances. In the early days, they were sponsored by Asian sororities and fraternities, and also Asian clubs like the Chanels, Novelles, Jeunes, Anjeulés, Akumyos, etc. The bands were mainly from East L.A., such as the Emeralds, the Ambertones, the Blue Satins, Cannibal and the Headhunters, Thee Midniters, and others. It wasn’t until the mid-sixties that Asians started integrating into the bands. I interviewed former members of the East L.A. groups, in addition to the Asian bands.

“Initially, I was going to the dances as a spectator, but was fascinated by the whole mystique of what I refer to as ‘The Show.’ I detail The Show in my book, including the muscle cars, dress, hairdos, types of dances and styles back in those days.

“When one of the guys in Somethin’ Else got drafted, the band started breaking up and I was there to step in. This was in late 1966. I was lucky to play in two of the bands from the Sansei Dance Party era — the Somethin’ Else and Long Time Comin’.”

Harry has documented a time period in the baby boomer Sansei lives that was probably unique to the L.A.-area Sansei culture, because we arguably had the largest population of JAs in the country. This dance party scene with all the Asian bands that it produced was truly a well-loved sub-culture for many of us. It was so well-loved, there continues to be a Sansei dance scene going on today!

“Chronicles of a Sansei Rocker gives you an insider’s backstage view of the bands that this Sansei generation (roughly born between 1943-1960) were fortunate to enjoy. “Chronicles” is an important historical documentation of all the Sansei bands that played in the Southern California area, including the names of all the players of each band and what instruments they played. Stories of behind-the-scenes happenings gives you a flavor of what this culture was like, as well as the overall Sansei dance scene. Here is a sample from “Chronicles”:

“I can still remember as if it were yesterday, driving down Don Felipe Drive and turning into the driveway leading to the Parkview parking lot. There usually were several people waiting at the back-door entrance to ‘help’ the bands with their equipment. They didn’t ask, they usually just picked stuff up and disappeared into the main hall. We all knew that they were doing this to avoid buying a bid to the event. It’s funny that they were never around at the conclusion of the evening to help load and pack the equipment up!”

Harry has recorded what has only existed as Sansei folklore until now. He has a chapter on comfort food, detailing all the favorite “after-party” hangouts. His book is dedicated to his former Baby Lion (bar and supper club) co-owner, David Jingu. At age 27, David Sakae Jingu, whom Harry celebrates as the “premier guitarist of the Sansei Dance Party Era,” was fatally shot in an altercation between customers that he was trying to break up.

As Gerald Ishibashi, entertainment promoter and producer, writes in the book’s foreword: “I had received a phone call late one afternoon from the FBI asking if I knew Harry Manaka. My first thought was, what has Harry gotten himself into?! It turned out my friend was being vetted for a top position in Washington, D.C. and he had listed me as a personal character reference. Harry went on to become one of the top Asian Americans in the Internal Revenue Service, eventually traveling the country speaking, training and motivating professionals in this vast organization.”

Sansei rocker Harry Manaka went on to become the national director of IRS Office of Collection Field Operations. How’s that for a dramatic career transition?!

So if you want to shake off your creaky joints and get your groove back on, “Chronicles of a Sansei Rocker” will help get your couch potato ass off the sofa and hit some of those old R&B tunes on YouTube.

“Chronicles of a Sansei Rocker” is a 219-page narrative, complete with over 160 images (ISBN 978-1-7353147-0-9). This is a great buy for $20 (includes shipping) and can be ordered at sanseirocker.com. Rock on, Sansei Gen-ers!

Wishing you warm safe holidays and cheers to a better 2021 for us ALL! And a big thank you for reading my stuff …

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Mary Uyematsu Kao is a Sansei photo-journalist and author of “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement.” She can be reached for comments or feedback at [email protected]. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

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