Published in the Ghosts of Seattle Past Anthology, Released April 2017, Chin Music Press, Ed. Jaimee Garbacik
The Wah Mee
A Conversation with Roger Shimomura
There’s this part about being famous, where the famous person’s hometown feels they can put up signs and make claims, take pride in having shaped that person, as though they had a hand in their fame. In much the same way that Aberdeen claims Kurt Cobain, Seattle claims Roger Shimomura. By most artists’ and art world standards, he made it. Because of that, and despite the fact that Roger has lived far afield from Seattle on and off since the mid-1960s, we still consider him to be Seattle’s own, as if he belongs to us. We want to believe his talent and ambition were derived of our city, born here like he was.
Roger Shimomura has lived in Lawrence, Kansas, for almost fifty years. For all the places a painter could make bold, socially charged work and a name for himself, Kansas may seem like a strange choice. The University of Kansas was one of many suitors, and by giving it a chance Roger found an academic environment that allowed him to grow as a teacher and painter. He also began to explore the traumatic history of his Seattle family and that of other Japanese Americans facing racism. It is in Kansas, not Seattle, that he made the work we now know and love, the work that has been collected by nearly every major art museum in the US.
If you want to read an essay about Roger’s artwork, turn to the thirty pages of bibliography listed on his sixty-nine-page resume. To say his life as an artist has been well-documented is an understatement. Instead, I want to bring him back to Seattle, to his youth, where his peers would find him frequenting bars in the International District, and where his memories are embedded in the cobblestone and brick of places like the Panama Hotel and the Collins Building.
Roger was born in Seattle in 1939 and spent part of his childhood in a house in the Central District, perched above the International District. Aerial photographs of Seattle at the time show this area to be practically rural by today’s standards. Even through the 1940s, empty fields formed a patchwork around small businesses and tenement housing in what is now one of Seattle’s denser neighborhoods. One can ride a bike down Yesler or Jackson Street late at night without stopping for lights, just fly down those hills. Rainwater flows easily downhill too, and old photographs of a packed-dirt Jackson Street in the International District reveal that there was no shortage of mudslides and rickety boardwalks, with men knee deep in mud during the reconstruction of roads washed away.
My conversation with Roger turned out to be an excavation and reconstruction of sorts too, filled with stories that look at the International District as a place that is changed and changing, but not by gentrifiers’ standards and rules. Rather, it can be called an evolution by the Asian American community, many of whom call it home, whether they live here or not. To wit, when I asked Roger why he left and didn’t come back, he replied: “I never left.”
- Shelly Leavens
SHELLY LEAVENS: Are you part of a Japanese American community in Kansas?
ROGER SHIMOMURA: Ha. No, just me. I’m the only one.
As one might expect, Roger did not join a diverse community in Lawrence, where the University of Kansas is located. His relationship with the Japanese American community is refueled when he stops in Idaho for the annual Minidoka Pilgrimage and then returns to Seattle for the rest of the summer. He has not missed a summer or Christmas in Seattle in forty-seven years.
SHIMOMURA: When I’m in Seattle, I usually go to Bush Gardens. Bush Gardens is where I can forget about representing something, I can just be myself. If you aren’t Japanese American, you wouldn’t understand. There’s a group of us that gathers there from 5:30 to 9:30…before the karaoke starts. It used to be that it was all Japanese folk songs. The woman who runs it—it’s just a two-person operation—she must operate on a shoestring. I think she only does it because it’s still a place for us, for the community.
Bush Gardens is a time capsule. It used to be a restaurant on par with Canlis, fit for business meetings of the Seattle elite. Despite changing owners in the 1990s, it kept its former posh interior intact, just not maintained. For Roger, and the other Japanese Americans who gather at Bush Gardens on a regular basis, it is a cultural lifeline. A place to find a direct connection to one’s ethnic heritage. A place to focus on a past that has been partially buried by metaphorical mud washing down Jackson Street: family silence, redevelopment, people moving on to escape the rain and taking their stories with them.
Roger’s family has lived in Seattle since his grandfather arrived in 1906. In 1912, a photo marriage was arranged with Toku Machida, Roger’s grandmother, who came to America with sixty other photo brides. This type of marriage was common practice in Japanese society at the time. She was married the day she landed in Seattle, and that night they stayed at the Panama Hotel. They were married over fifty years. She was the first to pass away, and soon thereafter Roger’s grandfather showed signs of Alzheimer’s.
SHIMOMURA: He used to wander off and I’d have to go fetch him wherever he was. One day I got a call from the Panama Hotel where they said he had gotten himself a room. When I got there, he was sitting on the edge of the bed and I asked him, “Why are you here?” He said, “This is my room.” It hit me that it was sixty years since he and my grandmother had met here, perhaps in this exact room.
The Panama Hotel is one of the gems of the International District, located in Nihonmachi, now called Japantown. Besides being a traditional hotel and teahouse, the basement has served as a storehouse-turned-museum for objects that were stashed as families were being forced to leave Seattle for the concentration camps. The building and business are currently for sale, but luckily the Hotel is not only a National Historic Landmark, it recently received recognition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as being a National Treasure—the only such designation in Seattle. Roger expressed hope that the new owner will buy into this history, not just the booming Seattle real estate market.
At the same time that Roger’s grandfather was stepping back in time in places like the Panama Hotel, Roger was doing his own share of wandering, staving off his future. He was between military service and art degrees, and was exploring the freedom of his twenties in the International District.
SHIMOMURA: I went into the Army and was sent off to the Korean War from 1962 to 1964. That’s where I learned how to drink. When I returned, I had my BA and wanted to be a commercial artist like my uncles, but I spent a lot of time in Chinatown at the bars and clubs. I was crazy, to tell you the truth.
One of the clubs Roger frequented was the Wah Mee gambling club, a former speakeasy with an alley entrance off of Maynard.
SHIMOMURA: I would walk up to the door, and there was a little eight-by-eight–inch window and a man with a gray beard, just like in a movie, would look out. And if you were Asian, he would let you in. As soon as you opened the door, you were flooded with smoke and really loud music. The gambling was Chinese blackjack, roulette and some other games, no poker. There was so much money going through there; it felt dangerous. In the back there was a club with some dancing and drinking at the bar and police officers in uniform. They were paid off to turn a blind eye to the gambling and closing hours. It operated from 10:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m.
Roger was in the back bar on the night he got thrown out. A man turned to him and asked to borrow his pen, so he gave it to him. As he was about to leave, Roger asked for it back. The man said he had already given it back and they went back and forth until it escalated to shouting.
SHIMOMURA: Before I knew it, there were two guys on me, holding my hands behind my back. And just like in the movies, they dragged me outside and threw me out. There was the old man at the door and he said, “Thirty days,” and that’s how I was banned from the Wah Mee for a month.
LEAVENS: Did you go back?
SHIMOMURA: Oh you bet. I was back there on the thirty-first day.
Several years later in 1983, Roger’s cavorting now a blur of his youth, a massacre occurred at the Wah Mee. The largest mass killing in Washington State history, thirteen people were hogtied, robbed and shot in the back of the head. The man convicted of the crime was gangster Benjamin Ng, only twenty years old. For thirty years, the club sat with a chain and padlock on the door handles, thirteen ghosts haunting its once-opulent dance floor and gambling tables. In 2013, the Wah Mee’s chapter finally ended when a fire in the building provoked the owners to redevelop.
But for Roger and his classmates in the 1960s, hanging out in the International District wasn’t only about drinking in clubs overrun by gangsters and corrupt cops. It was a place for artists to see, be seen, and eat. This is where Roger initially met painter Frank Okada. Frank also went on to become a well-known artist (who also left Seattle), but notably, the first thing Roger tells me about Frank is that he knew where to get all the good food. Frank knew the place where you could only order the dish with shrimp paste fifteen minutes before closing time because it smelled so bad it drove customers away. It stunk, but it was amazing. Frank knew about food and he knew about jazz. Roger and Frank had a lot in common, from their Japanese heritage to their incarceration as children.
SHIMOMURA: I looked to Frank as a mentor, though less for how to make art and more for how to be an artist. One day he said, ‘Do you want to see my studio?’ So we went over there to 2nd and James in the Collins Building; it was known as being the best studio in Seattle. The building was condemned but still had running water and electricity—lots of artists lived there. Frank lived in his studio too. Two thousand five hundred square feet, just one big room, and he had a functional bathroom. On one side was his canvas and easel, and he had to walk about fifty feet to his pallet, which was a four-by-eight piece of plywood and layer after layer of dried paint. He placed his pallet far away from his canvas intentionally so that he was forced to step back before making another move. We would hang out in his studio, listen to music, and talk about art. And we would go out and eat. Years later, when he was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship he asked whether I wanted to take his studio, so I did, for a year before I moved on…
Moving on was likely the best thing for Roger’s career as an artist, and perhaps it was the physical distance from this place that allowed him to address the first time Seattle made him leave. During World War II, in 1942, along with thousands of other Japanese Americans, Roger’s family was forced to leave their home and jobs during the mass incarceration of people of Japanese descent. Roger’s family was sent to the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho. Roger was only three years old. Eventually, he was able to make paintings about the experience, like American Infamy and the Night Watch series.
SHIMOMURA: No one talked about it. They didn’t talk to us about life at camp. It just was. They would talk to each other about it; it was part of their lives, how horrific and embarrassing it was, but not to their children. Peers didn’t talk about it in school. It wasn’t until the redress in the seventies that people started talking about it. My grandmother maintained a diary of her entire fifty-six-year life in America, starting the day she left Japan to the last week of her life in 1968 when she died of a stroke. The contents of her diaries have been the subject of many paintings I have done, particularly during the war years in camp.
Roger has long been a student of his own history, a researcher and a collector. He started by riding his bike around Seattle collecting bottle caps, then later collected Disney memorabilia, old-timey radios, and “stereotypes,” of which he has over two thousand examples. His collections have been deftly folded into his work, much like his personal history. Manifested as brightly colored silhouettes, positive and negative shapes pulsing off the canvas, his memories are paralleled in the colors of the International District set against a gray Seattle sky.