When playwright, stage director, and taiko artist Rick Shiomi was growing up in Toronto in the 1950s, the internment of Japanese Canadians wasn’t really on his radar.
It might seem odd, given that both of his parents were from Vancouver and were among about 21,000 B.C. residents of Japanese ancestry who were detained under the War Measures Act in 1942.
“I didn’t realize what that was all about and how it had impacted the Japanese Canadian community,” Shiomi tells the Straight from his home in Minnesota, where he's lived for 25 years.
His parents were sent to Bay Farm in the Slocan Valley, which held almost 1,400 Japanese Canadians by the end of 1942. Students who attended the school in Bay Farm included writer Joy Kogawa and environmentalist David Suzuki.
Shiomi, winner of the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award in 2015, says his father was later sent east to work on another farm. After the Second World War, his parents moved to Toronto, where Shiomi was born in 1947, the seventh of eight children.
His parents didn’t have the choice of coming back home to Vancouver at that time because Japanese Canadians were excluded from the West Coast until 1949.
“There was a certain attitude, certainly among people like my father, of a sense of, ‘They didn’t want us back there anyways,’ ” Shiomi says.
After graduating with a University of Toronto history degree in 1970, Shiomi obtained a teaching degree at Simon Fraser University. He then spent two years travelling in Europe and Asia before returning to Vancouver in 1974.
In that era, many artists of Asian ancestry were beginning to make a mark, including Jim Wong-Chu, Tamio Wakayama, Paul Yee, Helen Koyama, and Sky Lee. Shiomi was coordinator of four of the first five Powell Street Festivals, starting in 1977, deepening his understanding of the Japanese Canadian community.
In this period, he made connections with playwrights David Henry Hwang and Philip Kan Gotanda. By then, Shiomi was a short-story writer and Gotanda encouraged him to turn his tale about a Japanese Canadian detective into a play, which became Yellow Fever.
From May 28 to June 12, the Firehall Arts Centre will present Yellow Fever in the style of a radio play—34 years after it was first produced by the company. It will be directed by Donna Spencer. Raugi Yu is the associate director, with audiences hearing and seeing the radio drama being created.
“The play come out of my experiences being involved in the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver,” Shiomi says. “Really, it was there that I really learned so much about the Japanese Canadian history that I didn’t know when I was growing up in Toronto.”
Yellow Fever is anchored around a Japanese Canadian private eye, Sam Shikaze, who is hired to find the missing Cherry Blossom Queen. It’s set in Powell Street, the centre of what used to be Vancouver’s thriving Japanese Canadian community.
The lead character resembles Sam Spade, with a little bit of the cynicism shown by Rick in Casablanca. It debuted in New York in 1982.
The short story was inspired by community leader Gordon Kadota, a second-generation Japanese Canadian whom Shiomi met while working at the Powell Street Festival.
“He reminded me of Columbo, the TV character,” Shiomi says. “He had this kind of trenchcoat and this really dry sense of humour.”
According to Shiomi, Kadota was a “kind of heroic outsider”, just like his lead character.
“How it really connects to Japanese Canadian history is that the Japanese Canadians for so long have been outsiders,” Shiomi says. “So that outsider detective character becomes a classic reflection of that experience, in a sense.”
On the surface, Yellow Fever is like a film-noir detective story. But it also addresses the yellow-peril racism that has dogged B.C. since the 19th century and continues to this day, erupting in waves of hatred in different periods.
“When I wrote the play, there was this whole group called the Sons of the Western Guard,” Shiomi says. “These are—to me, in my mind—pretty wacky people, people who are way out there in terms of their sort of racist or white supremacist perspective. But you know, 40 years later, shockingly, there’s many more of those people.”
His characters in Yellow Fever respond to racism in different ways. Some are more assimilationist, including one named Capt. Kenji Kadota, whereas others, like Shikaze, are less interested in blending into the white-dominated society.
Shiomi hopes that his play leads audiences to think about what it means to be Japanese Canadian and about the community’s place in Canadian society.
“I feel like assimilation is an interesting question because, certainly, looking back on it now, I don’t feel like we should be a separate entity or a separate type of community from everyone else,” Shiomi says. “But I certainly don’t feel like we should be surrendering everything that is Japanese Canadian about us in order to be what we consider to be equals of white Canadians, in a sense. Those are the two extremities.”