Excavating History: A Conversation with Bill Watanabe and Marjorie Akin

By Special Contributor posted 11-07-2018 13:51


By Amy Guay

While organizations like Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Historic Preservation take on the challenge of representing the preservation needs of a diverse and sprawling Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) community, other APIA-related groups have a more narrow focus. The Little Tokyo Historical Society (LTHS) and Save Our Chinatown Committee (SOCC) are two California-based groups seeking to preserve specific places significant to Asian America.

In 1990 the Riverside Chinatown archaeological site, considered among the best-preserved early Chinese American settlement sites in the country, was successfully placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site has been designated a historic resource by federal, state, county, and city governments. | Photo courtesy of M. Rosalind Sagara.

Staff of the all-volunteer LTHS research stories and sites connected to Little Tokyo, an ethnic heritage neighborhood in Los Angeles. SOCC, which is based in Riverside—the location of one of the most noteworthy archaeological sites related to Chinese American history—tells the full history through education and advocacy and motivates the stewardship of Inland Southern California. I had the opportunity to interview Bill Watanabe and Marjorie Akin, changemakers affiliated with these two organizations.

As the executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, Bill Watanabe spearheaded ethnic and cultural preservation in L.A., which is what inspired him to establish LTHS in 2006. He served as president in its beginning years and is now a member of the nonprofit’s board.

Currently the treasurer of SOCC, Marjorie Akin has held various board positions at the organization over the years. Her interest in Riverside Chinatown began when she identified coins from Vietnam that had been recovered in the first partial excavation of the neighborhood in 1984. She would go on to write a dissertation based on this unexpected treasure.

I spoke to Watanabe and Akin about the goals, challenges, and successes of their respective organizations.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your organization’s biggest project or endeavor at the moment? 

Bill Watanabe: This is not necessarily at the moment, but we have released a book about Little Tokyo through Arcadia Publishing. A bit serendipitously, filmmaker Jeff Chin joined our group and made a 30-minute documentary about a 1930s Japanese American immigrant pioneer and civil rights worker. We’ve been showing that documentary all around, and Chin is now considering making it into a feature-length film. He estimates that that would cost about $2 million, so that could easily become one of our bigger projects.

We have also been actively supporting the formation of a Little Tokyo real estate investment fund. Little Tokyo, which has been around for more than 130 years, is in the middle of the Civic Center in downtown Los Angeles, which is currently experiencing a wave of gentrification. Rents and property values are going up. The fear is that, within a couple of years, all the small mom-and-pop stores, gift shops, and little restaurants will not be able to pay rent, and Little Tokyo will be replaced with McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. locations. So some of us from the historical society are forming an investment fund to try and raise $10 million to save the district. We would give a less-than-market-rate return on investment and use whatever we could to subsidize land in the interest of keeping heritage-based small businesses in Little Tokyo. This is a big project, and we are just now getting it off the ground.

Marjorie Akin: While our biggest project is protecting the archaeological site of Riverside’s second Chinatown, it requires relatively little work at this stage. After a 10-year struggle that involved hundreds of people, we have headed off private development at the site. Local officials have agreed that the site must be protected and that a park will be placed over it, but major funding sources have not yet been identified.

Construction of the Riverside, Santa Ana & Los Angeles Railroad through Riverside in 1885-1886 brought a large number of Chinese American workers to Riverside. View of South Elevation of Union Pacific Railroad Bridge Looking Northwest, ca. 1991. |Photograph by Brian Grogan for HAER_CA-123.

At this point, we are putting more effort into a project that will greatly help historians at the local, state, national, and international levels: digitizing Chinese immigration records in the National Archives. This project will make the voluminous records, which cover almost all Chinese immigrants of the pre–World War II period, truly accessible for the first time—fully indexed and available online. Of course, the records will include information about almost all the people who lived and worked in Riverside’s Chinatown and the surrounding area. A broad group of organizations and individuals have agreed to support this project and some work has already been done, but we are actively seeking grant money or other funding in order to accomplish more.

What challenges has your organization faced in designating or preserving historical sites?

Watanabe: When you’re working to preserve a something, there’s always a concern that the owners feel like they’re losing control of their property. We have a lot of meetings with people to explain our intentions; we’ve had to spend a long time explaining that we are not anti-business and we are not anti-development. But we’ve also had pretty good community support. Generally, those challenges have been fairly well met.

Additionally, the land available in Little Tokyo is very limited: it’s only three blocks by three blocks. It can therefore be difficult to get.

Akin:The preservation division of the Riverside Planning Department has a history of landmarking historic places, which has helped us create a baseline of understanding with city officials. But, while we have been successful in moving proposed development threats to other, more appropriate locations, maintaining ongoing political support for a long-term preservation vision for the Chinatown site—and for historical sites in general—has required considerable effort. Would-be developers are constantly in the process of making political friends by donating money to elected officials. We cannot compete with those donations, but our educational and publicity efforts have created a public consensus that historic preservation is desirable and that the site is a core element in Riverside’s history.

With regard to designating other Chinese American sites in Riverside, the issue is that we have already lost so much. And more recent resources have not yet “come of age” in the eyes of officials and much of the public.

What challenges has your organization faced in communicating history to the broader public?

Watanabe: Our organization is still relatively new and run by volunteers; I wish we had stronger expertise and professionals. Nonetheless, we’ve been trying to put ourselves forward based on the expertise we do have—researching locations and buildings and doing workshops and educational seminars. We’ve done workshops about the history of medical services in Little Tokyo and about sports organizations in Little Tokyo in the past hundred years, helping people realize how much history there is that should not be forgotten. Groups are now asking us, “What do you know about this building or about this part of Little Tokyo?” and “Do you have any photographs?” or “Do you have any research?” Little by little we are becoming more of a resource organization for those with questions about the history of Little Tokyo, which I think is a feather in our cap.

Bill Watanabe at the dedication of a plaque across the street from the Union Church of Los Angeles—which has been adaptively reused as the East West Players Theater—in honor of its pastor, the Rev. Howard Toriumi. Rev. Toriumi was instrumental in the preservation of Little Tokyo in the 1970s. Behind Watanabe is the historical marker he helped establish, which tells the history of Little Tokyo in three panels mounted on the obelisk. | Courtesy of Bill Watanabe

Akin: Our historic site looks like any other piece of undeveloped land, and there isn't public access to it. While this limits our ability to have people experience or understand the site, it also pushes people to think about what makes a place historic and how this may change over time.

But the basic challenge, as with most nonprofit organizations, is securing enough funding. At several points over the last 10 years, well-funded opponents have intentionally spread false information about the site, and about Riverside’s Chinese pioneers, in attempts to downgrade the site’s importance and denigrate Chinese contributions to Riverside’s development. We have been able to counter this, but because of our limited resources, we have not been able to ensure that the appropriate historical facts reach everyone.

How is your organization a traditional preservation organization? How is it not?

Watanabe: There’s a National Historic Landmark (NHL) district that includes about 13 contiguous buildings, all built prior to around 1920. All 13 buildings are protected by the NHL’s regulations. However, there are no historic buildings left anywhere else in Little Tokyo. Everything else is newly developed. There aren’t a lot of parcels of land that you can point to and say, “This building has been here for 60 years, 70 years.” So we do focus a lot on cultural activities, traditions, festivals, foods—the more intangible types of heritage.

Akin: We are traditional in that we are working to preserve and interpret a historic site, but we also believe in preserving other forms of heritage, which includes intangible heritage and cultural practices. For example, we have revived Qing Ming—an annual springtime observance honoring the dead—in Riverside, with ceremonies in the Chinese section of Olivewood Cemetery. Many in the community have adopted Riverside’s Chinese pioneers as honorary family members who deserve and receive special attention on Qing Ming. Like some other Chinese historical societies, we have taken part in activities honoring the contributions of all immigrants to American society, and we have even participated in some public opposition to legislation that attacks immigrants. Our organization cosponsors an annual Riverside “Day of Inclusion” on the anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion laws.

We also actively support and cooperate with sister organizations devoted to honoring and memorializing other local immigrant and minority ethnic groups, including Native American groups. We participate in Dia de los Muertos observances and distribute a flyer that compares Dia de los Muertos to Qing Ming. We have formed a strong alliance with local Japanese American and Korean American groups and periodically cosponsor historic walks through downtown that point out sites of significance to all three groups—and other Asian Americans as well.


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