Valley Girl's Memories of Far East Cafe by Jennifer "Emiko" Kuida
Rafu Column October 8, 2003
For the first 10 years of my life, the second Sunday of each month was the same. Living with my family in the San Fernando Valley, we would get up, wait for Daddy to come home from his early Sunday morning golf with the West LA Nisei Golf Club, and then wed go to Grandma Okazakis house in Boyle Heights.
Afterwards, we would go across the First Street Bridge to Little Tokyo to pick up my Grandma Kuida at Koyasan Buddhist Temple. Shed be waiting for us on the curb at the end of the long driveway, where you could catch a 10-foot wide glimpse of the temple.
Almost every 2nd Sunday, we would eat at my dads favorite restaurant, the Far East Café. I would often whine and moan, Far East! Not again, we always go there! I knew Dad had been going there since he was a kid and that he lived at Koyasan for three weeks when they returned after three years in camp at Gila River.
Far East Cafe, 1974
Dad would park our Ford Country Squire station wagon with the fake wood panels on Central Avenue, just north of First Street. Wed park in front of the scary and abandoned old Nishi Temple. Hed have to pull away from the curb because the door wouldnt open since the street was so much lower than the sidewalk.
Or, wed park on San Pedro, North of First Street in front of the also scary old Union Church. I would look up at the church with the tall weeds and black iron fence and rush to catch up with my family because I didnt want to get left behind. Wed stop and see the Im With Baka t-shirts on First Street, and I would linger at the vegetable bins at the Ida Market.
At Far East, I remember waiting for a table with my family in front. I would stare at the old man sitting in the chair in his white Far East apron, smoking his cigarette and nodding his head at the regular customers. My mom would tell me to stop staring at strangers, so I would stare at the calendar on the wall, the beige and fluorescent 7-Up clock, look longingly at the Charms candy at the cash register, and wait at the jukebox. I have vivid memories of that jukebox playing Proud Mary with Ike and Tina Turner, and Joy to the World with Three Dog Night. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, joy to you and me!
Contrary to most people who love to reminisce about the good ole days at Far East Café, I hated it. I hated the noisy clamor, the sticky chairs and walls, and the gum stuck underneath the tables. Sometimes, I would lean off my chair or sit on the floor and peek under the walls at other families that looked like ours, until my mom would tell me to sit up and behave like a lady. I hated the paper straws that kept popping out of my soda bottle or can, until it was so soggy and mashed, it wouldnt sip anymore. My health-conscious mom told me that the kids got soda, because Far East didnt serve milk.
My family always ordered the same thing. Chow mein, chashu, beef in oyster sauce, almond duck, sweet and sour pork, shrimp in lobster sauce, and of course, ham yu. Ham yuck! Id be silently wishing for a Big Mac at my favorite restaurant, where they served some really great food. After eating, Mommy would drop the starched white cloth napkin into the plastic water cups to wipe our faces clean.
I was afraid of going to the bathroom at Far East. I would walk timidly past the waiters all bustling and rushing by with their food. I hated the gritty pink powder soap that would never amount to any bubbles in your hand, and I often saw the hard powder clump into the sink and not feel like my hands were any cleaner. I would peer out the window to the back and feel a little bit scared. And then I would try to dry my hands on that stupid pull-down cloth hands dryer, wishing for paper towels like normal restaurants.
Jenni at age 9 with sister Gayle and cousins at Farewell Party 1974.
In 1974, Dad got a job in San Jose so we had to move. I remember our Farewell Party at Far East. For the first time, we got to walk up the stairs, as I had seen large groups of JAs heading upstairs in the past. All my cousins were there. It was the day before my sister Gayles 8th birthday. My cousins gave Gayle a pink stuffed animal that everyone autographed.
Anyways, we only lived in San Jose for a year. We came back to LA, and moved out to Westlake Village, at the edge of Ventura County. We continued to visit both grandmas on 2nd Sundays, but as I grew into my teens, I often opted to stay home. I knew that my dad would want to go to Far East as usual. I went off to college in the early 80s, moved to the Valley, and pretty much stopped going altogether. Both of my Issei grandmothers passed away, so we had even less reason to go to Little Tokyo.
In 1992, I joined the Asian Pacific American Network (APAN), a chapter of the JACL. I helped organize the 50 Year Remembrance of Japanese American Internment events. I sold tickets to the Night of Remembrance at the Japan America Theater and invited my family and friends.
That night after the performance, my family went to Far East Café for dinner. Im sure it was my dad who suggested chinameshi. We hadnt eaten there together in years. I remember sitting in the familiar lacquered brown walls, still sticky, and eating with my family of adults. The guy in the front with the apron, looked a little older, but was still sitting in the same spot as I remembered from the 70s. The waiters and the food were the same. While I had grown up, Far East hadnt changed at all! I saw a group of APAN folks pour through the doors, past our booth and head upstairs. One guy in particular I remember seeing walk past was Tony Osumi.
That was the beginning of my involvement in the JA community. Everyone knows what happened to Far East Cafe. It closed in January 1994 after the Northridge Earthquake severely damaged the building. By 1995, I had developed a crush on Tony Osumi. He had written about his Far East memories in the Rafu Shimpo in an article, China Meshi Manifesto, so I knew he was a Far East freak, just like my dad.
That year, I ran into Tony at the VC Film Festival. My friend Lisa Sugino, worked at LTSC while Tony worked at A3M. I sent Lisa over to talk with him while I eavesdropped. I heard Tony say that he was going to have his wedding reception at Far East Café. Lisa said, Oh I didnt know you were engaged. I was crushed. Tony said, No, but when I do get married, Im going to have my reception at Far East Café! Aha! A connection.
After Tony and I started dating, I took him home to meet my parents. The conversation with my dad was brief. So Tony, do you golf? No. Ski? No. Silence. After a few minutes my dad said, Hey, I know one thing we have in common, Far East! I thought, What about me?
Tony and I got married in 1998, but we couldnt have our reception at Far East as it was still closed after the earthquake. Together, we joined the Seigi Committee of NCRR (Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress) and started leading Community Walking Tours in Little Tokyo. One of the favorite stops along the tour was Far East.
All the JAs I knew who were older than me, talked about their fond memories of going there for weddings, funerals, family dinners. So many people had a connection. And regardless of if you lived in Gardena, Orange County, West LA where Tony did, Canoga Park or Westlake Village where I lived, people always came back to Little Tokyo, for a little ham yu, chow mein and almond duck at Far East Café.
Today, I come to Little Tokyo at least once or twice a week for taiko practice, performances, and community meetings. And while many of my girlhood memories of Little Tokyo were scary ones, and I didnt particularly like the food at Far East, I have had to rethink my feelings about this place. Memories. Ritual. Family. Community. Connection. Get up, visit with my Japanese-speaking grandmothers, and eat chinameshi with my family. It was our Kuida family ritual. It was always the same. Until it wasnt any longer.
As we get further into this century, I think about creating new rituals with my own Kuida/Osumi family. I dream about a future in Little Tokyo that includes Tony and I taking our future kids to basketball games at the Little Tokyo Recreation Center. Then afterwards, well walk down First Street, stop in to get manju and a snow cone at Fugetsudo, and then take our family for chinameshi at the recently renovated Far East Café. Thats my dream.