Chick sexer – what’s that? I enjoy watching expressions when I tell people what 101-year-old Frankie used to do for a living. He squeezed day-old chicks to determine their gender. I’ve heard Frankie’s stories, sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, for the thirty years I’ve been his ballroom dance teacher. All the time I thought: Someone needs to get this little known and soon-to-be-lost slice of Japanese American history down on paper. And so, three years ago I set to work writing the novel entitled The Chick Sexer. Creating the story of the fictionalized Frankie Honda has been an education!
Places like the Japanese American National Museum in L.A. and the Densho website have done a great job of documenting short pieces of oral histories. But how did it feel to be a young Nisei, second generation born in America, man in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s? Kids who played baseball, watched Charlie Chaplin films and built their own boards with skates on them; teenagers who learned to box, drove Model T Fords and danced the Lindy hop were soon to be viewed as the enemy. What happened between the time they were born of Issei, first-generation, parents and the bombing of Pearl harbor?
How to start the process of writing a historical novel? Along with collecting vignettes from the real Frankie, I asked him a million questions over lunch, every Tuesday. I started soaking up movies from the 1920’s-40’s, both American and Japanese. (Hulu has a large selection of old Japanese movies, however, quite a few, annoyingly, stopped about three-quarters of the way through. Slow internet?) I learned that, next to Hollywood, Japan had one of the most prolific film industries in the early 1900’s. Sadly, many classic moving pictures were lost during the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. Frankie told me that in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Japan the silent movies always had benshi. The narrator stood on stage next to the film voicing man and lady’s roles as well as adding explanations. Sometimes they threw in jokes or improvised new dialogue. They were as famous as the actors and rode up and down the west coast in limousines. Japan continued making silent movies even after talkies come out, because their patrons so enjoyed the narrators. Producer Akira Kurosawa’s brother was a famous benshi. Keeping the art form alive, a lady narrator named Midori Sawato performs today as a benshi.
Part I, to be continued . . .