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Second Interview Insert Key
Indented text represents the follow-up interview conducted on May 17, 2006.


Introduction of Interviewers

Hi I'm Nate, I'm Jane, I'm Glynis and we are here April 21, 2005 to interview Bess K. Chin in Berkeley, California.

My name is Amanda, my name is Mario, and my name is Will. Today is May 17th, 2006, and we are interviewing Bess Chin in El Cerrito, California.

Please tell us your full name and your date of Birth.

You want my whole name? It's Bessie Kieko Kawachi Chin.
And your date of Birth?
August 14, 1922.
And what city or town were you born?
Alameda, that's right across the bay from here.
How many siblings do you have?
I have, I have to count, I have three sisters and a brother. My older sister—eleven years older than I—was born here in Berkeley but she went to Japan. She recently died. Then I have one brother, elderly getting forgetful. And then I have a younger sister who has emphysema. I'm the one healthy one right now.

Please summarize your life.

I'm Bess Kawachi Chin. I emphasize Kawachi because I'm a Japanese-American married to a Chinese-American. I was born August 14th, 1922 in Alameda. I went to school there until about the fifth grade, and then I had lost my father when I was six so my mother re-married and we moved to the country, meaning Campbell, which is now Silicon Valley. I went to school there then went out to San Jose State, then the internment and went on to Heart Mountain, then went out to Saint Louis, came back here. And I've been here ever since. I'm married and have four children.

What is your earliest memory? If you look all the way back what is your earliest memory?

I have been doing my biography so I have gone all the way back looking at photographs of when I was an infant. I don't remember those things, but I have pictures of them. My father was, what did he do? He raised canaries. I don't know that you do that anymore, the kind that sing. And he had goldfish, so he had goldfish ponds and all that. So I remember as a child my younger sister and I opening the cage and letting them go. Other than that I don't remember earlier, oh I do remember my mother's discipline was when I did something bad she put me into a dark closet. We never got spanked. That wasn't the thing, but we were put into a closet.

How long were you put into the closet for?

Oh maybe half an hour. It seemed like forever, right? It's a dark closet. My brother who was the only boy in the family, when he was disciplined he would have to stay upstairs somewhere, and he learned to climb out the window and get out, get outside that way. So that's about ways of disciplining.

Then I lost my father when I was just six years old. This was during Depression. My mother was having a hard time. She had the three kids, and my older sister. My father died the day after she graduated from high school. So any plans for her to go ahead on to college was no, was not something that happened because she had to help raise the rest of us.

Were you close with your father?

I hardly remember him because I was only six when he died.
How did he die?
He had a massive stroke.
Were your other siblings close to your father?
Probably my older sister because she tells stories about what happened.
How old was your father when he died?
In his fifties.
He had high blood pressure?
He must have. But you know in those days they didn't go to the doctor, right?

So my mother was a Japanese language school teacher, she taught. In the days when we were growing up they had regular school and then after school there was a Japanese language school, and she taught in one of those. We would go to those after school.

Depression, and times are getting hard, and so she decides she needs to do something, and so she remarried, and married a farmer out in Campbell which is near San Jose now. We were city kids and we went to the country, and I must admit that we weren't very nice to the Japanese country kids. So that my friends were the Caucasians who lived in town, and this is how I grew up there. This was from about fifth grade through high school.

Did you see a visible effect on your family's life style during the Depression?

See I'm too young to know, my brother or sister probably could tell you more of the effect it had on us because we still had food, we had nice clothes, we had the toys we wanted, we were not affected because we're little.

Then I went through a time when my mother decided we needed to learn more American ways and the best way to do that was to go live with an American family. In those days they called us "school girls," and we would go and live with a family and help out with dishes or ironing or take care of the kids, this kind of thing. So I did that during my high school. All my friends were Caucasian.

Describe your first house.

When I was a child right? That was a big house in Alameda, right next to a school. Apparently it was a Victorian house and it belonged to a widow who charged low rent because all she wanted was for us to pay for her taxes. I remember later on someone said to me, "You lived in a mansion," and I said "Oh no, I don't think so," but it seemed big to us because we were little. There were rooms that were never used because it was a big house, and there were at that time maybe four children, and my mother and dad.
How long did you live there?
We lived there until I was about ten years old, until fifth grade, that's when we moved.
Where did you move to after that?
We moved to Campbell, that's where my mother re-married and had the stepfather who was a farmer. So we moved to the country.

How long did you live in Campbell for?

How long did I live in Campbell? That would be from the time I was in fifth grade until I went to college. In between I lived—what you would call today an au pair—with an American family, a Caucasian family because my mother thought we should learn the American ways. So my high school years were with a family in Saratoga, and I was there until we were evacuated. So they were like family to me.

Did your mother ever try to immerse herself in the American ways?

No, because she was a Japanese language school teacher. She taught that after school. The days that we were growing up we went to regular school during the day and then after school we went to a Japanese language school, and there we learned the language and the culture, and that's what my mother taught. So when we were growing up, we were to speak Japanese in the house and English outside.

How did you feel about having to change whenever you went outside?

That didn't last too long. I think by the time one goes to school, you speak the same language as all your peers, we just didn't speak that much Japanese.
Did your mother learn English?
Yes she did. She did know English, and she could use it, but I think she still wanted us to maintain our Japanese culture. So this is why she would speak to Japanese with us.
Did you prefer Japanese of English?
I don't think it mattered. We probably spoke a mixture.
Did you see yourself using one more than the other?
As a child growing up? I think I would have used both, depending on where I am.

Where your parents Issei?

Oh yes. My father came and I really don't know enough about his background, I'm really trying to look into it. My mother came as a picture bride. I'm thinking now "Why?" She didn't have to come, because she was educated and she was a kindergarten teacher in Japan. Why did she come? I couldn't ask my mother, she wouldn't have told me.
So your parents met in America?
In America, that's right.

[Bess proceeded to describe an overview of her internment camp experience, and therefore this section was moved to page 5 ]

Did you face any anti-Asian sentiment as a child before Pearl Harbor?

As a child I did not. The thing was, however, I grew up in Alameda. Alameda had a segregated section for the Japanese, so that the Japanese went to their own church. School, as a kindergartner I went to school in the afternoon. The Japanese children went in the afternoon, the Caucasians went in the morning. This was because we spoke mostly Japanese at home, and it was for us to learn more English. So by first grade we were mixed, but kindergarten, we were segregated.

Church was pretty much segregated. I never thought of going as a child to another church other than the Japanese church. Alameda had a Methodist church, it also had Buddhist temples. There are more Japanese who are Buddhist than there are Christians. So you will always find a large Buddhist temple in most of the communities and that's how it was. We did not associate too much with Buddhist kids, as it were, because we had our own. My brother tells a story of where he wanted to play basketball on the Buddhist temple courtyard and he was told not to because he's Christian. So there's, again, segregation within the community. But that would be the only thing that I would have because, I took piano lessons from the Caucasian woman. I had joined Girl Scouts for a little bit, and that was, I think I was the only Japanese in there.

Do you know the history of your family that led them to be Methodist and not Buddhist? Can you recount that?

It's interesting because my mother comes from a family where her sister married a Zen priest. She was Buddhist, and in Japan there are also Shintos. But somehow she came to this country. In those days infant mortality was high, and she had lost two infants. We have a picture of one of them where there's a Buddhist priest, so she was a Buddhist when she first came. I don't know what caused her to become converted into a Christian, but she became a very devout Christian. So that my name, the Japanese name, Kieko, comes from a book written by a well-known Japanese evangelist [Toyohiko Kagawa]. Kieko meaning "blessing of happiness." She became a devout Christian, and we were raised Christian.

What religion did you practice?

We were Christians. My mother was a Methodist and we were also.
Were you very religious as a child?
As a child? You just go there because it's a social life, but as one grows one changes. I became an Episcopalian in Saint Louis because it strongly affected me there.
As you grew up did you spirituality change in any way?
It's only in recent times that I've been reading books on spirituality, women in spirituality, poems. It's only in recent times, recent times I mean in the last twenty years.

So as a child what were some of your hobbies or what did you like to do when you were a little kid?

Oh, that's interesting. Beause what did I do, what do you do as a child? I think there was a neighborhood group and I remember we had like a porch where we could play games or putting on plays. What else would we have done? You play house. I was not athletic, so I don't remember doing anything, playing any sports. We went to watch them because there'd be a Japanese baseball team. We'd go watch that. My brother was interested in track, but I was not athletic and I am just trying to think what else would I have done. I read a lot. My brother tells me we had rented this big house, and he said up in the attic there were all these books. That's where he learned to read. He learned all the classics by reading those. Some of that I think trickled down to us.

Did you have a lot of close friends in your neighborhood?

Kids in the neighborhood, yes.
Were they mostly Caucasian?
No, because the Japanese had to live only in a certain area in Alameda. The neighbors were mostly Japanese. However, you know I gave a talk in Alameda at a senior center and my picture appeared in the paper. The organization got a phone call, and it turns out he knew me back in kindergarten. Kindergarten through fourth grade and I said, "Winterbauer"? The name doesn't mean anything to me." A German name, because you know when you are kids you only call them by their first name. Then I said, "I know who you are. I've got a school picture of you and you are sitting there in overalls." He said, "Yes." He said, "You were there until about the fourth grade and you disappeared." Because that's when my mother remarried then we left. But he remembered oh so much about grade school. It was interesting. He was German who lived through World War II.

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Note: These complete movie files do not necessarily directly correspond to the transcripts due to editing.

Complete movie - Chapter 1, 1st interview
Complete movie - Chapter 1, 2nd interview