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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.1 (2003) 135-181

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"Perhaps the Japanese Are to Be Thanked?
" Asia, Asian Americans, and the Construction of Black California

Daniel Widener


During the spring and summer of 2000, an uncommon coalition convened to plug an unusual cause. Neighborhood activists, preservationists, and diners rallied, petitioned, and pleaded for a reversal of plans to demolish the Holiday Bowl bowling alley, a low-slung edifice perched astride a decaying commercial strip in the heart of contemporary black Los Angeles. The closing of yet another alley was hardly news. We are, after all, bowling alone. Nor was the attempt to salvage the site extraordinarily newsworthy, since similar "googie" works designed by the Armet and Davis firm are often championed by activists seeking to save architectural remnants of the promise of postwar Southern Californian life.

What was significant, and did in fact attract national press attention, were the demographics of the preservationist ranks. Both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times noted the large numbers of Japanese Americans who joined with black residents in the effort to keep the diner and lanes open, [End Page 135] expressing admiration for the many friendships maintained even as the area's once sizeable Japanese American population gave way. Citing the easy humor passing back and forth between patrons, the reporters hastily appointed Holiday Bowl an exceptional instance of racial harmony in a city torn by the memory of black/Asian violence.1

The conceptual limits of such evaluations recall Lisa Lowe's critique of contemporary multiculturalism in Los Angeles, for the struggle to preserve the Holiday Bowl captures more than can be conveyed in quips about sukiyaki with grits. In a town where the reification of decontextualized ethnicity (Food! Festivals!) undergirds municipal cultural policy, where any census tract with a black plurality is "South Central," and where eastside signals less a location than a language, it is important to regard the Holiday Bowl not as a fragmentary instance of interracial cooperation, but as part of an ongoing process of interethnic communication and community formation which challenges conventional ideas about the boundaries of ethnicity and the history of the region.

Indeed, at a time when the horrific violence of 1992 dominates the study of African American/Asian American interactions, and when observers continue to take the notion of Los Angeles as a "global" metropolis as a novel idea, the Holiday Bowl opens a window into an often-ignored alternate city. This essay takes up this shadow. Examining the interconnected history of Japanese, Japanese American, and African American communities in Southern California during the interwar period illustrates the dialectic between international relations and local communities, demonstrating how successive populations of immigrants from Asia played a fundamental role in the development of black understandings of life "out west." Nationalist agitation and the politics of youth culture are particularly important in linking these histories. While both the subject of pro-Japanese sentiment among African Americans and the question of domestic relations between these groups have been taken up elsewhere, many scholarly accounts view the story as, in the words of one author, comprising "intertwined but autonomous" stories. Bringing these strands together may well offer a more complete path toward understanding the particularities of each. A shuttered bowling alley, then, offers a unique vista for rethinking larger questions of interethnic community, popular mobilization, cultural production, and [End Page 136] urban life, questions that remain critical well beyond the Southern California basin.2

This effort, of course, forms part of a larger story. From the Spanish American War to the interconnected radicalism of a militant postwar generation, black and Asian communities played key roles in processes of mutually constructive self-definition across the expanse of the long twentieth century. At the same time, the interlaced history of peoples of African and Asian descent in the United States itself forms part of a story that stretches from Australia to Tanzania. In isolating a part of this larger history, the present examination builds on critical developments in comparative...


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