Memories of Harry Aoki
by Aki Wakabayashi
I first met Harry when he was working at Powell Lumber in the False Creek area before the war and I was working nearby at Tyee Lumber. My husband Tad also knew him. Harry’s two years younger than me so I used to tease him and tell him he had to call me “O-nesan” (older sister). That meant he had to be respectful.
Harry was born in Cumberland and the family moved to Vancouver. His father was the principal of a Japanese school further east from the one that’s on Jackson Street. He had a sister and a brother.
Harry had a girlfriend that he really liked. Her parents had a drycleaners store on Granville Street just north of Broadway. When the war started, her parents took her to Japan. He used to say “I told her and told her not to go.” But in those days she had to go because you had to listen to your parents. He used to say his heart was broken forever. Her parents didn’t approve of him because he wanted to be a musician.
Our family and a few other families went to live in Blind Bay, on Shuswap Lake during internment because we were promised work. One day Harry just showed up. He didn’t want to go to Alberta with his family so he came to live with us. He brought an old rickety single bed with a thin mattress, one thin blanket and old sheets that were too small for the bed. We didn’t have much extra but we managed to help him out.
Harry had a big knapsack and he would go to the Blind Bay store to buy groceries for us. At first the people at the store wouldn’t sell us bread so I had to learn to bake bread. Later they started selling us bread and other things.
One day a strange man came driving up to where we were living in Blind Bay and said he wanted to talk to Harry. He had heard that Harry was bilingual and wanted him to be a translator for the army. Harry got really angry and later told my husband that he had told the man “where to go.” So the man left in a hurry.
Harry had a harmonica and got all the other men who had harmonicas to become a band. They learned one song By the Light of the Silvery Moon and played at a concert. Everyone liked it and asked for more—but they only knew one song! They had no time to learn more songs.
Just like the other men, he worked at the mill owned by C.T. Coy. The mill went broke so he went to Alberta, but he really didn’t want to stay there. He had ambitions of his own. Unlike the rest of his family he didn’t want to be an academic; he wanted to be a musician and a ski instructor.
After the mill folded, our family went to live in Notch Hill, near Blind Bay. One day Harry showed up and once more came to live with us. (This was now after the war ended.) He worked bush logging for a while. He used to come and go a lot. We never knew when he would be leaving or when he’d return.
We had a vegetable garden and for the winter canned what we could. The only meat we could buy was baloney—rarely was there any other meat. Harry’s favourite food was green beans and baloney okazu (stir fry) and rice. Later a man would come by selling meat. But Harry still preferred baloney.
Harry came to live with us because he had wanted to go to the States as a ski instructor. He couldn’t work there because he wasn’t an American citizen. He kept trying to get different jobs but he always came back to live with us. He was especially close to Tad (my husband) and they used to talk and play the harmonica together. In those days, Harry really had nowhere else to go. At that time we were his family.
Harry was a kind and a good man who had his own ideas of what he wanted to do in life. He loved music and he was a part of our family.
by Vivian Wakabayashi Rygnestad
I do remember when he lived with us in Notch Hill. I liked it when he’d play the harmonica and especially when he would play duets with my father. On one visit he brought a double-harmonica and then gave it to my father.
My mother tells the story of one Christmas when the tree needed to be un-decorated and taken down. Apparently I cried and cried until Aoki-san came up with a solution. He took the tree outside, stuck it into a snowbank, and then had me help him decorate the tree with the orange paper wrappings from the mandarin oranges. Christmas tree origami? His creativity obviously made me happy.
Aoki-san the ski instructor… We had a root cellar, like a small cave built into a small hill by our house. Inside it was always cold and thus our refrigerator. Winter snow brought lessons from Aoki-san: downhill skiing for me from the top of the little root cellar, and cross-country skiing lessons from going around and around the house. Thanks to the patience of my mother, father and Aoki-san, I still love skiing.
A strong memory for me is Aoki-san making and eating “prairie oysters.” They were Saltine crackers with a “fence” of butter around the edge, and a dollop of Worcestershire sauce in the middle. I used to watch in fascination and coveted a taste. Needless to say, when I was given a taste I didn’t like it!
To cover my disappointment, he devised a “prairie oyster” especially for me…. Under his guidance I learned to carefully make the “fence of butter” around the edge—soft butter or else the cracker would break. Then, just for me, he would put a dollop of strawberry jam in the middle. Then, an equally difficult part…. how to bite into the cracker without having the entire creation collapse into crumbs and stickiness in my hand…that too was an art taught to me by my friend Aoki-san.
Our family will always treasure the memories of Aoki-san who was a part of our family many, many years ago. May he now be healthy in a place where he can enjoy and play his beloved music, and where the powder snow is sparkling in the sunshine.
It is hard to really know a person, even if you grow up with them. For me, Uncle was the one who taught us Yo-ho little fishes and other great folk songs. He was also the one who let us discover the fantastic crunch of potato chips into a microphone just before a show. He was the one who, with my mum, took us to our first movie—Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And later, he recorded Hushabye Mountain on his big reel-to-reel machines. He taught us how to ski—which included not being allowed to use the rope tow until we could herringbone up the hill and “hop-turn” down. He was the reason my mum’s house was filled not just with great music —but “live” music. Jim Johnson, Lloyd Arntzen, Elmer Gill, Takeo Yamashiro, Linda Lee Thomas…as children, my brother and I had no idea what a rarified environment our home was.
Uncle Harry shared many stories of the war and the internment. As I grew to understand those stories and the roots that engendered them, I learned not just my family’s living history, but the culture of what it means to be Canadian, a Japanese Canadian, and for us, what it meant to be Japanese Scottish Canadians. “Racism,” said Harry, “can’t be washed away and you can’t hide it. It’s either there, or it isn’t. It’s that simple…and music is about he only place that I’ve found where racism just doesn’t seem present. It’s just music.”
CBC’s recent tribute included a short interview with Uncle. Of the internment, he said, “We were born Canadians, and suddenly we weren’t welcome…We didn’t have a home anymore.” And so, it was through music that Harry sought to break down racism; and it is in music that he was always at home.
Thank you too, to Joy Kogawa. I have read Obasan many times and never knew that Stephen was based on Uncle Harry. Knowing that will give my next reading new meaning. Thank you Margaret Gallagher, not just for the beautiful tribute you made to Uncle on CBC, but for traveling with him to Cumberland. I remember many summers on the island with Uncle, my grandparents, mum and brother. Cumberland was always a part of those trips, as was Qualicum Beach. Thank you Jim Wong-Chu, for reminding us to remember our loved ones. But please don’t regret missing one last moment. Uncle Harry said that you can go through life regretting the things you didn’t do, or, you can take the time you give to regret to just doing those things. He also said that if you don’t take that time for the “one last…” it’s because you probably had something else going on, and life’s too short to feel bad about that.
Thank you Uncle, for all that you taught me. Yoku oyasumi nasai.
Of course there is his music, but my favourite recent memory of Harry Aoki was just a brief moment at the University of BC in May 2012. I was sitting with Harry at the special luncheon for the Japanese Canadian UBC students of 1942 and their families. I offered to get Harry some food. The buffet lunch offered a variety of dishes including sushi and I wasn’t sure what Harry liked so my plan to take a bit of everything resulted in a large amount of food on two plates. I brought it back and placed it in front of him and said to just eat what he liked because I wasn’t sure what he liked. Then I went back to get some food for myself. When I came back I was pleased to see Harry was trying everything. He seemed to really enjoy the meal. He nodded when I asked him how it was, and kept on eating. A moment of pleasure enjoying a meal. Thank you Harry for providing so many moments of pleasure with your music. You will be remembered.
We will truly miss you, Harry!
I have such endearing memories of Harry when I was with him on the JCCA board and also music programming at the Unitarian Church close to where he lived—I often called him up to see if he would put together an ensemble for their thematic Sunday services. Without fail he always offered the finest and often incredibly unique musicians and their music to the congregation. People were very moved by his diverse and fabulous contributions, as both arranger and musician, to these meaningful gatherings in their celebration hall.
Harry was a super kind-hearted soul, a special messenger who did not waver from his main goal which was to spread his love for the essential spirit of humanity through the universal medium and power of music.
I’m sure he is at peace and still in his groove, planning a magical set for us from the great beyond,
michael tora speier
Celebrating Harry Aoki
by Todd Wong from www.gunghaggis.com
I first met Harry Aoki through Asian Heritage Month events around 2002. Margaret Gallagher (CBC Radio) raved about Harry, as he sometimes performed with her. And we were soon all performing together at my Gung Haggis Fat Choy Robbie Burns Dinners, which was a perfect venue for Harry’s ideas of musical and cultural fusion. It was an honour to play at Harry’s Tribute at the Firehall Arts Centre a few years ago, and to play at his monthly First Friday events.
Harry and I had much musical fun at Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinners in both Vancouver and Seattle. He was also a staunch supporter of the “Save Kogawa House Campaign” and performed with us at the house many times. And last year, to see Harry on stage at UBC, representing his brother, for the degrees to the Japanese Canadian former UBC Students who could not finish their degrees because of the internment…brought tears to my eyes.
It was a real treat to have Harry perform at the 2006 Canadian Club Vancouver Order of Canada luncheon. His performance was a “musical gift” for Joy Kogawa, when she gave the special Order of Canada speech, welcoming and inspiring the most recent BC inductees. Harry played his harmonica, and talked about the internment and his journey, which amazed everybody. His performance also inspired Dal Richards to introduce himself to Harry, and invite Harry to be interviewed on his radio show.
At the first First Friday Forum following Harry’s passing, we were all invited to share stories of Harry. Following Harry’s death, I had contacted Joy Kogawa to let her know, so I read Joy’s email message about Harry from my cell phone, and people enjoyed it. Many commented that they never knew that Harry had helped inspire the character of Stephen Nakane, and others said they would read Obasan again.
It was a good evening of sharing stories, music and reconnecting with friends we met through Harry. My contribution was to play the song Neil Gow’s Lament for his Second Wife on my accordion, accompanied on violin by Maxwell Ngai. It had been Max that had traveled with Harry and me to Seattle a few years ago, and it was the perfect song to play for our departed friend, in our shared appreciation of Celtic music.
On the morning of Saturday February 9th, there was the funeral service for Harry at the Vancouver Crematorium. Upon arrival there was music playing from Harry’s album with Jim Johnson—Moods of Man. Themba Tana introduced himself and explained that the service would be simple with Zen Buddhist chanting. Ken Kaneda read a note from Harry’s niece in California. I had arranged with Ken to read a Joy Kogawa poem as I had previously told him that the last time I was at the Vancouver Crematorium was for a music performance of Joy Kogawa poems set to music by composer Leslie Uyeda, and performed by my friend Heather Pawsey.
I couldn’t find the same poems to read, but I did find Joy’s poem Where There’s a Wall which seemed appropriate as Harry had broken down many walls through his music, friendship, connections and strength. Then I closed with a verse of Robert Burns’ Auld Lang Syne that I had never seen before, sent to me that morning by Harry’s niece Catherine from California.
where there’s a wall
there’s a way
around, over, or through
there’s a gate
maybe a ladder
a sentinel who
there are secret passwords
you can overhear
there are methods of torture
for extracting clues
to maps of underground passageways
there are zeppelins
helicopters, rockets, bombs
armies with trumpets
whose all at once blast
shatters the foundations
where there’s a wall
there are words
to whisper by a loose brick
wailing prayers to utter
special codes to tap
birds to carry messages
taped to their feet
there are letters to be written
on this side of the wall
I am standing staring at the top
lost in the clouds
I hear every sound you make
but cannot see you
I incline in the wrong direction
a voice cries faint as in a dream
from the belly
of the wall
When I was a kid in Coaldale Alberta, the name Harry Aoki was magic to me. He played ‘Intermezzo’ on his harmonica for the annual CJOC radio talent contest in Lethbridge and I was beside myself with pride. He always came in second behind Dale Bartlett who was the best pianist around. I thought about Harry when I was writing Obasan and based the character Stephen the musician on him.
I weep for him. And for all the niseis who are leaving.