Mabel Jingu Enkoji

Several years ago I was driving through the high desert of Eastern California, on the way to a ski weekend in the Sierras, when my driving companion and I passed by what looked like a nice state-park entrance sign. I turned to Patrick at the wheel (who also happens to be Nisei, a first-generation Japanese-American) and asked him what it was. He replied matter-of-factly, “Manzanar, the World War II Japanese-American Internment Camp.” Mouth open, I inquired, “Have you ever been?”

“Nope, but my grandmother was interned there.”

History freak that I am, I shouted, “Turn the car around! We gotta see this.” And did I get an education! I learned we had our own mini Guantanamos right here in South Texas. Crystal City and Kenedy both had “Alien Detention Camps” where German, Italian, Japanese, and South American prisoners of war were interned. The West Coast however was where the real drama happened. More than 120,000 Japanese (62-percent of whom were full-fledged American citizens) were sent to “Relocation Centers” for the duration of the war. Goodbye to homes, jobs, businesses, schools, friends — even the family dog. Many simply walked away from their lives to board government buses bound for purgatory, never to regain any real sense of security or normalcy. I won’t soon forget the look on Patrick’s face when he saw his grandmother’s name inscribed high on a memorial wall of former detainees. For many Japanese-American descendants these are murky, unsettled waters, rarely discussed. For an event so searing and perplexing, it’s safer perhaps to simply leave it all up there, high on a wall, removed from the “rationale” of war.

Mabel Jingu Enkoji’s story is one of the rarer San Antonio “fish out of water” tales that this town so frequently conjures up. Imagine being born and growing up in a city park — your family and their lives all on display year after year — and then being very publicly booted out in a nationwide frenzy of paranoia, fear, and xenophobia. Mabel, her parents, and seven siblings all lived in the Bamboo Room house at the Brackenridge Park Japanese Tea Garden. Her father, ‘Kimi’ Eizo Jingu, was an artist and tea importer, and mother Miyoshi, attired in a silk kimono, served tea and lunch daily to thousands of tourists. In 1942 the family was abruptly requested to depart their very conspicuous lives in the interest of “national security.”

At the October 12 ceremony announcing an $850,000 restoration of the Jingu House (set to open next summer), former Mayor and San Antonio Parks Foundation President Lila Cockrell spoke movingly of rising above a “sad time” in our city and nation’s history. Mabel, 84 now, lives in California, but she was in town for the ceremony, along with her family. Studying her face, and those of her husband Renso and daughters Ann, Nancy, and Peggy — all in attendance — I could only imagine what thoughts were crossing their minds. Once again, perhaps the higher calling is to leave distant rationale behind and focus instead on a more benevolent future. As the ancient Japanese expression “fuki sui bon ni kaerazu” reminds us, spilled water doesn’t return to the tray.

 “I was born in 1925 in the Tea House at the Sunken Gardens. We had midwives back then — not so many were born in hospitals like today. There were two Jingu boys and six Jingu girls. Sister Rae was named after Ray Lambert, the first city parks director, who approached my father, Eizo, back in the ’20s to open and operate the ‘Bamboo Room’ in the Sunken Gardens.

“Dad was born in Japan. When he immigrated to the states he arrived first in Seattle then moved down to Los Angeles. He had a rice-farmer friend that was living in Texas who told him, ‘If you want to do your own individual thing, you should come to Texas.’ So Dad got on a train and went to Houston, then on to San Antonio. He was a wonderful artist and he started selling his paintings in the lobby of the Gunter Hotel downtown. After we moved to the Sunken Garden, Dad became a tea importer as a result of running the Tea House. I remember all these huge, bamboo-wrapped boxes of tea from Japan that were stockpiled in the storeroom — the smell was heavenly.

My mother, Miyoshi, came from Kyoto as a bride. Her brother told her she should marry my father because he was a true man of the future, a visionary. (Mother was a trailblazer in her own right. After we all moved to California in the late ’40s she started acting in movies. She was in Walk Don’t Run with Cary Grant and The Teahouse of the August Moon with Marlon Brando, among many films.) Both my parents were tri-lingual; they spoke Japanese, English, and Spanish.

“The ‘Tea Room’ house was not so large, but quite comfortable. Mother and father had a bedroom facing the garden and the younger girls slept on the sleeping porch.  We had roll-own canvas flaps that we used during inclement weather. My brothers had their own bedroom downstairs. It was a great house to live in — and what a back yard! We were constantly surrounded by visitors. People would always say to us when we were kids, ‘My, you speak such good English,’ and we’d shoot back, ‘So do you!’

My father was a very good friend of the Maverick family, and my girlfriend Terrelita Maverick lived across Broadway, so I’d ride my bike down to the Witte, and we’d always meet up. Most of my friends in high school at Jefferson were Chinese-American.

My father died in 1938 when I was 12, and mother ran the Tea Room herself until 1942. By then the war animosity against Japan was so high we were asked to leave.  We were all interrogated. Eventually we were able to find a house on French Place to live.  All of us went to work helping mother out. My first job was as a gift-wrapper at Joske’s on Alamo Plaza. After the war ended, my brother Jimmy, who received a Purple Heart fighting with the 442nd Regiment, tried to work a deal out with the city to operate the Tea House again. But a Chinese family, the Wus, who incidentally we knew and were our friends, had been running the concession and the city wanted my brother to pay for all the upgrades and improvements, and he said no.

“I met my husband Renso here at Fort Sam when he was in the service. He was originally from Portland, Oregon, and his family had been sent to an internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho. We were married at the Travis Park Methodist Church and had our wedding reception in the Sunken Garden. When we moved to Salt Lake City for Renso to complete his studies it was very difficult leaving San Antonio. This was the only home I’d ever known.”

The Sunken Garden and the Tea House were never Japanese in the traditional sense. Like us, they were very much Japanese-American creations, which to me is a lovely thing because it reflects a true cross-cultural blending. My dad had such an impact on the aesthetics of the Sunken Garden. I’m proud to say that we found photographs of the original Japanese Sunken Garden entry gate that my father designed, and the plan is to recreate it fully in the new restoration. My daughter Nancy is an artist, and she’s going to paint the replication of the original four-seasons ceiling murals in the Bamboo Room that my father originally painted as well. 

“I didn’t cry this time when I went to see the house again. I know so much is happening to regain what was lost that I’m not so emotional about it anymore. But come next year when it’s all done and completed I may just be a total wreck one more time!”

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