Don’t Move Here

Don't Move Here

17 years ago I never would have imaged the Austin I visited this past May.  The green gem of the liberal South developed into a snarling and congested city with swirling highways, Manhattan style co-ops, and a capitalism Austin once fought vehemently in order to maintain its uniquely slacker status as the State’s capital.  No where else in Texas would you find rednecks in boots next to a bare-footed bohemian siren across from a sliver-haired professors all crossing paths with a Lucchesed Congressman talking policy with a lesbian couple and their adopted Asian infant.  Only in Austin, hence the “Keep Austin Weird” logo that I don’t remember but fondly recall as I more than once found myself in such situations when I was in college back in the early 90’s.

Austin was a Technicolor dream compared to the monotoned murmur of San Antonio, my hometown.  Nothing seemed to progress very fast or far in SA other than the Spurs and tourist numbers and when my acceptance letter came bearing burnt orange, I couldn’t wait to escape the clutches of my one horse town.

Again, 17 years later, I knew it could never be the same.  The years after I graduated, Austin developed into a premiere town of statue with major tech corps putting their stakes down.  SXSW grew into an international event pulling big name bands and acts, and UT’s nationally ranked football program, and of course, its top notch and cheap education, pulled more kids into it’s enrollment. By far, the town of Austin itself drew newcomers for it’s small town flavor and southern hospitality, it’s in-town lakes and Austin’s enduring laid-back and green culture.  Sadly, new money and high demand always leads to gentrification and it pushes out many of the people that made Austin…Austin.  But change, as much as some may not like it, is good but sometimes gentrification can leave a nasty aftertaste.

We didn’t spend much time in Austin due to our whirlwind tour of Texas so we decided to just drive into town and see what happens.  We go for a walk down South Congress and I immediately encounter stuff that begins to wear on me…not for their uniqueness but for its uniformity.  Faux-hawks, Converse and skinny jeans. Mercurial girls in short skirts and cowboy boots trying to hard to hide their Brooklyn adapted attitude in western wear.  Sneering looks from people who surely didn’t care about me and seemed to be more annoyed by my presence than anything else.  It was as if they were annoyed we were on their turf.  Eh, its my imagination.  Its nothing but I was beginning to think I was like in Southern California with all the curt smiles and bad attitudes.

Within all the hip and vintage clothing were the burnt orange baseball hats of the Levi-ed and booted wearing frat boy and the Umbroed sorority girlfriend with standard frat party t-shirt and Kate Spade handbag.  But they were outnumbered by skateboards, Holgas, and people wearing identical “I’m a Pepper” t-shirts.  Oddly enough, I felt a more comfortable fraternity with Christi and Jeff than with the new hipster that flowed down the streets.

So I thought…Big deal.  So a bunch of ironic non-conformists hipsters found Austin and made it their new town to destroy then bitch about how it was so cool like last week before all the poseurs showed up and ruined everything. Hipsters infected New York long ago so I wasn’t too put out by their entitlements.  They uprooted loads of artists and photographers who were making a living (and art) in the slums of Dumbo by rushing in and pushing the rents up to the limits and standards of Manhattan.  It’s hard to stop that type of progress.

But what killed me the most about the new Austin was this jackass I came across at the Whole Foods flagship on North Lamar.  This guy wore a  “Don’t Move Here” logo-ed t-shirt.

Don’t move here. Huh. Don’t move here I kept mumbling to myself.  Is that addressed to me?  Is that addressed to anyone else that came behind him?  Bedazzeled, I rushed off to confront him about his choice of clothing only to loose him in an MC Escher world of similar faces and clothes and attitudes.  I, dazed and confused, rushed off to find solace in the past.

I knew what this ass was trying to say.  He, probably a newcomer from California, who left his craphole of a state to come here and destroy his new one.  Like a virus, jerks like this spread to the new epicenter and declare it off limits to anyone after them.  I see this type of attitude all through the Hawaiian Islands.

These entitled types, with privileges, and sometime with none, moved in remote places like Oahu’s North Shore, Molokai, and the far ends of Kauai.  They paint, surf, write, smoke pot, eat organic and pepper their language with Hawaiian words.  They demand their lifestyles be accepted, praised, glorified, and spread.  They cut you off in the crosswalk as they speed by in their hybrids with Obama 2012 stickers on the back.  They are the types that help ban plastic shopping bags in Kauai, stopped the Superferry on Oahu, and march en mass on the state capital when their views and beaches are threatened by tourists and developers.  They piss on newcomers if their surf breaks get overcrowded and pretend they’ve been local all their lives when they’ve just got off the airplane six weeks ago. They are the last ones in and try desperately to lock the door by swallowing the key so no one else can ruin their slice of perfection.

But the worst of all were the highly regarded food trucks.  What an absolute waste of time.  Bad attitude and service seems to be the only good things dished out from these trendy trucks.  Self-important meals of no real direction or distinction other than the clever ability to take two food groups and deep-fry it in organic vegan oil.  Good food, whether its an accidental mishap or taken from the food follies on cable TV, has to have some education behind it.  Because you ate banana pancakes on Khao San Rd. and taquitos in Juarez doesn’t give you creative license to deep fry a panko breaded a slice of avocado and expect Bourdain to ordain you a chef.

Oddly, I find Bourdain’s shit-eating grin amusingly absurd as it makes for better TV.  His blessing of the food truck culture in Austin must have inspired so many more kids to pick up the spatula and create food not fit for much more than their own stupid egos.  I can’t help but to wonder what Anthony was really thinking.  Sure there’s probably someone making magic in their rinky-dinky trailer somewhere but it clearly has to be vetted so it can shine.

So as my rants and disappointments come to an end, I must say Austin has changed for the better in many ways but in others I just don’t know.  Austin is much more multicultural we saw loads of Indian and Chinese families roaming the capital ( was graduation week!  HA!) so it seems diversity is clearly changing the face of the town.  I don’t live there anymore and I haven’t lived in Texas for over 15 years but I remember what it was like.  I remember older students telling me how it was back in the day.  They remembered older students telling them…yada yada yada.  So does my review of Austin count?  Only to me, really.

The one true thing I did see about Austin laid just outside the city limits towards Lockhart.  We drove past a family selling live chickens, goats, and fresh eggs.  A young boy of about 12 but mature well beyond his age asked us if we wanted to buy something.  His voice hid a slight Mexican accent but his Texan was apparent as his dirt farmed hands and dusty cheeks gleamed of his background. We asked him what kind of peoples came to shop here.  Was it only Mexicans?  He answered, “No, all races come.”

My wife noted how sad it was for him to have lost his childhood so quickly just to help his family. I felt the same but was clearly convinced he was the future of Texas.  It wouldn’t be the immature children with tight jeans and scarves around their necks.  It would be that kid selling eggs on that Sunday morning.

That encounter was my tale of two cities.  One of entitlements and demands, the other of hard work and sacrifice.

Pearl Harbor Survivors

Pearl Harbor Survivors

Ralph Lindenmeyer, who was stationed at Ford Island during the attack, was on his way to a day of surf and sun in Waikiki after attending Church.  He saw the swarm of Japanese planes flying over the base towards Pearl Harbor.

I grew up in somewhat of an anti-Asian family.  Its not like we were totally racists and threw eggs through the neighbor’s windows…its just my father had some issues with who the US chose to go to war with most of his life.   Mrs. Hymer, our next door neighbors for most of my childhood, was Japanese and her half Japanese kids were my childhood pals.  Al was my hero, there was nothing he could do wrong.  Chris was the brain and I wanted to be smart like him and Nina, well, she was a babe.  My parents loved the family.  My super close friend in high school, Sant, (now Cheksant for some odd Buddhists reason) was from Bangkok, my NYC buddy is Yong from Korea, George Lee is Chinese, and Yukako is…of course…Japanese.   Not to mention I do live near Chinatown and can’t escape all the Asians around me here in Honoruru!

So to say anti-Asian, I mean that in a propaganda type of way because of how the US stereotyped Asians (even Bugs Bunny got into the act!)  In the 20th century, we did wage war against three, no four, possibly five types of Asians.  My father fought against two (maybe three) so I guess you could say he wasn’t fond of people who were trying to kill him.  (They weren’t found of you either, Pop!)  Of course they didn’t hit him but the pleasantries were duly noted.  I also think my father was racist in a foodie type of way because he never forgot the revolting stench of fermenting kim chee in remote Korean villages as a young soldier.  And he claimed (and believe me, he claimed LOADS of things) he encountered little kids in Vietnam gnawing on dried rat skins but, again, eh…?
But the attack on Pearl Harbor is what got him started on his anti-Asian rants.  He told me how he and his friends thought of ways to join the army as teens.  He was somewhat upset when the Japanese surrendered because he missed his chance rain revenge on those who dare to attack a military base on an American territory (that quiet possibly had been occupied by the West illegally for some time…er…what?)  But he wouldn’t have to way too long for his wish to come true.

Anyway, as a kid, we watched all those old war movies where Filipino or other non-Japanese actors portrayed the mean, cold-blooded Japanese.  They always seem to laugh when they killed a poor, unsuspecting, fresh faced, white American soldier.  (Funny, there were no black actors in those movies…and the only Latinos were, uh, well…ah Anthony Quinn…yeah…but, he covered his Mexican-ism.)  That mocking, sinister laugh that only murderous non-Japanese Filipino or slanty-eye Latino actors (Ah! That’s where they all were!) make when they portrayed those blood thirsty Japanese soldiers.  I recall my father saying once…or maybe I saw it in one of those movies…the Japanese laughed when the bombed Pearl Harbor.  They laughed as they killed all those milk-fed boys from Iowa.  I grew up thinking “those dirty Japanese rats!”  forgetting that I just spent a good long summer afternoon playing with that “half-dirty Japanese rat” Nina, who, as I must confess, my first Asian love.  I think she was about five years older than me but it didn’t matter.

I digress…it was just stupid propaganda films my father watched when he was a kid and then made my brother and me watch when we were kids.  Propaganda is powerful.

Seeing how Pearl Harbor was dramatically attacked on film, I developed a special spot for a place I had never seen.  I never gave much thought to the men aboard those sinking ships as they were always actors and in the back of my mind, I knew they’d be all right.  So when I first came to Hawaii on a work trip back in the 90′s, the first place I visited was the Memorial.  It was stunning.  Unbelievable to see the dreams of my childhood, from film/video to reality.  I though “wow.”  What else could I say?  From the Memorial, there, swimming just about 10 yards away…the smokestack of the USS Arizona!

But what was more unbelievable were the real, live, in living color, survivors!  Not those young actors I saw in the movies.  Grizzled old war vets in cheap aloha shirts.  Tough old guys who made it through the attack.  Some smiled gleefully when approached by tourists while others seem to suspiciously eye those young Japanese tourists who probably failed to understand the chaos created by their grandfathers.  The survivors were living history right before my eyes.  I think I might have talked to one or two of those guys but it was just small talk and we went our ways.  Still, it was like seeing George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, at least for me.  As I said, from cellulose to reality.

So years go by and somehow we end up permanently living in Honolulu.  I went to several Pearl Harbor ceremonies for work and realized many of those survivors I saw about eight years ago were gone.  I knew at that point I needed to make portraits of some of these guys before it was too late.  With the help of Daniel Martinez, the National Parks Service historian at the USS Arizona Memorial, I was introduced to the right people to start my documentation project.  He and Lisa Ontai share responsibility for helping me create these images.

The project evolved over the years since my first tries in 2006 and 2007.   My technique and vision have evolved from the beginning as well.  This last session in 2010 took place at the Hilton Hawaiian Village during a ceremony dinner for the survivors.  Jamm and Erica, my best assistants for the day, helped do lights and wrangle veterans to stand for my camera.  Again, there is no way I could have created this work without them.

During the session, I could tell Jamm choked on a few of the stories the vets told and Erica seemed visibly moved by what she saw and heard.  They are a little younger than me and grew up in Honolulu so they probably didn’t think much about Pearl Harbor as much as I did, but I think they walked away with a bit of history and understanding.  I’m glad they helped and participated in this project.

When talking to the survivors, its as if these men still live in the past.  I don’t mean that to disparage these men but they surely cannot escape the past that defined their lives.  Its hard to image being 17 years old and seeing friends dying horribly.  Seeing bombs blowing up all around you.  Seeing your world torn asunder.  We Americans always have that we-are-the-best attitude and nothing can stop us.  Before the war, propaganda portrayed “…the Japanese as nearsighted, bucktoothed, harmless children…” How could these nearsighted fools do this?  And do this to, us…THE US!?!?!  It surely was a blow to the American psyche.

The attack, of course, defined the Pearl Harbor survivor’s futures.  It defined their attitudes, the way they lived, how they lived…even what car they would drive.  I once asked a survivor if he drove an imported Japanese car.  He emphatically stated… “no.”  But these days, little if any of these men still carry hate towards the Japanese.  “They had a job to do as did we,” said one veteran.  And so many buried the hatchet and went on to befriend many of the Japanese war vets brave enough to visit Pearl Harbor and pay their respects.

In 1991, Japanese pilot,  Zenji Abe, who participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, attended several of the Pearl Harbor memorials the name of peace.  During a live broadcast several months before the 50th anniversary, he extended his hand in a sign of reconciliation to several Pearl Harbor survivors.  They begrudgingly accepted his hand shake but it was the start towards peace and understanding.  However, many Pearl Harbor survivors still refused to accept Abe or other Japanese war vets presence at the Memorial’s solemn ceremony.  But over time, Abe’s yearly persistence to reconcile with the past, finally won many over.  Abe now has a special part in the lure of Pearl Harbor as a man who created chaos, yet begged and finally won closure and forgiveness for a war half a century before.  And as that Pearl Harbor vet said…”They had a job to do…”  Mr. Abe died in 2007.

There is nothing more to say about the portraits as I feel they stand on their own.  I feel their eyes link all the portraits together.  Their fears, painful memories, and horrors cling to them, 69 years later.  Yet, through the wrinkles and stubbly faces, you can still see that young boy, on the deck of his ship, fighting for his life, and for the life of his country.  As we know, those who survived won.  They won with a vengeance.  A sad vengeance if you think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…yet that’s a story for another day.

So just like his son, my father’s fake anti-Asian stance never amounted to anything other than heated words over popcorn and old war movies.  He cried when the Hymers moved away.  He loves watching Jackie Chan movies, and he loves Yukako.  He also likes bad Chinese food but once accused us of feeding him dog and baby fetuses when we took him to eat dim sum.  I think he eventually ate it but I didn’t think to check under the table when we left.

My father has always embraced my nutty friends, whether they were Asian or not…so long as they left their kim chee at the door.

You can see the entire gallery at  The survivor’s gallery is under projects.