‘Four Immigrants’: How an early 1900s comic book birthed a new musical


Traveling a dream-filled, improbable path not unlike that of the four Japanese immigrants at its heart, a collection of 52 comic strips first published in 1931 as a graphic memoir by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama has arrived as a world premiere musical at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Written by Alameda-based playwright and composer/lyricist Min Kahng, “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga,” launches the company’s 48th season.

East Bay playwright Min Kahng started writing “Four Immigrants” after discovering a translated comic book at a used bookstore.

The musical marks a journey from an autobiographical story about the experiences of Kiyama and his three friends living in turn-of-the-19th-century San Francisco to Kahng’s 21st century musical. And it includes a most serendipitous translation by manga expert Frederik L. Schodt.

Discovering Kiyama’s self-published “Manga Yonin Shosei” in a UC Berkeley library around 1980, Schodt translated the comic book. It was published in 1997 by Berkeley’s Stonebridge Press. Then Kahng stumbled upon Schodt’s translation, titled “The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924,” at a used book sale in Berkeley.

“Just the fact that the comic book exists is special to me, let alone my finding the translation,” says Kahng. “This was a guy who came to study art at a time when a lot of Asians came to the United States to be farm laborers or to open shops. The unique text, the Bay Area setting, the Asian-American story — all of that drew me.”

Kahng grew up in Danville, where his small-business-owner parents spoke Korean more than English. High academic standards and business career aspirations were paramount. Halfway through college at UC Berkeley, he decided to pursue theater. His works in musical theater include, among others, “The Song of the Nightingale,” an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story, and “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” an adaptation of Grace Lin’s award-winning children’s book.

Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s “Manga Yonin Shosei,” translated and published by Frederik L. Schodt, inspired a new musical at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Kiyama’s art, Kahng says, is intriguingly drawn in early American comic book style and lacks stereotypical caricatures, like slanted Asian eyes. The language flips expectations — Americans speak pidgin English to immigrants whose language Kiyama wrote in Japanese, which Schodt later translated into smooth-flowing English.

“We tried to honor the drawing style Henry used, yet not make it an erasure of Japanese history,” Kahng says. “Considering Asians portrayed onstage, specifically in vaudeville, the

Source:: East Bay – Entertainment

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