Kid gloves in hand, a handsome young man leans casually against the back of a chair, staring directly into the camera. His suit jacket is carefully buttoned, but above it we can see a plain dark tie and a patterned shirt topped by a stiff white collar. In another photograph, taken on the street, a parrot perches on his right shoulder; the same carefully pressed jacket is open to reveal a matching vest over a white shirt and a light-colored plaid tie. A man about town, ready to take on the world. But in this case, the world didn't want him.
Henry Kiyama was born in rural Japan in 1885, the child of a prominent village innkeeper. Like many boys of his generation, he received an extraordinary education: After 300 years of determinedly self-imposed isolation, Japan was playing a fierce game of catch-up with the West, and Kiyama Yoshitaka --- our Henry --- would have graduated from high school able to quote both Shakespeare and Confucius and feeling as comfortable in a coat and tie as he was in a yukata. Like the hero of many fairy tales, he was probably a younger son, with little hope of (and perhaps little interest in) inheriting the family business. As turn-of-the century Japan tumbled headlong from one economic crisis to another, it must have been a discouraging place for a budding artist. And so in 1904 Kiyama, in the company of three friends, set out for the New World in search of fame and fortune.
He came to San Francisco. And there he stayed, attending the Art Institute and building a solid career in the city that was rapidly becoming the center of Japanese life in America. In a country that was becoming increasingly hostile to the presence of Asians. He returned to Japan twice for brief visits --- once in 1922, to find a wife before the U.S. ban on immigration from Japan made it impossible for him to marry; once in 1927 for family and professional reasons. A third visit, in 1937, turned into a permanent return, as private plans vanished in the typhoon of international war. He died, an art teacher in his hometown, in 1951.
But Henry Kiyama was not merely a painter; he was also a cartoonist. And because of this undervalued talent, he has recently reappeared in our midst. In 1927 Kiyama put together an autobiographical comic-strip in 52 episodes (he hoped that a weekly newspaper would pick it up), wryly depicting the predicaments he and his countrymen had faced in California. Four years later, he made what may have been graphic arts history, self-publishing the memoir as a 112-page comic book for adults long before Art Spiegelman even dreamed of Maus. The work had a brief flurry of sales. Then it went out of print; a copy languished in the Bancroft Library until veteran translator and manga maven Fred Schodt discovered it and persuaded Peter Goodman at Berkeley's Stone Bridge Press to bring it out in English.
Many years ago, fresh out of college, I fell into a clerical job at UC Berkeley where two of my co-workers, Carole Iwata and Magdalen Suzuki (happily renamed Suzie), were about my age. We began to go out for lunch together, and over minestrone at the Med I found myself plunging into a world that I, a New York WASP, knew nothing about. Not that our concerns were so different: our mothers shared an obsession with proper manners and a conviction that all young women needed husbands. But Suzie, in particular, had a perceptive mimic's ear, and a large boisterous clan of Japanese Americans often seemed to join us at the table.
These family stories came back to me as I read Kiyama's Four Immigrants Manga, which is populated with a large cast of Asian immigrants and native Americans, all seen through the eyes of the newcomers. That's where the fun comes in. Kiyama's original book was written in Japanese and English, with a little Cantonese thrown in for authenticity. Henry and his ambitious compatriots --- agriculturist Fred, capitalist Frank, and reformer Charlie --- speak eloquently, lacing their comments with quotations from the Japanese classics. Their facility for English is dreadful, leading them into one embarrassing encounter after another with Americans who, to their unpracticed ears, speak near-gibberish.
These four scions of the Japanese Empire bumble their way through most of the major events of the early 20th century, including the San Francisco earthquake, the Great War, the influenza epidemic of 1918 and Prohibition. How could they do otherwise? The well-meaning, well-educated young men are completely unprepared for the kinds of work that are open to them. As a houseboy, Frank destroys the stove; as a shop clerk, Charlie sasses the boss's wife; as farmhands, the two manage to flood an apple orchard. But the pleasures of San Francisco --- wandering through Union Square, gambling in Chinatown, gawking at the wonders of the Panama Pacific International Exposition --- easily salve the wound of being fired once again.
Racist wounds, however, are slower to heal. The potential for attack is always present: a rock, hurled mysteriously from above, beans a visiting Japanese seismologist in 1906; a lynch mob drives Frank and Charlie out of Turlock in 1921. Hardest to bear is the continual constriction of legal limits on their actions. When we see Charlie in 1918, he has just returned to San Francisco after World War I, having valiantly wielded his family's samurai sword in battle (Frank had told him to be careful: "If you don't come back alive, our cartoonist'll run out of ideas!"). He proudly tells Frank, "My next strategy's to buy some land, marry a white woman, and build a home. But to do that, I have to become a citizen, so the next stop's City Hall." Kiyama's contemporary readers would have laughed bitterly. An issei who owned land, had a white wife, held citizenship? All illegal in California in the years B.C., before camp.
Imagine a serpent with ten heads, each equipped with rows of barracuda teeth. Chop off one of the heads, and two grow in its place. The Greeks called it Hydra. Modern environmentalists might call it Monsanto.
In response to a recent ad --- "Food Biotechnology is a matter of opinion. Monsanto believes you should hear all of them." --- the doughty English journal The Ecologist offered some opinions of its own, in a special issue devoted to the St. Louis--based conglomerate. The project nearly died aborning. First, Penwells, the Cornwall printers who had worked with the publication for nearly 30 years pulped the entire 14,000-copy print run. After another printer stepped in, news agents WHSmith and John Menzies refused to sell the issue. Daniel Verakis, the spokesman for Monsanto in the U.K., was --- according to The Guardian --- "mystified by the printer's action," leaving Ecologist head Zac Goldsmith to muse about the effects of psychological pressure. Is the Hydra's breath so foul that organizations are willing to self-censor rather than risk its noxious fumes?
The Ecologist has not been crying alone in the wilderness. Respected U.S. reporters such as Peter Montague, in Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly, and Michael Pollan, in The New York Times Magazine, have recently joined the fray. International agricultural organizations with runic names and solid reputations --- like RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International), and CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) --- have added their own weighty suspicions.
What's the fuss all about? It's a little difficult to get a handle on the heart of the furor: Monsanto's activities are multifarious, and discussions of technology protection systems (TPS), recombinant bovine growth hormones (rBGH) and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) tend to leave people cold.
But imagine a corporation, in the time-honored business tradition of "Find a need and fill it," asking what it can produce to maximize its control of markets all over the world. What does everyone need? Food. Basic food. Rice. Soybeans. Corn. Potatoes. Wheat. Milk. Go get 'em.
Genetic engineering makes it possible for corporations to take over areas that have been the domain of farmers for thousands of years. Do you want to improve milk production, develop cold-resistant tomatoes or raise bug-proof potatoes? Forget about saving seeds and patiently cross-breeding. Biotechnology can do it for you. And if companies like Monsanto have their way, these new processes are also patentable, and they will own the patents. But in a do-it-yourself field like agriculture, how do you prevent cheaters? In the case of New Leaf Superior potatoes, which zap any Colorado potato beetle that comes near, "licensed" growers who break their contracts and save some of the eyes for future planting can be prosecuted for breaking Federal law. And farmers raising soybeans or other seed crops may not even run that risk: plants containing TPS will produce only sterile seeds, to prevent what Monsanto calls "unwanted germination." RAFI calls this process the Terminator.
Every rock in the biotech garden conceals another toad. When questions arise about the safety of genetically engineered food, Americans are accustomed to rely on the wisdom of the FDA. But environmentalists quickly cite studies where the company applying for the patent has also supplied much of the evidence supporting the safety of the product. And you can forget about warning labels, because U.S. law isn't always up to the new situations it's being asked to cover. Potatoes known as Superior are the white-skinned variety beloved by companies like McDonalds and Frito-Lay. Monsanto's New Leaf Superiors contain a pesticide as part of their makeup, but FDA labels cannot include information about it --- that's the job of the EPA; the EPA can't label the pesticide content of the potatoes, however, because they're a food and therefore under the jurisdiction of the FDA. Meanwhile, the fries and chips keep pouring out, and are presumably consumed in safety.
Agent Orange producer Monsanto proclaims proudly that it has seen the error of its former evil ways. It boasts out of one side of its mouth that the switch to biotechnology offers a way to escape the destructive use of chemicals in farming. The other side of its mouth touts its own special herbicide Roundup, the largest selling in the world --- as well as its own variety of soybeans, expected to constitute 30 percent of next year's U.S. crop, which have been genetically engineered to resist the effects of Roundup. No need to weed ever again!
Most supermarket shoppers prefer not to examine the practices that produce the food they buy, but once the biotech door swings open, the questions are endless. What happens when bees carry pollen from a plant engineered to produce sterile seeds into a neighbor's field? Will problems arise when the antibiotic tetracycline, used to trigger the Terminator process, is absorbed by nearby soil organisms? Does it matter that cows treated with hormones have an unusually high incidence of udder infections? Inquiring minds might want to know before they drink many more chocolate shakes.
The biotech companies suggest that the answers to these and other questions lie in their laboratories, as Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro told the illustrious International Industrial Conference in San Francisco last year. "One billion people today suffer from chronic malnutrition," he said. "There is no more land for agriculture. We've already lost 15 to 20 percent of our topsoil....Fresh water is in limited supply. The problem of food supply can be addressed only by new technology or mass starvation."
For some reason, Americans have been amazingly silent on these questions, but observers --- and farmers --- in other countries have not. For many of them, the road to plenty lies in the opposite direction. British biologist Mae-Wan Ho sees it this way: "Farming communities in many areas of the Third World have been actively regenerating and revitalizing degraded agricultural land with many forms of sustainable, organic agriculture, and recovering agricultural biodiversity --- the key to food security."
Biotechnology meets biodiversity. Look out, Hydra!
Some listeners to KQED-FM were puzzled that the radio station tape-delayed the live coverage of the House Impeachment Hearings. It could be the station management might have been on the lookout for more dirty words provided by the Independent Counsel and wanted to be prepared to censor them in time.
"I'm not concerned with the Starr hearings," asserts Michele Caprario. "I was much more interested in all of those falling stars the other night."
Speaking of stars, when Hollywood decides to make a movie out of this curious phase of American history, Norm Howard nominates Angela Lansbury to play Linda Tripp: "I want to see Ms. Lansbury revive her role in "The Manchurian Candidate."
Mike Kemp, who's in the book-selling business, says he doesn't understand why the Starr Report didn't sell better. "Our smuttier stuff usually moves faster," he chuckles.
Truth is, it's bad pornography. Oscar Wilde responded to the question, "Don't you believe that there are decent books or indecent books?" with his famous riposte: "No, books are simply either well written or poorly written."
The impeachment hearings are downright bizarre. One can't look at the chairman of the House Judiciary without thinking of the Mr. Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous allegory of a dual personality. Just about everyone involved in this strange spectacle seems to have an alter ego hanging in the closet.
The Scottish novelist, Stevenson, had a San Francisco connection. He lived on Bush Street before he claimed his bride in St. Helena, in the wine country. A plaque marks his lodgings, located near Masa's restaurant.
ABC is continuing its lockout of members of the broadcast engineer's union, NABET. On Tuesday, members of the Newspaper Guild joined the picket line at KGO on Front Street.
"NABET supported the Guild during the newspaper strike so they are reciprocating," said former Chronicle staffer Carole Vernier. But why are the "air talent" not honoring the picket lines?
"The AFTRA contract," points out KCBS veteran Al Hart, "contains a clause that says members don't have to walk out with other unions in the industry."
So much for solidarity.
* * *
The Monica Convergence or Is This Tripp Necessary? I tried my best to avoid the tapes but even C-SPAN was converted to The Monica Channel. I confess I laughed out loud when I heard Ms. Lewinsky complain that the White House arranged a job interview with her and Bill Richardson, the US Ambassador to the United Nations. Monica protested that she'd have to suffer the indignity of going through the motions and actually negotiating a salary. Did anyone ever tell this gal that Meryl Streep has to audition for an acting job once in a while?
The newspapers are chock full of assessments by "speech experts," some of whom say Monica --- the devil with the blue dress --- sounds like a little girl, chattering in pathetic adolescent jargon such as "ya know," "it's like," and so on. Hello? 90 per cent of the population talks like this. Compared to MTV, Ms. Lewinsky sounds like Ashley Montagu. Let's be grateful she didn't blurt out the word, "Awesome!"
At least I don't think she did.
So she showed her provocative undies to the president. He has to respond? If one takes the bait at such invitations, trouble often ensues. He should have done the presidential thing: formed a task force on the matter.
But, no. And you know the old adage, "Here today, thong tomorrow."
* * *
All the folks over at the Huntington Hotel were disappointed to learn that Alistair Cooke, the great English journalist and former host of "Masterpiece Theater," had to cancel his trip to San Francisco due to illness. Mr. Cooke had planned to celebrate his 90th birthday here on Nov. 20. Over the years, he has remained a faithful guest of the Huntington.
"Because Mr. Cooke loves San Francisco so much," observes Michael Johnson, the general manager of KALW Radio, "our station is the only one in the country with permission to pull Cooke's 'Letter from America' out of the BBC Monday broadcast."
The St. Francis Hotel is making a special effort to welcome foreign visitors this year. The hotel's Marsha Mason says a "Santa Convention" includes hundreds of Santas from around the world, all keeping watchful eyes on the lobby, checking to see who's naughty or nice --- a job usually in the hands of the house detective.
When I see a film like Woody's Allen's latest, I still think what Barbara Shulgasser, former Examiner film critic, might say. Barbara has left the paper and is living and writing in Los Angeles. Not so strange. Barbara wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman's "Pret-A-Porter."
And many are still surprised to learn Roger Ebert wrote, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."
* * *
More Sybaritic stuff.
Barnaby Conrad is the author of The Cigar, Absinthe: History in a Bottle andThe Martini, which sold over 100,000 books. Next year, Chronicle Books will release his latest, The Blonde.
Now you know why I call Barnaby "the viceroy of vice." Barnaby is branching out to cyberspace with a new Web site, a virtual cocktail lounge where you can sip and chat up another cool, elegant member of the cognescenti. Try it: www.themartini.com
I hope the other watering holes don't take a bath by losing a lot of business to the wild, Web-footed wet bar wassailers over at Conrad's online martini marathon --- all holding glasses on high and reciting another old adage, "Beauty is vermouth, vermouth beauty."
OK, that is all.
Bruce Bellingham's new book, Bellingham by the Bay, is published by Council Oak Books. He may be reached at email@example.com