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Title: May Ota Higa Interview
Narrator: May Ota Higa
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Seattle, Washington
Date: December 17, 2004
Densho ID: denshovh-hmay-01-0001

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TI: So today is December 17th, it's a Friday, and we're in the Densho offices at 1416 South Jackson, my name is Tom Ikeda, and I'm the interviewer, and on camera we have Dana Hoshide. But this morning we have May Higa, and May, I just wanted to start with where and when were you born?

MH: Where and when? 1916, March 14, 1916. I was born in Seattle, I don't know what address here.

TI: But what was the full name given to you when you were born?

MH: May Ota, that's all.

TI: So no middle name?

MH: No middle name, nothing. May Ota.

TI: And at that point, what were your parents doing to make a living in Seattle?

MH: Oh. My father ran hotels, and the building over on the other side of Rainier here, he ran that apartment for a time. And at one time he ran seven hotels, so he was quite, you know, prosperous at one time. And then the Depression came and we lost everything; we just lost everything. And my father, he has eight children. I'm one of eight children.

TI: Well, talk about that. So in the birth order, where are you in the birth order?

MH: I'm fifth, fifth in the birth order.

TI: So let's start back with your, with your father. How did he decide to come to the United States?

MH: He was one... well, he's the chonan, the oldest one in the family, but they were running a shoyu company or something, and he just didn't think that was gonna, he was gonna make any money, so he went to Vladivostok to see if he could do, start a business there. But he found out that it was too cold, and he didn't like it, so he went back to Japan. Then he said, "Well, I'm going to America to see what I can do to make a living." So that's how he happened to come here. And I think it was around (1890), maybe.

TI: So it sounds like your father's family was quite prosperous.

MH: Yes, they, their, they were at one time. They're a samurai family, had a beautiful home on top of the hill that all the serfs and workers used to bring their harvest to them. Yeah, it was. His family in Japan was quite well-off, but he himself had to find a way to make his own living. He didn't want to stay there.

TI: So was it hard for, I guess, his parents or your grandparents to let him come to, to America?

MH: I don't, I don't know. I don't think so. I don't think so, because he went to Vladivostok and left home early, and my, I think my father was quite an adventurer and an enterpriser, and took risks. And then he came here and he started, he started to work for, as a houseboy, and they asked him if he could cook and all that. He couldn't, but he said, "Yes, I can," and he got started there and then he made a little money, and he worked for a hotel, I guess. He moved on to work for a hotel.

TI: Now, before we go on with this story, what was his name?

MH: Tokio. T-O-K-I-O. Oh, let me tell you, at the very beginning when he came, I'm, I'm a descendant of an illegal alien. Yeah, I am, because he was brought in by some railroad company. They paid his way over, and then they were supposed to go to Montana or someplace. And he says he was on the ship for many, for weeks, in those days, and then he got off and they got in line at this Union Station to get a train, but they came in in the dark of night, because they were smuggled in by the people who owned the railroad. And so he was smuggled in, and he remembers walking through the cattails and all the stuff as he, because the ship had to be out in the... so then he was standing in line at the Union Station to be sent to Montana or someplace. And he thought, "Well, if I go to Montana, what kind of life is that? It's worse than being in Japan."

So when it was dark, he turned around and he ran. He ran and he ran, and finally he said he met up with someone, and it turned out to be a Japanese man. And so he said to the Japanese man, "I have to stay someplace and eat something." So this Japanese man took him to someplace around here, and showed him a dark basement with lots of berths sticking out, and he said, "This is where we sleep. We get one of the berths." So he said, "Well, I'm hungry." He said, "I'll tell you what we'll do." This man says he used to wash dishes for a restaurant, and they would feed him and they'd give him a little money, and so then he could pay the twenty-five cents a night or something that they paid for that berth. And so he -- [coughs] -- so he followed this man in, and they, the man was nice enough to say, "I'll go and wash dishes one day and get my meal. The next day you go and you get your meal. You could pay for your berth." So that's the story my father told me, the way he got started, and he says he's still looking for this man, his name was Okada, and to the, to his dying day, he looked for him. Had we had computers in those days, we might have been able to locate him.

TI: Well, that's a good story. So your dad came over, and it sounds like a contract laborer.

MH: Uh-huh, that's what it was.

TI: To actually go to, all the way to Montana, probably to work on the railroads there, but he was being smuggled in to do this.

MH: Yes, right.

TI: And so when he was en route to Montana, coming through Seattle, he then sort of slipped away, and that's how he got...

MH: Right, that's how he got started.

TI: Can you recall what year, about what year this happened, roughly?

MH: Well, I would think it would be around (1890).

TI: Okay, so that'd be pretty early.

MH: Uh-huh.

TI: Yeah, that would be early. Okay, so I'm just curious about what year. And then a Japanese man sort of befriended him and helped him get, get set up.

MH: Uh-huh. Isn't that amazing?

TI: It really is.

MH: Yeah. And I wouldn't tell the story unless I heard it from my own father.

TI: No, that's a really good story.

MH: Yeah, so that's...

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2004 Densho. All Rights Reserved.