Elija un idioma principal para aprovechar al máximo nuestras páginas de la sección Artículos:
English 日本語 Español Português

Hemos realizado muchas mejoras en las páginas de la sección Artículos. ¡Por favor, envíe sus comentarios a editor@DiscoverNikkei.org!

9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest


The last time I was here, the sakura were in bloom.

I came to Little Tokyo to visit my grandmother. She was aging but still ran the batik workshop in the spare room at the Catholic church. Every Tuesday afternoon, she would set out her dyes and silk fabrics, and invite anyone who was willing to come and do indigo dye and batik with her. Her hands never shook, even when handling the bowls of hot wax. Especially when handling the bowls of hot wax. Growing up, I had watched her wring out countless hot towels, until she could no longer open her own water bottles.

“Grandma, I brought you some mochi,” I said, setting out the small plastic tray of brightly colored rice cakes, still in their packaging. Each little mochi had a little plastic well that it rested in, like a nestled bird.

“Nobody came to the workshop today,” she said thoughtfully, acknowledging my mochi with a glance. “I wonder why.”

“It’s a cold day,” I said, to comfort her. She smiled and nodded, and gestured to a large bowl of pasta salad, tossed with those little grape tomatoes that I had loved so much as a child.

“Eat before you leave,” she said, accurately predicting the levity of my stay.

I never stayed long when I visited my grandmother. I wasn’t sure why; she was a pleasant person, quiet, given to long, contemplative moments. I was a young person, and I was looking for something more like…fireworks, I suppose.

I made myself a plate.

My grandmother immigrated from Japan in the early ‘80s, originally to Long Beach. She came with her husband, Hidejiro, and they opened Koko’s Kitchen downtown, right next to a used bookstore. They were the Bannais, a friendly, hard working couple who settled into the community and had five children–a large family, by any standards. They made a living selling homestyle Japanese cooking and sushi.

My father despaired of working in the kitchen, even though he met his wife, my mother, there. My mother, Ching-yu, is Taiwanese. She came to Koko’s Kitchen to work as a cook while she was studying to be a teacher. My father, who managed the restaurant at the time, eventually married her.

It’s one of the family heirlooms, their wedding scrapbook. Although the wedding took place in the early 2000’s, some of the photographs are in black and white, I suppose for dramatic effect. They had a culturally mixed wedding; my mother wore traditional Hakka Taiwanese dress, and my father, who was Americanized, wore a sharp black suit. I was born two years after that June wedding.

A few years after I was born, when I was about to enter kindergarten, my father quit the restaurant. It was a big deal; my grandmother scolded him, and my grandfather stormed out of the room. It caused a giant row. But my father had better opportunities on his horizon, as he liked to remind them, and my mother. He had a college degree from Long Beach State, in electrical engineering. He wanted to work in electric, and leave his cooking days behind. For some reason or another, he hopped from one company to another, perennially dissatisfied–the pay was never enough, or the work was too menial. He took to drinking after the fifth job did not work out.

My mother was as successful as women can be, sometimes, with the limitations imposed on women by society. She was a kindergarten teacher at a school called Odyssey, a charter school in the Pasadena area of Los Angeles. Eventually, after a few years of supporting my unemployed father, my mother took the plunge and filed for divorce. She moved up to Los Angeles with me, settling in the Lincoln Heights area, and continuing to teach at Odyssey. I didn’t hear from my father again for many years.

In middle school, I discovered that I had a love for painting. My mother harbored a bit of a fear that it indicated a flighty, temperamental side of me, like my father. She worried that I would turn out like him, so she discouraged me from painting. She told me it would be better to invest in a skill that would make me money, and I didn’t disagree. I tried to focus my attention on excelling in math, hoping to be an accountant someday.

In my teenage years, I didn’t keep in touch much with my grandparents, although my father popped in and out of my life. Sometimes he came to the house because he wanted to borrow money; sometimes he would take me to a burger place and eat a quick meal. I was a sullen teenager, and mostly ignored his attempts at conversation. His dissatisfaction with life was tempered by a contrived friendliness that he tried to cultivate with me; as a teenager, I was not having it.

When I entered high school, my father committed suicide. My mother was devastated, and quit her job. After living on her savings for a while, my mother told me that I was to live with Hidejiro and Kyoko, my father’s parents.

“You’ll be eighteen soon,” she told me. “You’ll be on your own, you won’t need me. Right now, I need to be alone.”

I couldn’t say that I understood. I felt like she had chosen to honor my father’s absence over my presence. Perhaps it was that I looked too much like him–she had taken to avoiding eye contact with me after news of his death.

My grandparents moved up to Los Angeles and found themselves a small apartment in Little Tokyo. They opened a flower shop with what money they had gotten from their insurance–Koko Kitchen had burned down that year, after a kitchen fire got out of control. My grandmother trained me to work in the flower shop, and it was in that small shop that I quietly moved on with my life–without my mother, without my father. Wherever they had decided to go, they had decided that I could not come with them, and I made my peace with that the best way I could.

My grandmother encouraged me to paint. Shortly after I moved in with her, she beckoned me to the back room of the flower shop, and showed me that she had set up an easel and a small palette of paints. She guided me to the easel, her hand on my back, and handed me a paintbrush.

“Show me what’s in your heart,” she said gently, and backed away.

In Japan, my grandmother had worked as an artist, specifically a batik expert. In her youth she had traveled to Indonesia and learned from masters of batik. Before coming to California, she had taught batik at a women’s university in Japan.

I painted the days away, but at first, it was difficult. I did not know what to paint–it was like nothing was coming to mind. But eventually, I allowed myself to grow roots in the place where I was planted, and I painted my environment, the space that I had been given to thrive and grow.

My first painting was a watercolor of the big bakery at the Japanese Village Plaza. I painted with as much detail as I could; the little curry buns for sale in the steaming glass cases, the women and children walking around the plaza, passing by the bakery in the sunlight, and the delicate slats of the building’s architecture. When I finished that one, I drew a massive portrait of a cute, sweet ume onigiri that I had purchased from the Nijiya Market.

Slowly, I started to go out more. I felt comfortable putting my world down on canvas, with paints. And because of that, a reciprocal relationship started, where I also felt more comfortable going out into that world, and letting myself be a part of that world. I remember going out into the Japanese Village Plaza one night when it was raining, and no one was walking around. I laid down under the wish tree, looking up at all the paper wishes. Someone wished to go to UCLA. I smiled to myself and felt the water drop down from the branches onto my face.

Little Tokyo became mine, slowly, in the way that downtown Long Beach had never really belonged to my father. As the months turned into years, I watched people come and go, watched different styles and fashions come in and out. One year, a group of dancers from Chicago came to a bar in the Japanese Village Plaza to dance to underground house music–they called the dance, whacking. I would go on Saturday nights and watch them. They stayed for almost a month, until finally the neighbors complained about the noise, and the bar stopped letting them dance there.

One Halloween, I met a man in Little Tokyo, outside of an ice cream shop that had replaced a sushi restaurant. He was selling tamales that had been dyed orange and purple, to look like the faces of jack-o-lanterns. He was dressed in a pikachu jacket and introduced himself to me as Adan.

If, at this point, you believe this is a redemption story, where I find the romantic love that so evaded my parents, well–this is not that story. I met Adan, and we became fast friends. He introduced me to eating birria and East Los Angeles, which we explored on bicycles. I showed him the secret best place to buy takoyaki and spam musubi. And one day, I painted him.

He sat for me. I brought him back to the little flower shop, and he sat patiently on a stool, his chin in his hand, elbow resting on his left knee. Brush stroke after brush stroke, I applied acrylic paints, trying to capture the complexity and colors of him.

The painting went unfinished for years after that initial session. After an hour or two, he got tired, and we never returned to the project. While the flower shop is long gone, the canvas settled into the dust in the back of my closet in my apartment, waiting for me to dare to work on it again.       

The portrait I am currently working on is that of my grandmother. Nearly eighty now, and alone, my grandmother sits patiently for me every weekend, in that spare room at the Catholic church. Very rarely does someone come to her batik workshop, but when they do, she treats them with the utmost hospitality and kindred gentleness. When no one comes, I bring out my canvas and paints, and I work on my portrait of her. She still wears round glasses, and her short hair is more white than gray. She is short and thin, and dresses warmly for the weather. This is the woman who was here for me, I think, as I apply brushstrokes to the canvas. The woman who raised me, who loved me, who cared for me. This is her.

Eventually, one day, I collected all of my paintings, my old paintings and my new ones, even the unfinished one of Adan. I took pictures of them and printed and bound them into little art zines. I took them to the Little Tokyo library and asked them if they would like to distribute them, which they did. Inside the zines were little business cards, advertising my grandmother’s batik workshop with the hours that she was open for business.

For the next year or so, people started coming to her batik workshop. Mostly the elderly, but they came, and they worked on elaborate, delicate, beautiful batiks. They dedicated themselves to this craft and my grandmother was clearly pleased. I never told my grandmother about the business cards, but she never asked. My grandmother was happy. She brought coffee and food for the participants, and they started calling her Kyoko-san. I decided, after some time, to move up to Oregon to take a job in human resources.

Rarely do we do exactly what it is we want to do in life. I didn’t become a painter; perhaps my mother would have been relieved. But I didn’t live my life working in a kitchen, either, like my grandparents and parents. I never visited my father’s grave, although I never harbored any hatred in my heart for either of my parents. Every Valentine’s Day, I visited my grandmother in Los Angeles, and we would spend the day at JANM, or walking around in the Japanese Village Plaza. Those curry buns remained my favorite food, no matter where I went. We would visit the Buddhist temple and my grandmother would chant and burn incense. I would stay back and watch, and wonder if, when I passed, someone would be alive to remember me in this way. I had no children, no partner, no spouse, and it seemed unlikely that I would be remembered. The thought passed over me with peace, and I left the temple unbothered.

One day, I revisited the portrait of Adan, which was lingering in the back of my closet. I tried to paint him from memory; when that didn’t work, I looked at an old color photograph that I had of him, laughing on a bicycle. I finished the painting and thought about sending it to him, although I was sure I no longer had his correct address. So I brought it with me on my annual trip down to Little Tokyo, and hung it in my grandmother’s apartment. I told myself that when my grandmother passed, I would find a new home for it.

I looked out the window, watching the rain fall. For a minute it seemed as if the portrait of Adan was also watching the rain; and I thought about the richness of rain, watering the pavement in Little Tokyo, like a garden bed. And what was I? The word tori came to mind, the Japanese word for bird. And at that moment, when I closed my eyes, I flew.

Actor Keiko Agena reads “Tori” by Xueyou Wang.
From the 9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest: A Virtual Celebration on May 26, 2022. Sponsored by the Little Tokyo Historical Society in partnership with JANM's Discover Nikkei project.


*This is the winning story in the Adult English category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 9th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2022 Xueyou Wang

fiction imagine little tokyo Little Tokyo short story contest

Sobre esta serie

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that captures the spirit and essence of Little Tokyo and the people in it.  Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. On May 26, 2022 in a virtual celebration moderated by Derek Mio, noted actors, Keiko Agena, Helen Ota, and Megumi Anjo performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.


  • Adult Category: “Tori” by Xueyou Wang 
      Honorable mentions 
  • Youth Category: “Time Capsule” by Hailey Hua
      Honorable mentions
  • Japanese Language Category: “教えて” (Tell Me) by Nao Mutsuki
      Honorable mentions
    • 回春” (Spring is coming over) by Miyuki Kokubu (Japanese only)

*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>