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‘Hawaii, Hawaii/ Like a dream/ So I came/ But my tears/ Are flowing now/In the canefields’: Beauty’s Price in Philip Kan Gotanda’s Ballad of Yachiyo

Author(s): María Isabel Seguro

Journal: Coolabah
ISSN 1988-5946

Volume: 3;
Start page: 17;
Date: 2009;
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Keywords: Hawaii | American imperialism | Ballad of Yachiyo

Oftentimes popular culture depicts Hawaii as an ideal paradise, representedby images of ‘[p]alm trees, a distant mountain (frequently a smoking volcano), and ahula maiden, all surmounted by a splendid full moon’ (Brown 1994). Such a pictureclearly contrasts with the labour song quoted in the title of this article, which reflects theexploitation, mainly of Asian workers, in the sugar-cane plantation system—the originalbasis for (white) American prosperity in the islands since the mid-nineteenth century.Philip Kan Gotanda’s play, Ballad of Yachiyo, which premièred at Berkeley RepertoryTheatre in 1995, takes place within a Japanese community in early twentieth-centuryHawaii. It is loosely based on the silenced story of the playwright’s aunt who committedsuicide for bringing shame to the family as a result of an extra-marital pregnancy.Gotanda considers that this particular work is not so much about politics, but about ‘atone’ and a ‘kind of beautiful sadness’ (1997). Despite the author’s words, Ballad ofYachiyo inevitably has embedded within a political message insofar as it makesreferences, for example, to working conditions in the sugar plantations, the formation ofthe first inter-ethnic (Japanese/Filipino) trade unions and the expectations of Japaneseimmigrants in search of the mythical paradise Hawaii was meant to be. That is, byrecovering what was once a lost voice, Gotanda reconstructs part of his family’smemory as forming part of Hawaii’s recent history.

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