Sunday, January 21, 2007

Profile: Kagan Goh – Poet, Journalist

Kagan Goh has found that telling the stories of strangers can hit very close to home.

He had been working on a documentary film called "STOLEN MEMORIES" about an old photo album his brother purchased at a garage sale. After a five year quest, he discovered the book was among all the personal possessions of a Japanese Canadian family which were seized by the Canadian government or stolen by looters when the family was forced into an internment camp during the Second World War.

But the story didn’t end with the recovery and return of the album to its rightful owners.

His detective sidekick in the odyssey was an extraordinary Japanese Canadian woman in her seventies named Mary Seki. Mary would drive him around in her beat-up Nissan pick-up truck going from door to door, visiting Japanese family after family in search of clues to the whereabouts of the family.

During the search, Mary would tell Goh about her brother Akihide John "Rocky" Otsuji. After the Second World War and the end of the internment, the Japanese Canadians were given the choice to either repatriate to Japan or go east of the Rockies. Mary and her family were amongst the thousands repatriated to Japan. The Otsuji family left Vancouver on the fifth and last "repatriation boat" to Japan on December 24, 1946 except for Akihide John, who chose to remain in Canada. John’s response was he thought his family was crazy to go to a "war-torn" Japan that had lost the war.

Akihide broke the law by going back to his hometown of Vancouver, only to be labeled a rebel, a black sheep and a criminal.

Goh was telling the story of Akihide John Otsuji to his friend Kali Jones when she suddenly exclaimed: "Akihide! You mean Aki?!!!" Apparently Aki was imprisoned in Okhalla prison where he met Kali’s father, Harry Jones, who by strange coincidence was his cellmate and best friend. Aki and Harry used to jitterbug dance to Glen Miller in their cell and drive the inmates below them crazy. Aki always dreamed of being an entertainer, a crooner like Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby. Behind bars Aki would sing to lift his cellmates’ spirits, his song travelling and escaping the confines of the prison walls. Harry still remembers with sorrow how Aki used to cry in his sleep at night longing for his mother.

According to Harry, Aki was a well-liked guy and never encountered any prejudice from his fellow cellmates. The world outside the prison wasn’t nearly as tolerant.

After serving a year’s sentence, Aki was released but the law had it out for him. Wanting to break his spirit the police looked for the slightest excuse to arrest him again and he was arrested within 24 hours of his release. Aki picked up a drug habit in prison from his fellow inmates since, as Harry described it: "Misery loves company." When he was eventually released he evaded the cops by pretending to be Chinese and hiding out in Chinatown.

Aki was considered a black sheep in the Japanese Canadian community. In reaction he rejected his Japanese heritage, calling himself an "Irish American".

He became schizophrenic and was put into Essendale mental asylum where he died of a broken heart.

Of the hundreds of personal stories Goh heard, Akihide John Otsuji’s tragic story symbolizes a microcosm within a macrocosm of the Japanese Canadian community’s experience of suffering from racial discrimination, isolation and loneliness.

"Aki’s Ghost", which airs on CBC Radio 1's (690 AM) OUTFRONT next Tuesday, January 23rd at 8:43pm, will be told from Mary Seki's and Harry Jone’s point-of-view: an intimate and impassioned reminiscence from his sister and his cellmate whom want to vindicate Aki's name and redress past wrongs.

Born 1969 in Singapore, Kagan has traveled through southeast Asia, Australia, England, and has lived on both Canadian coasts and in Toronto. The son of Goh Poh Seng – another Drive resident and one of Asia’s finest poets, Kagan is an award winning filmmaker, a spoken word poet, romance novelist and actor. He was diagnosed as manic depressive 9 years ago on Valentines Day. A central theme running through his work is his exploration of mental illness as a vehicle for spiritual transformation. He is actively involved in the mental health community, using Eastern and Western approaches to self-healing.

Recently Kagan was a featured performer in a multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary and completely improvised event at the Roundhouse called ANU.

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