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Nurturing UCLA Women's Asian Roots and U.S. Lives

Education: Founded by students of Japanese descent in 1928, the sorority Chi Alpha Delta is now a cherished pan-ethnic institution.

January 23, 2002|K. CONNIE KANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sixty years later, Aki Yamazaki still wonders about a box of sorority papers and mementos she hid in her parents' attic on 29th Place near Western Avenue and Adams Boulevard. She wonders if the people who live there now might have come across the box. She wonders how they would receive her if she knocked on the door of the old house and explained why she had come.

She'd have to tell them the story of Chi Alpha Delta, which was organized in 1928 by 14 Japanese American UCLA students who were barred from Greek sororities.

She'd have to tell them how Chi remained independent, rather than affiliating with a national sorority. How it became the oldest continuing Asian American student organization in the country. How an influx of young women of Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Thai and Vietnamese heritage in the last three decades has made Chi a cherished pan-ethnic Asian American organization.

Today, fewer than 10% of the sisterhood's 65 members are Japanese American, said UCLA political scientist Don T. Nakanishi, who has supervised students doing research on the sorority.

"The survival of the Chis for nearly eight decades is remarkable, because [the sorority] has gone through so many difficult historical periods and demographic transformations," said Nakanishi, director of Asian American Studies Center at UCLA.

"No other Japanese American or Asian American student group has had such longevity."

Every spring on Charter Day, the sorority honors its alumnae, who sometimes come from across the country.

Since 1995, Chis have tracked down 1,000 alumnae through research projects, most of which Nakanishi has supervised.

"It brings us a lot of pride in having so much history and being part of the group," said this year's Chi president, senior Christina Wu.

With her roommate, Pamela Cheng, Wu has pored over many papers and photographs in the Chi Alpha Delta archives.

Some photos show serious-looking young Asian women in flower-pattern dresses and Bermuda shorts at a beach party.

One of them, with a sailor hat perched on her head, is Doris Aiso Hoshide, now 91 and living in Rockville, Md.

The year was 1932. Hoshide had changed her major from education to geography after completing practice teaching, because a placement official at UCLA told her Japanese couldn't get teaching jobs.

She still remembers her sorority years as among her most fun-filled: beach picnics in San Pedro, dinners and teas in homes of her sorority sisters, socials with young men from the Japanese American Bruins Club, the only other Japanese American student group on campus, dancing the fox trot and the Charleston at the Biltmore and Beverly Wilshire hotels.

Juggling School and Family

As daughters of struggling immigrants living in a narrowly defined subculture, women like Hoshide had to juggle school and family responsibilities. Their social life was limited to Japanese churches and temples, but they yearned to feel "American." The sorority functions were gifts of fancy that satisfied that longing.

An annual black-tie dinner-dance with the Japanese American Bruins Club was the social event of the year in the Japanese American community, said Kiyoshi Patrick Okura, a retired clinical psychologist in Maryland. He was a founding member of the men's group and the first Japanese American to play varsity baseball at UCLA.

"We did things in grand scale," he said. "We wanted to have the best place. We hired an orchestra. There was so much discrimination, we wanted to show that we could match anything that [mainstream groups] could put on."

One year, 1933, Okura and a friend spent the exorbitant sum of $10 on a bouquet of red roses in an unsuccessful effort to persuade actress Jean Harlow to attend.

Discrimination meant that Chis could not live on campus or have a sorority house. But the exclusion didn't deter them. After they were officially recognized by the university in 1929, they got busy filling their social calendar, raising money for scholarships for Japanese American students and performing community service.

Minutes of a meeting from that first year noted that a sack of rice and a basket would be given to needy families for Christmas. "Names to be gotten from YWCA," the minutes said.

Another entry, dated Dec. 8, 1941, ended: "The monthly dinner meeting was canceled due to the national crisis. President Roosevelt declared war on Japan this morning. All activities are temporarily suspended."

Aki Yamazaki, who lives in Van Nuys with her retired pediatrician husband, was the president of the sorority that year. Her last act after Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing internment for residents of Japanese descent, was to put all the sorority papers in a box and hide it in her parents' attic.

She hoped to retrieve it when she returned home, but she did not have the luxury of tracing the past. By the time the war was over, she was married; her husband--who had gone to war in Europe with the Army--was a prisoner of war; and their first child had died at birth.

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