Kate Kamo McHugh performs 20 Grains of Rice in Toronto following a two-week technical residency supported by Dancemakers. Photo credit: Drew Berry.
KITCHENER — If you’re in the Kitchener, Ont., area at the end of September, plan on attending the International Multicultural Platform for Contemporary Theatre (Impact) festival. Held every other year, Impact 23 will include Kate Kamo McHugh’s performance, 20 Grains of Rice: Seeds of Reclamation, at the Registry Theatre on Oct. 1.
Yonsei Kamo McHugh is a Kitchener-based dance and theatre artist. Earlier this spring, she headed to Toronto to refine 20 Grains of Rice during a technical residency—the work-in-progress uses dance, text and video projections to explore themes of Japanese Canadian identity.
The two-week May 2023 residency, developed and supported by Dancemakers and curated by Bageshree Vaze, culminated in a private performance for invited guests. Also participating in the workshop were artists Meghan Cheng and Denise Fujiwara, lighting designer Vishmayaa Jeyamoorthy and sound designer Nicholas Murray.
In 20 Grains of Rice, Kamo McHugh takes us on a journey where we meet three generations of women in her family: her great-grandmother, an Issei pioneer; her grandmother, a Nisei who shared her Japanese heritage; and her Sansei mother.
From the start, we learn of their sacrifices in establishing themselves in an unwelcoming Canada. Racial tensions rose to a peak during the Second World War when people of Japanese heritage were stripped of their rights and possessions. After the war, Japanese individuals felt tremendous pressure to assimilate into Canadian culture, and one outcome was the loss of heritage language. This underlying theme is reflected in the title and throughout the work.
Although Kamo McHugh has worked with Japanese Canadians on other productions, this is the first time on her own work. She credits Denise Fujiwara, the co-founder of CanAsian Dance and artistic director of Fujiwara Dance Inventions, with helping her add more Japanese context. The two met at an artist symposium in Vancouver.
Fujiwara is selective about who she works with and uses the term dramaturg regarding her role during the residency. Her process, deeply influenced by her training and work in butoh, a form of Japanese dance theatre, differs from others in the modern dance world.
“One of the things that I had to wrestle with when I embarked on this adventure into butoh, is that the values of butoh and Japanese performance arts in general are really kind of opposite to the values of western dance and many aspects of western theatre,” Fujiwara said.
The Dancemakers residency represents the third phase of evolution, where 20 Grains of Rice continued to change and advance. Recognizing the work was in its later stages of development and had been workshopped with others, Fujiwara took the approach to observe and present challenges when something was unclear.
Fujiwara explained, “What I try to do is to listen to what the choreographer says they want to do, what their intention is, and then I support them to try and find a way to realizing that. I do that by asking questions, by making observations. In this case providing perhaps background information that I might know … about the internment, and from my own historical research from that period and from my experience from being a child of internees.”
Her parents didn’t talk much about their history, but both sides of Fujiwara’s family were incarcerated: Her mother’s family in Slocan, B.C., and her father in a forced work camp.
It’s this shared history she finds most compelling about Kamo McHugh’s work, “The story is always interesting. We all have these versions of this story, but everyone’s story is different … It seems like every Japanese Canadian artist whose family went through that has to do a piece about it at some point.”
Within Kamo McHugh’s piece, there are so many engaging points of intersection and nostalgia—from the sound of rice grains falling into a metal bowl and memories of eating Japanese food to the frustration and divide caused by lack of comprehension and separation due to language barriers.
Following Kamo McHugh’s narrative, a pivotal junction occurs when her ailing grandmother is sent to the hospital and begins speaking almost exclusively in Japanese. “I was stunned because it was the first time I had heard my grandmother speaking fluently in Japanese. I had no idea what she was saying.”
In sharing her personal narrative, Kamo McHugh felt the need to explain the terrible parts of Canadian history. Growing up, she was aware of her identity from an early age. “I looked Asian in a small town so it was pointed out that I was different,” she said. Furthermore, she grappled with how to pass on her Japanese Canadian heritage and rich cultural traditions to the next generation.
Mizu (water) informs a notable scene and dance movement. One branch of the Kamo family lived on a farm in an isolated area of B.C., and were the only Japanese around for about a 200-mile radius. “Foreigners were not allowed to tap into Canyon’s water supply, so my great-grandparents raised five children on a farm with no running water.”
Part of the minimal props are two metal buckets and Kamo McHugh tells how “A kind neighbour allowed them to take two buckets of water home each night.” In sharing her guilty pleasure as a pregnant woman who enjoys drinking imported sparkling water, she points out how much we take for granted as a society.
While some family members were incarcerated in New Denver others, like the Takedas became labourers on a sugar beet farm in Alberta. The successful strawberry growers were uprooted from their large home to a bedbug-ridden shack.
Postwar, they were celebrated in the local paper as “fine farmers” for their efforts to blend in. “The government of Canada didn’t explicitly tell my community, ‘Do not speak Japanese,’ but the Japanese Canadians felt safer the more westernized they became.”
In the aftermath of the war, Kamo McHugh’s mother didn’t learn Japanese. That generation tried to fit into Canadian society by attending piano lessons or Girl Guides and went on to marry predominantly white European settlers. As a product of that assimilation, Kamo McHugh admits she can’t even make a sentence in her limited knowledge of the language, “when my great-grandparents first came to Canada, they would have known about 20,000 words in Japanese … but me, I know about 20.”
Pouring rice into a pot, she said, “A pot with 20,000 grains of rice, that’s enough food to feed my family for a few days.” Counting out the grains, she holds them in the palm of her hand, “But 20 grains, you can hardly tell they’re there.”
Packing away a Japanese teacup, she noted, “As my grandma’s generation passes on, a part of our culture is dying with them, and the new generation, they won’t remember them.”
There’s a sadness in hearing her mother’s voice singing the familiar folk song Momotaro-san. Yet as Kamo McHugh adds her own voice and casually repeats the refrain while washing rice, we feel a glimmer of hope.
Looking to the future, Kamo McHugh wants to share the show with others and have it tour across Canada. “Now that I’ve started working with Japanese Canadian artists, it’s so exciting, and I want to do it more and more.”
20 Grains of Rice runs at The Registry Theatre in Kitchener, Ont. on Saturday, Sept. 30. Get tickets here.
Suzanne Hartmann is a Yonsei with German heritage. The Toronto-based writer and editor is finalizing a work of creative non-fiction—a hybrid of memoir, Japanese Canadian history, and cultural arts with support from the Toronto Arts Council.