Playwright Brenda Wong Aoki’s research into an uncle’s interracial marriage has led to discoveries about her ancestors’ lives and times.

Share story

Everything you do matters, Brenda Wong Aoki told me the other day. We were talking about the marriage of her great Uncle Gunjiro Aoki and Helen Emery in 1909, an act that made news across the country and changed her family’s course.

The young lovers were married in Seattle at Trinity Episcopal Parish Church by the Rev. Herbert Gowen, who would later found the Oriental Studies Department at the University of Washington. And next Wednesday, Wong Aoki, an accomplished playwright, will perform a one-woman play, “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend — When Love Overcame Hate,” based on that story, on the same altar where the couple wed.

The performance is part of Trinity’s celebration of its founding 150 years ago. And Wong Aoki said she’s especially pleased that the first performance in Seattle follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling making same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

In 1909 interracial marriages were outlawed in most states. The laws didn’t always mention Japanese specifically, but some were amended after Gunjiro and Helen became engaged, including in California, their home state, Wong Aoki said. They were harassed in San Francisco, and came north looking for a place where they could be married. Portland rejected them (The Oregonian called their attempt to marry “a disgusting spectacle”) and so did Tacoma, though the wedding would have been legal in Washington. By some accounts the mayor of Seattle, John Miller, intervened when they stopped here and took them to the church closest to his office. The couple stayed only briefly in Washington before returning to California.

Gunjiro Aoki came from a high-caste wealthy family in Nagano, Japan, and had come to America with his older brother Peter (Chojiro), who was among a group of highly educated young men the Episcopal Church was training to become bishops in Asia. Peter Aoki became a priest and worked with the Archdeacon John Emery of San Francisco’s famous Grace Cathedral.

Aoki was a founder of San Francisco’s Japantown, the first in the U.S., and founded the Japanese Mission (now Christ Episcopal Church Sei Ko Kai) in 1905.

The younger Aoki brother’s love for the archdeacon’s daughter, Helen, cost the family its status. The Japanese community shunned Peter, and the Episcopal Church banished him to Utah to convert Mormons. Each year the church reduced his stipend until it wasn’t enough to live on, certainly not with 11 children. So he became a tenant farmer. He and his wife died within a few years of the move to Utah, leaving the children, including Wong Aoki’s father to fend for themselves.

Wong Aoki grew up thinking of her family as always poor and also unremarkable, not knowing any of the family story, not even the scandal that cost them their status. But she had heard whispers about a dark family secret. Eventually she started digging around. Her oldest relative showed her a photo of the couple. And later she began spending time in libraries reading old newspapers and talking to archivists. She hadn’t much thought of herself as Japanese. She started life poor in Utah after all, (before the family moved to Long Beach, Calif.) and on her mother’s side she’s Chinese, Spanish and Scottish.

The project reconnected her to being Japanese and to feeling like she belonged to a family that mattered.

Wong Aoki worked as a community organizer for many years after graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 1976, but eventually she turned to the arts and storytelling. “What needs to change is people’s thinking and aspirations,” she said. To improve their lives, people need faith and hope, she said. And she felt she could contribute to that best through the arts, which she sees as a continuation of her work.

She first performed “Uncle Gunjiro’s Girlfriend” in 1998 in San Francisco, and has continued updating it as her research turns up new information.

Several of Gunjiro’s descendants came to that first performance. The two brothers’ families had lost touch after the marriage and some on Gunjiro’s side had no idea they were part Japanese.

Gunjiro died in 1932, and during World War II, Helen fled with her five children and her mother into the Sierra foothills and passed as Indians to avoid being put into internment camps. Each generation the family became whiter, and they acquired a different last name, Oakie.

Wong Aoki thought they’d chosen the name because they wanted to be more white, but that wasn’t it. Helen lost her U.S. citizenship when she wed Gunjiro. After he died, she got it back, but couldn’t use a Japanese name, so she chose Oakie, because it sounded similar to Aoki. She wanted to preserve that connection. Now her descendants know the story.

The play is about knowing and remembering, family history and national history, and seeing how each of our actions has repercussions down through the generations.

Wong Aoki’s husband, Mark Izu, an award-winning composer and musician, will play. Wednesday 7:30 p.m., Trinity Parish, 609 Eighth Ave., Seattle. For ticket information, visit