THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The life and writings of hapa poet Ambrose Amadeus Uchiyamada

This week’s column traces some of the history of a hapa poet and journalist with the magnificent name Ambrose Amadeus Uchiyamada, who grew up under rather unusual circumstances. His father Thomas Morkiyo Uchiyamada, a university-trained engineer from Japan who came to the United States for further schooling in the first years of the 20th century, met his Irish-born wife Mary in California. Family legend has it that the couple became acquainted when Mary was working as a “Harvey girl” at a railway station eatery. After she fell ill, Thomas made inquiries after her. Learning of her illness, he visited Mary and helped nurse her back to health, whereupon the two fell in love (white-Asian marriage was at that time illegal in California, so they were forced to travel to New Mexico to wed).

Ambrose, known to his family and friends as “Ambie,” was born in Southern California on March 21, 1913, the second of four surviving children of the couple. Soon after, Thomas suffered an attack of polio that left him temporarily disabled, and he took the family back to Japan so he could recuperate. He did not prepare his Japanese relatives for the news that he was bringing a white wife and mixed-race children, however, and his appearance caused a stir. Thomas’ family did not accept the young mixed-race family, and they experienced such prejudice that after two years they returned to the United States.

Once returned, they faced racial discrimination in America. Despite his qualifications, Thomas was able to get only short-term replacement jobs as an engineer. Thus, for an extended period, both spouses took menial labor jobs. Money was so tight that, rather than pay for lodging, the entire family lived for two years in a large tent in the Arroyo Seco region in Los Angeles County. For a time, Ambrose and his father worked as sugar beet laborers in Utah. Following a tragic work accident, Mary Uchiyamada developed cancer and died young. Her husband, worn out by sorrow and illness, thereafter was confined in a state farm for alcoholics, where he ultimately died.

Even before their mother’s death, the children, who had been raised in their mother’s Catholic faith, were sent to live at the Maryknoll Home, where they also received schooling. During his school years, Ambie distinguished himself as a writer and actor in theatricals. According to his sister Margaret Uchiyamada Takahashi, Ambie was an avid performer from a young age. She later recalled living in Long Beach and going to the Pike, where Ambie would volunteer for the sideshows and go up on the stage. “Once he entered a buck and wing contest. He couldn’t even jig — but he got up and jigged away.” Ultimately writing and performing became for him a form of escape from school. “He felt like a pauper and didn’t want to be there but he studied hard and made good grades except in math. His compositions were far and above his grade level. When the downtown public library was built, all the schools submitted their best composition. The winner would lead the parade. Ambie won and led all the children dressed as storybook characters.”

Ambie was let out of the orphanage as a teenager, and worked as a houseboy and domestic for white families to support himself. With help from sympathetic Maryknoll brothers, he received a scholarship to Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis., where he majored in journalism. In 1933 he won the freshman oratorical contest with “Defense of the Vagabond” and finished second in interpretation with “Richard III.” The following year, he won another award from the student literary journal for his poems “Lines Inscribed” and “Thou and I.”

After leaving Marquette in 1935, Ambie returned to California, where he joined Japanese American literary circles. In the following years he published numerous works in the West Coast Nisei press and literary magazines. His selection in the 1935 journal Leaves was a greenroom dialogue between two musicians on the relative importance of talent and fearless initiative. His contribution to the 1936 journal Gyo-Sho was a wistful poem, “Ah, Love—Do You Remember?” It concluded:

“Ah love, I have found…
That the world is only a bubble
And the night’s cloak merely a shadow
And the stars—(ah, fool!)—the stars were never diamonds…
Ah, if you can, forgive your long-ago lover
For those blind eyes that could not see…
For the rash promises he could not keep.”

Ambie made a strong impression on his colleagues. Larry Tajiri, English editor of Kashu Mainichi and Nichi Bei Shimbun and an arbiter of taste, referred to Ambrose’s poetry as a highlight of Nisei writing. Mary Oyama (Mittwer) later published a warm reminiscence in which she recalled him as a “dashing Irish-Japanese poet-thespian-vagabond” who hitchhiked and rode the rails from Milwaukee to Los Angeles in the mid-1930s. Fellow journalist Buddy Uno drove a group of them to the beach, where they paraded around and ate popcorn. Ambie found a children’s playground and raced around, singing “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life” at the top of his lungs. When they delivered him to the Maryknoll Home where he was staying (and where his younger brother Raymond ecstatically greeted him), Ambie gallantly kissed her hand in farewell.

Ambie’s later life is somewhat more hazy. Sometime before World War II, he moved to New York, where he worked as an editorial assistant at TIME Magazine and then as an assistant editor at Architectural Forum. Following the outbreak of World War II, his younger sister Margaret and her family, and his brother Raymond, were confined by the U.S. government. Ambie was conscripted into the U.S. Army, but protested being drafted because of his family’s treatment. To avoid prison, he ultimately agreed to join the U.S. Army Medical Corps. During this time, he met and married Hilda Castle (Kastelowitz), a Jewish American woman doing graduate work in physics at Columbia University. (Like Thomas Uchiyamada, she had been stricken with polio, and walked with a limp.) After training at Camp Upton, on Long Island, Ambie was stationed in Chicago. Hilda followed him and was hired for work at the University of Chicago, working on neutron cross-sections for the Manhattan Project. Her team performed computations on plutonium piles, and helped design the famous pile at Hanford, Wash. Ambie was ultimately sent for service in England and Germany before being discharged in mid-1945.

In the postwar years, Ambie and Hilda returned to New York. Ambie enrolled at the New School, where he received a bachelor’s degree in literature. He later pursued graduate work in literature at Boston University and New York University. In addition to several years of working together with his wife at the General Dynamics Corporation on submarine control systems, he spent several years teaching English, first at The New York State Agricultural and Technical College (today’s Alfred State College) and then at Penn State Altoona, where Hilda taught physics. He does not appear to have published either scholarly articles or creative literature. The couple lived their retirement years in Maine. Ambie passed away on Oct. 24, 2002 at the age of 89.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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