J-Town history on the market
1887 structure was cultural touchstone for Japanese and Chinese in early San Jose
By Devin Banerjee
San Jose Mercury News
Aug. 11, 2009 -- Returning to San Jose from World War II, the first person Moffet Ishikawa saw when he stepped out of the taxi in 1945 was his mother. The two stood near the corner of 6th and Jackson in Japantown, and although it took a moment for his mother to recognize him, at least one thing remained familiar to them both: the Ken Yen Low building standing over them.
Built in 1887, the Ken Yen Low building is a San Jose landmark that has seen more history than any of the city's residents. The two-story wooden building is the last remnant of the Chinatown known as Heinlenville, which existed adjacent to Japantown from 1887 until the 1930s. For a time it was a boarding house for Japanese workers from Kumamoto province before being home to restaurants for more than 90 years. And fitting to its long and eclectic past, the Ken Yen Low is now on the market, after its tenant -- the owner of the building's Cuban International Restaurant -- died last year.
"It was one of those sad stories where he retired and then two months later passed away," said Del Dietrich of American Commercial Realty.
The area surrounding the Ken Yen Low has seen a rapid shift over the past decade, Dietrich said, as the city of San Jose has launched a project to give the Japantown district an urban flair, moving beyond the industrial tarnish that has lingered since the war years. But the historic building has been home to restaurants since 1915, and that's what it's remembered for.
"When my mom wanted to order something, she would call up the Ken Yen Low, and a cook there would cook stuff and then deliver it to our house across the street on a big tray on top of his head," said Ishikawa, now 91 years old.
"We used to go after movies and have a bowl of noodles all the time," said Jimi Yamaichi, 86, director and curator of San Jose's Japanese American Museum. "Everybody used to go there; it was a kind of Japanese gathering place at the time."
Retaining a Chinese-style facade, the Ken Yen Low is perhaps best known for accommodating both Chinese and Japanese over its long history.
"It was a place for both cultures," said Connie Young Yu, vice president of the Chinese Historical Society of America, whose parents' 1937 wedding reception was held in the building. "The Ken Yen Low meant a lot to the whole Asian community."
The building's upstairs has traditionally been used as a restaurant space, while its downstairs was originally living quarters and is now a space for banquets and receptions. In the 1950s, owner Jimmy Ng built an extension behind the building without the required city permits, so about 1,700 square feet of the property's 4,800 square feet were demolished last week, Dietrich said.
For Yamaichi, the Ken Yen Low is also a symbol of tough times, when Japanese Americans were "highly discriminated" and "had to live within our own boundaries."
"We used to hang onto each other for help," he said. "People would hang out only in Japantown because they couldn't go anywhere else."
Yu echoed Yamaichi, highlighting the building's role in sheltering Asian-Americans during a time when they weren't exactly welcomed to this country with open arms.
"The Ken Yen Low was never totally exclusive," she said. "It was a place where people would go when no one else would take them in."
And even with the coming and going of the barber shops and drugstores that he grew up with, one thing of the old Japantown -- and of the Ken Yen Low in particular -- remains etched in Moffet Ishikawa's memory.
"Good food," he said with a laugh of nostalgia. "I miss its food."
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