By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Harry Manaka was in the band Somethin’ Else, they played for crowds of 500-600 people—the majority of whom were Asian American.
This was back in the mid-1960s when he was at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Somethin’ Else performed at dances put on by different fraternities, sororities, and student clubs at his school as well as other colleges in the area, such as the University of Southern California.
But one thing all these groups had in common was that they were Asian American—the clubs were often defined by ethnicities (usually Chinese, Filipino, or Japanese).
“It was an Asian thing,” Manaka, who was born in Monterey, California and grew up in Long Beach, California, said about the dances.
In addition, Manaka and fellow musician, the late David Jingu, later owned Baby Lion Supper Club, a nightclub that was open to everyone, but had a primarily Asian American clientele.
Nowadays, when the 74-year-old Sammamish resident tells his grandchildren—he has three between 5 and 12 years old—about those days, they’re flabbergasted. Because in an increasingly diverse world, where people of all cultures, creeds, and backgrounds often come together, those types of primarily Asian spaces don’t really exist anymore.
“It’s never been replicated again,” Manaka said about the era.
And while it may have never been replicated, that era has been recollected in Manaka’s book, “Chronicles of a Sansei Rocker,” which came out just after Thanksgiving 2020.
The silver lining of a pandemic
The book started out as just an item on Manaka’s bucket list. Writing a book has been on his list year after year, but he usually wouldn’t have any time—and what would he write about anyway?
Then COVID-19 hit and the world basically came to a standstill. And all of a sudden, as his wife told him, Manaka couldn’t use the “no time” excuse anymore.
Initially, Manaka just planned on writing a manuscript of his thoughts on that era. But he quickly realized he couldn’t write about that time without including the perspectives of his former bandmates, friends, and members of other bands who were also around at the time. Thanks to the internet and social media—as well as the aforementioned pandemic that had everyone at home—it wasn’t difficult to connect with people. And oftentimes, after speaking with them, they would recommend and connect Manaka to other people to interview. He ended up speaking with about 40-45 people, many of whom also sent him photos and other paraphernalia from that time.
They also often followed up with additional stories after their initial conversations with Manaka.
For Manaka, reconnecting with old friends—some of whom he hadn’t been in touch with for five decades—and making new friends was his favorite part of writing “Sansei Rocker” and the silver lining of the pandemic.
It took a mere nine months—from the time he began writing to when he received the first shipment of books to sell—for Manaka to write and publish “Sansei Rocker.”
Enough room for everyone
Music came into Manaka’s life at a young age.
At the encouragement of his parents, he started piano lessons in third or fourth grade.
“I kind of liked it,” he said, though he wasn’t a big fan of the classical music he had to play.
Manaka was more of a rock and roll kid and once he started trying to play popular music on the piano, his love for music really started to bloom. As he got older and started listening to bands, he wanted to play in a band as well.
That finally happened when he got to college. Manaka, who started at UCLA in 1964, was a regular at the Asian American dances on the weekends. This was at a time when live bands still performed at such events and Manaka was the guy who always hung out afterwards to pick the band members’ brains, describing himself as “the perpetual wannabe.” The bands in question started out as primarily Latinx. But within a year or two, they started including one or two Asian members and soon, all-Asian bands started playing at the dances.
Manaka joined Somethin’ Else in 1966 after two members left—one had been drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, while the other left to pursue a teaching career after graduating college. When he learned this, Manaka approached the group’s guitarist and told him he played keyboard. They sat down to play together and Manaka became a member of Somethin’ Else.
Like their contemporaries, Somethin’ Else was a cover band, mainly playing R&B and Motown hits.
“It was kind of a battle of who can cover the song the best,” Manaka said.
But as the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The Asian American dances were so popular that Manaka said there was enough room for all of their bands to play a gig every weekend.
Movements of acceptance
This subculture of Asian America came in the midst of the civil rights movement. Manaka said he and his peers were going to school at a time when there was a lot of activism calling out what was wrong with the country, which triggered the rise of the Asian American movement.
Manaka said these movements brought together people of different ethnicities and backgrounds who interacted on a regular basis and realized they had more in common with each other than differences. Somethin’ Else and their fellow bands were a reflection of this, with their memberships of Asian, Black, and Latinx musicians.
Manaka also saw his family’s opinions shift during this time as they came to see Black and Latinx people as regular people. He recalls the first time his grandmother met Somethin’ Else’s Black singer (the band was made up of Asian, Black, and Latinx members). Manaka said she went from initially being “horrified” to loving his friend.
While there is still much prejudice in the world, it’s not something Manaka sees in his children.
“I’d like to think that I had something to do with it,” he said, adding that his first exposure to people with different backgrounds came when he was at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, the only integrated school in the Long Beach Unified School District at the time. As a student, he learned to appreciate other people’s cultures and that was where he was first introduced to R&B, Motown, and Latinx music.
Resonating with readers
Since “Sansei Rocker” was released, Manaka has received countless letters and emails from readers who related to his experiences. He truly appreciates these messages and the fact that people would take the time to not just read his book, but to also handwrite (in some cases) him a letter to share their memories.
Manaka’s also been invited to Zoom book clubs—from the other side of the country—who have read his book.
And like those he interviewed for the book, readers have shared their stories, sent him photos, posters, matchbooks, and other paraphernalia of that era—enough for a second “Sansei Rocker.”
“I could probably write another book,” Manaka said.
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.