By Andrew Shortall
1:16 PM PST, November 14, 2012
Sei Fujii spent most of his life fighting for the civil rights of Japanese Americans. This weekend, he'll return to Huntington Beach to help preserve part of their immigrant history.
It won't be the real Fujii, who passed away in 1954. But even in fictional form, his appearance may draw a crowd.
A short film telling the activist's story, "Lil Tokyo Reporter," will screen four times at the Charter Centre Cinemas. The screenings aim to raise funds to keep the Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, which historians have called Orange County's most valuable surviving Asian American site, from demolition.
"We view this as both a fundraiser and a friend-raiser," said Mary Urashima, chair of the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force. "This is our first event, and we're wanting to make people aware of our historical preservation effort. With this wonderful opportunity to host the film premiere here, that will bring in a lot of people who didn't know about us."
The film's director Jeffrey Gee Chin, cast and producers are set to attend every screening. Chin decided to team up with the task force after he met Urashima at the National Asian Pacific Islander American Historic Preservation Forum in June.
Asked why he wanted to work with Urashima's task force, Chin said, "particularly the fact she's trying to preserve the history of Huntington Beach that was affected by the contributions of Sei Fujii and the injustice of the American government at that time period. I feel very flattered we have the opportunity."
As a newspaper publisher and USC Law School graduate, Fujii educated fellow Japanese Americans about their civil liberties and, perhaps most importantly, overturned California's Alien Land Law of 1913 with the help of lawyer J. Marion Wright in 1952.
The film, which is co-produced by the Little Tokyo Historical Society, focuses on Fujii's mission to protect and educate his fellow Japanese American immigrants during the Great Depression.
"I've always appreciated the stories of these pioneers," Chin said. "I always felt that if these aren't documented now they'll be quickly forgotten."
Actor Chris Tashima, who appeared in the Oscar-winning short film "Visas and Virtue," stars as Fujii. The cast also includes Eijiro Ozaki ("Letters from Iwo Jima"), Ikuma Ando ("Letters from Iwo Jima"), Keiko Agena ("Gilmore Girls") and Sewell Whitney ("Beyond a Reasonable Doubt").
"It's about the immigrant experience and people who took risks for their community," Chin said. "My end goal is to sort of build a level of curiosity for this type of history. I really want to open the door for more pieces like this, period pieces about the Asian American experience, to be produced and be supported."
The task force was formed by the Huntington Beach City Council in July and is dedicated to preserving Historic Wintersburg, which has roots dating back to 1909. The site is made up of the home and farm of Charles Mitsuji Furuta and also includes the former Wintersburg Japanese Presbyterian Church, which was constructed in 1934.
It is one of two known Huntington Beach properties owned by Japanese prior to the Alien Land Law, which prohibited non-U.S. citizens — primarily Asian immigrants — from purchasing land.
"They represent a really unique part of Huntington Beach's history that has largely been ignored," City Councilwoman and task force member Connie Boardman said. "It was a center for Japanese culture early in Orange County. … There's a tie-in to civil liberties in the dark time of our history when the Japanese were sent to internment camps, and that needs to be remembered."
Rainbow Environmental Services has owned the Historic Wintersburg property, located at the corner of Warner Avenue and Nichols Lane, since 2004 and has an application in to rezone the land from residential to commercial and industrial use, which includes an application for demolition.
The public comment period on the project's draft and environmental impact report concludes Monday, Urashima said. The task force hopes to keep Historic Wintersburg in place, but has also been looking into possibly moving the structures to another location.
With its first stop being the Planning Commission, the matter won't appear before the City Council until February or March, Boardman said.
"Our ultimate hope would be preservation on site, because that's where the history is," Urashima said. "On the site, it's much more meaningful, and we don't have much of that left in Huntington Beach."
If You Go
What: "Lil Tokyo Reporter"
Where: Charter Centre Cinemas, 7822 Warner Ave., Huntington Beach
When: 5 and 6 p.m. Saturday, 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $9 general admission; $7 for students and seniors
Information: (714) 596-3456 or http://www.historicwintersburg.blogspot.com
A benefit reception for the Historic Wintersburg Preservation Task Force will be held from 8 to 10 p.m. Saturday in the West Coast Club Room at the Hilton Waterfront Beach Resort, 21100 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach. A $20 donation is requested.