the rambling boy
The Japanese Garden of Alamo City
By LONN TAYLOR
On a recent trip to San Antonio I paid a visit to the Japanese Garden in Brackenridge Park, one of San Antonio’s hidden treasures, so well hidden that in 50 years of living in and visiting San Antonio I had never been there before. It is essentially a beautiful hole in the ground, an old limestone quarry, tucked away in the northwest corner of the park, turned into a garden in 1918 by Ray Lambert, San Antonio City Parks Commissioner. The site was already a tourist attraction because the Alamo Cement Company, which had operated the quarry and the adjacent kiln since 1880 (it was the first Portland cement manufacturer west of the Mississippi), employed Mexican laborers who lived with their families at the quarry, and a trip out to the “Mexican Village” to buy pottery, handwoven baskets, and tamales was a required part of any visit to San Antonio in the early 1900s.
The Alamo Cement Company abandoned the quarry in 1908, and in 1915 it became adjacent to Brackenridge Park through the donation to the city of a strip of land between the two sites by Emma Koehler, owner of the Pearl Brewery. Ray Lambert decided that the old quarry could become an ornament to San Antonio’s park system and acquired it, turning it into a sunken lily pond. He used prison labor to create walkways, an arched bridge, an island, a 60-foot high waterfall, and a pagoda roofed with palm leaves. Local residents donated lily bulbs and the City Public Service Company donated the lighting system. It was completed in 1918 at a cost of only $7,000 and was known as the Lily Pond.
It is unclear exactly how it became the Japanese Garden. The pagoda must have suggested development in that direction. Lambert continued to improve the garden, and in the early 1920s he invited a local Japanese artist and tea importer, Kimi Eizo Jingu, and his family to live there, building a two story rock house with bamboo floors and a palm-thatched roof, described by the San Antonio Express as “a cozy Jap house” on the rim of the quarry for them. A dance pavilion with a thatched roof, supported on 60-foot rock columns going down into the quarry, adjoins the house; older San Antonians have fond memories of Saturday night dances there, and four of the Jingu daughters married soldiers they met at those dances. The Jingus ran a tea room, called the Bamboo Room, on the first floor of the house and raised 8 children, 5 of whom were born in the house, on the second floor. Jingu’s wife and daughters, dressed in Japanese kimonos, served tea, and Jingu built a wooden torii, the gate traditionally found at the entrance to a Shinto shrine, at the entrance to the garden. Kimi Jingu died in 1938, but his widow, Miyoshi, and the children continued to operate the teahouse and care for the garden.
The Japanese Garden and the Jingu family became victims of wartime hysteria after Pearl Harbor. Austin journalist Robyn Ross told the whole sad story in a 2012 Texas Observer article. Even though the San Antonio Light had once described the Jingus as “one of San Antonio’s unique assets,” Miyoshi and her children were evicted from their home in the garden by the city in July 1942. When they did not leave immediately their utilities were turned off. They were replaced by a Chinese couple, Ted and Rose Wu, and the name of the garden was officially changed to the Chinese Garden. Kimi Jingu’s wooden torii gate was removed and the city commissioned San Antonio concrete artist Dionicio Rodriguez to create a more imposing 16-foot high faux bois concrete gate, still in the Japanese torii style but with a big sign across it reading “Chinese Tea Garden.” The gate and the sign are still there and in 2004 were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
I have seen it stated in print that the Jingu family were deported to Japan or, alternatively, confined in a California “relocation center,” but Robyn Ross tracked down one of Miyoshi’s daughters, Mabel Jingu Enkoji, who told her that the family stayed in San Antonio through the war. Their church, the Travis Park Methodist Church, helped them find housing and jobs to replace the lost income from the tearoom. Mabel, who was 16, became a gift wrapper at Joske’s department store. She told Ross, “Customers would say, ‘My, you speak such good English,’ and I would say, ‘So do you.’” The Jingu children grew up speaking English and Spanish but not Japanese. Ironically, the Jingus and the Wus were friends in the small, tightly knit Asian community of San Antonio. Enkoji told Ross, “The Wus more or less apologized to my mother because it wasn’t their idea.” The Jingus all eventually moved to California.
The Wus left the garden in the 1950s and it went into a slow decline. Due to the activity of state senator Maury Maverick, Jr. and city councilman Van Archer, the city council officially changed the name back to the Japanese Tea Garden in 1983. Archer argued that the change “will serve as at least a small and symbolic reparation for the wrongs suffered by an American minority group caught in the madness and hysteria of war.” In spite of the name change, budget cuts reduced maintenance, the ponds were drained, and part of the thatched dance pavilion next to the tearoom was propped up by 2x4s. As Ross says, the garden became a home for feral cats and gangs.
In 2004 a city proposal to lease the garden to a commercial enterprise upset San Antonians with fond memories of the garden’s heyday so much that two private foundations, the San Antonio Parks Foundation and the Friends of the Parks, under the leadership of former mayor Lila Cockrell and former councilwoman Bonnie Conner, stepped forward to undertake a $2.8 million restoration of the garden, tea house, and pavilion. Work was finally completed in October 2011 and there was a bang-up opening ceremony, complete with the Yunana Kai Taiko, a traditional Japanese drumming group. Twenty members of the Jingu family, aged 86 to 21, came from California to be welcomed by Mayor Julian Castro, who told them, “We want to thank you for everything your family gave our city.”
The teahouse, which is once again operating as a restaurant, in named the Jingu House in their honor.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.