Updated: Apr 2, 2021
When Kinji Nagatani died at Willowhaven Hospital on Kootenay Lake’s North Shore in 1970, with him went the amazing story of a roving gambler who stowed away aboard a trans-Pacific freighter, lost his life savings in a game of chance, and briefly avoided the Japanese-Canadian internment by hiding in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Fortunately he told much of it to Nelson’s Jim Sawada, who shared it with me.
Kinji Nagatani lived at 606 Front Street in Nelson, seen here in a photo recreation.
Nagatani was born Dec. 24, 1874 to Tomejiro and Kimi Nagatani in Yokohama, a port city near Tokyo. Every day as a boy he watched large ships come and go out of the harbour and dreamed of one day going on board them.
At 20, he decided this would be his way to avoid mandatory military service due to begin upon his next birthday. He smuggled himself aboard an American freighter docked in the port and hid.
A day after the ship sailed, however, the crew found him. To his surprise, they were friendly, and he was placed on cleaning duty and given three meals a day. When the ship arrived in San Francisco, he found work in a Chinatown restaurant and learned to plan Fan-Tan, a Chinese gambling game.
Fan-Tan is played on a large round table. A banker places a handful of dry beans in a marked square on the centre of the table, then covers them with a bowl. Each player places their bids on the sides of one, two, three, or four. When all bids are placed, the croupier uses a bamboo stick to remove all the beans in batches of four, until the final batch remains with one, two, three, or four beans. The winning bids pays three to one. A player can bid on up to three sides. A single game takes 15 to 20 minutes.
Five years went by and Nagatani decided to return to Japan for a visit. But the night before sailing, he lost all of his money in a Fan-Tan game. Destitute, he went back to work and eventually moved from San Francisco to Portland, then Seattle, then Vancouver, where he again lived in Chinatown.
“Kinji found Chinatown was a safe place for him to work and hide from the authorities,” Sawada says. “He told me he lived in fear of deportation and always avoided any uniformed man his entire adult life.”
At some point, however, he did become a Canadian citizen. When Japanese Canadians were interned in 1942, he initially avoided being moved to the interior by continuing to live in Chinatown and passing himself off as Chinese.
However, his luck eventually ran out as The Vancouver Sun of Dec. 9, 1942 reported:
609 East Pender was not listed in the 1941 or 1942 civic directories. According to a 1943 office of the custodian file digitized and placed online by the Landscapes of Injustice project, Nagatani worked as a pin setter in the La Salle bowling alley. He owned no real estate or other property and, perhaps significantly given his gambling habits, had no debts.
The document indicates Nagatani was sent to the internment camp at Tashme, near Hope. This came as a surprise, since Sawada thought he went to one of the West Kootenay camps. Perhaps he was transferred at some point, but there is no indication of it in the above-mentioned file. In any case, after the war ended, Nagatani moved to Nelson’s Chinatown, which was on Lake and Front Streets between Hall and Ward.
There were many rooming houses for single men packed into this small area, as well as a Chinese Freemasons lodge. Every evening, one of the stores became a Fan-Tan gambling parlour. The players would continue for five or six sets, take an hour long break, and start a second round at about 9 p.m.
Sawada was born in Vancouver, but his family home was in Nanaimo. As an infant, his mother Suga took him to Japan while she looked after her ailing in-laws. His father Jitaro stayed in BC, and was only able to visit once before World War II began. Jitaro returned to Canada and was interned in the Slocan Valley.
Jim Sawada is pictured outside the house on Hall Street where he first lived with his parents after returning to Canada from Japan in 1950.
After the war, Jitaro moved to Nelson. It took until 1950 for his wife and son to come from Japan to join him. Jim was then a teenager. They lived in a house on Hall Street that is still standing and was once a false-fronted Chinese store. Jim later had a workshop next door in a former Chinese laundry that is now home to Kootenay Co-op Radio.
“One Sunday my dad and I were doing repairs in a rooming house in Chinatown, where we met Kinji Nagatani for the first time,” Sawada recalls. “Kinji was dressed in a jacket and tie and rushed to the 3 p.m. gambling time, but my dad had a very short conversation with him.”
Nagatani was then in his 70s and working in a Chinese restaurant as a dishwasher. He’s not listed in the 1950-51 Nelson directory, but the 1953 directory, seen below, shows him as a helper in the Club Cafe at 624 Baker St., operated by Toy, Ling, and Yew Mah. I can’t find him in any later directories.
“He understood some but spoke very few English words,” Sawada says, “but he was able to understand adequate Chinese and also the gambling bidding terms. He spoke good traditional Japanese but had lost 95 per cent of his hearing.
“One day I delivered some Japanese food from my mother and spent time reading articles to him. He was living alone in the old rooming house at 606 Front Street. The narrow building did not have the stucco exterior of today but six-inch wide faded wooden siding with no insulation. The interior was not in the best condition and the kitchen cupboards and bathroom were in poor shape.
“He probably ate two meals at work and spent every evening gambling a few dollars in Chinatown to pass the time. It was the most enjoyable part of the day for him. He didn’t own a TV or listen to the radio or music. His life had been lived as a toseinin in North America. Toseinin in old Japan was a harmless gambler wandering the land making a living by daily gambling.”
Around 1968, when Nagatani was 94 and in poor health, Sawada suggested that he go into an old age home. He agreed and moved to Willowhaven at Six Mile. However, life there must have been very lonesome for him, Sawada says.
“He sat in his room alone all day. He didn’t communicate well in English, didn’t make any friends, and dined with strangers. One day I was working nearby and stopped to see him. For some reason I was told by the manager that I was not allowed into his private room. Kinji was escorted into the living room and the manager witnessed our conversation. With his hearing difficulties the visit was not very pleasant.
“Kinji went back to his room and came back with an old brown envelope, a gift for me. In the envelope was a Canada savings bond certificate worth $1,000. The manager of the care home cautioned me to come back another day with a Japanese-speaking witness to accept it. It was a large sum in 1968. I never followed up.
“Every time I saw him I felt guilty that I hurried him into the care home. He could have been in his old nest for another year or more and enjoyed his hobby of Fan-Tan, continued his life of toseinin and been content ending his life on the gambling floor like toseinin did in old Japan.”
Kinji Nagatani died on June 7, 1970 at age 95 and was cremated. As his last act of friendship, Sawada filled out the death registration, seen here, listing him as a single labourer formerly of 606 Front Street. The form indicated he’d been in Nelson for 20 years. No obituary was published.
Updated April 1, 2021 to add details from Kinji Nagatani’s office of the custodian file.