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Award-Winning Student Film Features Uyematsu Family Story

May 14, 2023 10:40PM ● By Jeanne Fratello
Mira Costa High School student Maddox Chen's award-winning film "Grandpa Cherry Blossom," about the Uyematsu family and their land in Manhattan Beach, will be screened this week in Hermosa Beach.

The story focuses on Francis Uyematsu, who had owned 120 aces of land in Manhattan Beach, including the land on which Mira Costa High School currently sits. When Uyematsu and his family were interned at Manzanar, he was forced to sell off the land and lost all his life’s work in the hybridization of a wide variety of flowers. The film is told through the words of Mary Uyematsu Kao, his granddaughter, and Chuck Currier, a local historian and longtime Mira Costa teacher.

"Grandpa Cherry Blossom" will be shown at the Hermosa Beach Museum on Thursday, May 18, at 6:30 p.m. Free tickets to the screening - shown in partnership with MB United - are available through EventBrite. Following the screening, there will be a Q&A session with Chen, Uyematsu Kao, and Currier.

(Frances Uyematsu. Photo via "Grandpa Cherry Blossom")

In a statement about creating the film, Chen wrote: "I was inspired to make this film when I saw a plaque honoring Francis Uyematsu on my high school campus. I did some research into his life and was shocked to learn that he owned all of the land that Mira Costa High School sat on, along with other areas of Manhattan Beach and his incredibly successful flower nursery. Uyematsu had an immense impact on his community, which continues to quietly grace these areas to this day, yet he hasn't been given the recognition he deserves. This motivated me to make a documentary to spread awareness of Francis’ legacy and impact in the United States. He overcame significant adversity and still achieved great success in spite of a country that was pitted against him. Francis’ story is important and inspiring, not just for Asian Americans, but for all Americans."

(A plaque honoring Frances Uyematsu and the Uyematsu family was unveiled on the Mira Costa campus in October 2021.)

"Grandpa Cherry Blossom" has garnered several distinctions, including a YoungArts Foundation Honorable Mention Award and inclusion in the YoungArts Lab in Miami Florida last month; the IndieFest Film Award of Excellence for both Young Filmmaker and Asian Student Filmmaker; as well as being selected for eight film festivals. Among those festivals, the film was screened at the NewFilmmakers LA and the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival last week. 

As a filmmaker and animator, Chen's work has been recognized in numerous competitions and festivals including YoungArts and IndieFEST; and as an actor, he has been featured in several commercials. Chen has taken the Cinematic Arts class at his high school for four years, along with taking film courses at NYU and USC over the summer. He also created one of the winning entries in the New York Times' Coming of Age multimedia contest. This fall, he will be pursuing a major in film and television production at New York University.

Uyematsu History in Manhattan Beach

Uyematsu, a Japanese immigrant, forged success in the early 1900s importing and breeding Japanese camellias and cherry trees. He pioneered temperature-controlled greenhouses and earned the nickname "Camellia King."

At one point Uyematsu was making $100 a day selling camellias, at a time when the average worker made $100 per month.

Over four decades, despite anti-Asian sentiment and racist restrictions on land ownership and citizenship, he was able to acquire farm land and eventually expanded his Star Nurseries to three locations, including 120 acres in Manhattan Beach bounded by Peck and Sepulveda to the east and west, and 2nd Street and Artesia to the north and south.

Amid the hysteria that followed the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Uyematsu family was forced to relocate to the Manzanar detention center. Uyematsu, under duress, sold 300,000 of his prized camellias.

(The plaque honoring the Uyematsu family at Mira Costa High School.)


At Manzanar, Uyematsu donated 1,000 cherry trees to the camp to establish a park, which he cultivated during his time there. However, in Manzanar, the Uyematsus (labeled "Family 22772") and other families were essentially prisoners. Six of them lived in a 20-foot by 24-foot room.

Their indefinite detention necessitated the parcel by parcel sale of most of the Manhattan Beach nursery - 40 acres of which were ultimately sold to the Redondo Union High School District for $60,000 (far less than Uyematsu had expected) and developed into Mira Costa High School.

For more information on the Uyematsu family history, a talk that Currier gave to the Manhattan Beach Historical Society in June 2021 can be seen here. A video made by Manhattan Beach resident Lindsey Fox can be seen here.

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