Discover Nikkei

Storytelling Sensation Kathy Collins—How one “short Japanese girl” could still do acting

Growing up in rural upcountry Maui, Kathy Collins [maiden name Yogi], 67, always had one fascination with stories and da power dey had in transporting da reader into totally different worlds. In da books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kathy would imagine “how wonderful it would be to live in the Midwest at the turn of the last century, making snow angels, churning butter. running through the meadow and picking wildflowers.”

During da course of her life, Kathy’s been one radio and internet personality, stand-up comedian, event emcee, stage and film actress, and even one newspaper and magazine columnist. Dis ‘74 Baldwin High School grad nevah set out for be one storyteller though. One fateful day she just got drafted—an’den her storytelling career took off from dea! After doing her first Talk Story Festival for legendary storyteller Jeff Gere, she’s become very much in demand as one storyteller all ova Hawai‘i, all across da United States continent and even internationally.

Parents Dr. Nelson Yogi and Yaemi Yogi with Kathy (center) at her Baldwin High School graduation in 1974.

* * * * * 

Kathy, try tell what your ethnic backgrounds.

Japanese Okinawan. And I’m Sansei. My mother’s parents both came to Maui from Hiroshima. And my father’s parents were both from Okinawa. But unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what villages and all that.

How you identify as? Local? Hapa? Nikkei? What?

You know, my father always used to joke that I have more Okinawan blood than him because I’ve always gravitated to that part of my ethnicity, my background. But I would say I identify first as Local, a Local Maui girl. And then as Asian American.

What area you grew up?

I was actually born in Chicago, so I’m actually a katonk [Japanese person from da continental U.S.] (Laughing)!! See, my parents were both born and raised on Maui, but my Dad was attending the University of Illinois at Chicago, going to dental school when I was born. And so when he graduated, I was a little over two years old and we came back to Maui, lived in Ha‘ikū with my Dad’s parents for a while. And then I became a “downcountry” girl living in Wailuku and then Kahului.

Try tell some of da fondest downcountry memories you get. I like da word you coined.

Even though we lived in Wailuku and Kahului, my Mother worked for Maui Land and Pineapple in their Hāli‘imaile office. And so she got a district exemption for me, and I attended Makawao School from kindergarten through seventh grade. So my fondest childhood memories, many of them take place Upcountry, actually. My mother was born and raised in Makawao, and so I really kind of look at Makawao as my hometown in a way.

Okay, so can you share your favorite Upcountry Makawao memories den, from small kid time [childhood]?

(Repeating then laughing) Small kid time.

What so funny?

I’ll tell you later about small kid time, but I like your question. So I remember we would walk from Makawao School to Makawao Hongwanji for Japanese school every day. And so along the way we would stop at Iwaishi store. It’s gone now, but back then Iwaishi store was a little saimin shop and they had a soda counter and penny candy on the side. So I would get a six cent chocolate Coke, some Mary Jane Taffy and then the red candy lipstick. Each candy was a penny each.

And then we’d keep on walking up Baldwin Avenue. Next stop was Ichiki store. And all these mom and pop stores, because my Mom grew up in Makawao, we knew all the store owners. They were all family friends. So at Ichiki store, we would stop and get some more candy, maybe seeds. Li hing mui was five cents at the time.

And then we’d keep on going, across the street and walk by Komoda Bakery. We usually didn’t have enough money to buy cream puffs or anything like that. But I remember they had plenty Tomoe Ame candy back when they actually had toys inside. So we’d get our Tomoe Ame over there. And then it was another long stretch to reach Japanese school.

When you wuz growing up wuz you expose to lotta cultural stories?

As far back as I can remember, I’ve just been fascinated by storybooks. My mother, the first book she bought me was Japanese Childrens Favorite Stories. Those stories I love. “Momotaro” and “Issun-boshi,” you know, all of those made an impact on me.

I know you told Hawaiian legends and Japanese kine folk tales all across Hawai‘i and on top da continent and even internationally. Get lotta people interested in these cultural tales wherevah you go or what?

Kathy Collins performing at a storytelling festival.

People really enjoy learning about other cultures, especially the folktales and in the case of Hawai‘i, the many legends. But in traveling across the continent, I mainly to go to storytelling festivals. So I guess the people that attend storytelling festivals, they’re already looking for that sort of entertainment.

Which trip wuz your bestest trip?

One of my favorite trips was going to Yellowknife, Canada. It’s like just a few hundred miles below the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. The native storyteller there, Sharon Shorty was of the Raven clan, the Tlingit tribe, and there were a lot of  similarities between the First Nation culture and our Local culture here. It’s fascinating because she would share stories from her own heritage, but she would also share stories from all the different tribes. Like how we share our multi-ethnic stories from the various people living in Hawai‘i.

Did you always wanna become one storyteller?

No. I really wanted to become an actress like Sally Field. In high school, I was heavily into drama and speech competitions. And mostly I was doing humorous interpretation, and some storytelling, but I was much more comfortable acting. And then almost right out of high school, I was seventeen when I got my first job in radio. Because, you know, I really wanted to be an actress, but at that time in the mid-70’s to think about pursuing that as a career was just crazy, especially for a short Japanese girl, right? I realized that on the radio, I could be anything. I didn’t have to be blonde and 5'10".

You also do some comedic kine storytelling through one persona you developed named Tita. You like try talk about how come you went invent dis alter ego?

Kathy Collins as her outspoken alter ego Tita!

My favorite part of radio was doing little radio skits that we made and then just played it on the air for fun. Along the way I developed this character who was just a tita [an outspoken female], you know, speaking Pidgin. I had these different features every day. We had “Ask Tita,” which was advice, like Ann Landers. “Tita Cooks,” which was recipes. “Believe it or What,”that was like crazy Local trivia. “Chicken Skin Theater,” which was ghost stories. And “Tita Out,” which was my Friday editorial where I could talk about whatever I felt like.

I still no see how you came one storyteller.

One time for the radio I did a Pidgin version of “The Night Before Christmas.” We recorded it and we would just play it every year at Christmas time.

So one year, the famous storyteller Jeff Gere happened to be visiting Maui and staying with friends. Anyway, they called and asked me to play my “Da Night Before Christmas” on the air. I did. And after hearing it, Jeff invited me to my first Talk Story Festival.

And for years I told him, “You know, I’m not a storyteller. I’m an actress writing out a script to tell these legends.” I always admired the village elders and other people who could just sit and spin a tale. I just never felt comfortable doing that. So I would always tell him, “I’m not a storyteller.” And every year he would laugh and say, “No, you’re a storyteller. That’s what you’re doing.” But I really didn’t feel like it for a number of years. And then after a while, I thought, yeah, I guess I am a storyteller (Laughing).

(Laughing) If it makes you feel bettah, good storytelling involves acting so you are doing both. You really are living your dream.

I am!

Who you grateful to for helping you on your path to becoming such one well known storyteller?

I have to say my parents. My father was Dr. Masayoshi “Nelson” Yogi and my mother is Yaemi Yogi [maiden name Shibasaki]. They were not the typical Local Japanese parents. They always encouraged me to go ahead and share my daydreams and fantasies with them. I didn’t have imaginary playmates. I didn’t need them because I had my parents.

When I was a kid, I was an only child, and my parents were so indulgent. I would write little stories and at night after dinner, I would act out my stories for my parents. And they would sit and listen. Bless them. They were a captive audience and they encouraged me to put on my little shows. All the little crazy stories and things that I would come up with, they would happily watch me and applaud.

Although, I have to say, once I got to high school and was getting into plays, my father said one night, he goes, “I don’t understand. Why do you want to draw attention to yourself?” You know, to him, it was like, you do this at home, isn’t that enough? It just puzzled him so much that he would have a daughter who just loved getting up on stage and making A [making an ass out of herself].

You also get one Youtube show you do with da Nisei Veterans Memorial Center called Yakamashii!! wea you get people from da community for share their stories and anecdotes. Why you think these personal kine stories stay so especially important?

Everybody’s story is important and the guests that I choose aren’t necessarily well known. I try to get guests who can give a perspective of what Maui was like a generation or so ago. The kinder, simpler, gentler Maui. Maui, we pride ourselves on being a small town with Local values. And I just find it really entertaining hearing people’s stories. Regardless of who my guests are, I always ask them about small kid time growing up.

Oh, so das why you wuz laughing up when I asked you about your small kid time, cuz I do my interviews just like you!

(Laughing) Yes, because when you ask about small kid time, that’s when you get to see, you get an insight into what made these people and why they are the way they are now, yeah?

True. So, I know my grandparents used to yell at us grandkids, Yakamashii! when we wuz making too much noise in da house. For some reason I can picture you getting yelled at a lot when you wuz one kid. Wuz you one especially loud child?

(Laughing) I always thought of myself as being very quiet and reserved because I read a lot, you know. But apparently, that’s not how everybody else remembers me.

(Laughing) If you had for give somebody advice on how for become one storyteller, what you would tell em?

I would tell them to just go ahead and do it, you know. Take any opportunity that they have to tell stories. Nowadays there’s open mic opportunities. There’s online; look at all these people doing their thing online. If that’s your thing, just get a YouTube channel and hope it goes viral. For me, though, it’s the live performance stuff that’s the most rewarding because of the crowd interaction and that exchange of energy. The more that the audience is enjoying themselves, the more fun I have because we feed off each other and it’s this beautiful circle.

*All photos courtesy of Kathy Collins.


© Lee A. Tonouchi 2024

comedy generations Hawaii Hawaii residents Kathy Collins Maui Okinawans Sansei stand-up comedy storytelling Uchinanchu United States
About this series

In this series, acclaimed author "Da Pidgin Guerrilla" Lee A. Tonouchi uses the language of Hawai‘i Creole, a.k.a. Pidgin, to talk story with accomplished and up-and coming Japanese/Okinawan Americans from Hawai‘i. Interviewees discuss their passions, their triumphs, as well as their struggles as they reflect and express their gratitude to those who have helped them on their journeys to success.

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About the Author

Lee A. Tonouchi, Okinawan Yonsei, stay known as “Da Pidgin Guerrilla” for his activism in campaigning for Pidgin a.k.a. Hawai‘i Creole for be accepted as one legitimate language. Tonouchi stay da recipient of da 2023 American Association for Applied Linguistics Distinguished Public Service Award for his work in raising public awareness of important language-related issues and promoting linguistic social justice.

His Pidgin poetry collection Significant Moments in da Life of Oriental Faddah and Son: One Hawai‘i Okinawan Journal won da Association for Asian-American Studies Book Award. His Pidgin children’s picture book Okinawan Princess: Da Legend of Hajichi Tattoos won one Skipping Stones Honor Award. And his latest book stay Chiburu: Anthology of Hawai‘i Okinawan Literature.

Updated September 2023

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