The patriarch of the Ohnicks was Hachiro Onuki, who was born in Japan circa 1849, the oldest of four children, and who grew up in the mountains near Nikko. According to legend, as a five-year old he saw Commodore Matthew Perry’s famous "Black Ships" sail into Japanese harbors in 1854. While there were no schools near the Onuki family’s house, Hachiro’s father engaged a Russian to tutor his family. In addition to Russian, the young Hachiro learned at least a smattering of English from his tutor. In 1875, an American Navy ship came to Japan to purchase "various items of Japanese manufacture and culture" to be displayed at the Japanese pavillion at the Centennial Exhibition, a world’s fair taking place in Philadelphia, PA. (The Japanese pavillion, Tokyo’s first official entry in any international exhibitions, helped introduce many Americans and other westerners to Japanese art and culture). The American sailors faced difficulties in communicating with the Japanese to obtain the artifacts. Summoned as an interpreter by a Tokyo merchant, Hachiro grew friendly with the sailors, showed them around town and helped negotiate sales. While the sailors had no funds to pay for his services, they offered in exchange to transport him to the United States to care for the cargo, and then to bring him back to Japan on their next voyage. According to legend, Hachiro was at first reluctant, but once he learned that the exhibition would be displayed using modern lighting, which could be turned on by the push of a button, he agreed to travel to America. The boat took several months to cross the Pacific, then sail around South America, and proceed up the Atlantic Coast. Finally, in 1876 the ship landed in Boston, where Hachiro was entertained by some of the sailors’ families. Eventually, he travelled on to Philadelphia, where he attended the Centennial Exhibition.
After completing his task of unloading the cargo, Hachiro was supposed to return to Japan. However, as he was in no hurry to leave the United States, he agreed with his shipmates that he would make an overland crossing by rail to San Francisco, where he would eventually catch his ship following its voyage back around South America. While en route to California, he fell in with a pair of white prospectors who were heading to the West to mine for gold or silver. Hachiro agreed to join them. In the process, they persuaded him to americanize his name to Hutchlon Ohnick (or just H. Ohnick). After trying their luck at gold mining in Carson City, Nevada, the trio turned south to Arizona. In August 1878 Ohnick opened up a restaurant, Bon Ton, in Prescott, Arizona. A local paper, the Weekly Arizona Miner carried an advertisement from Ohnick offering a single meal for $.50 or full board for a week for $7.00. Ohnick stated, "Guests will find my tables supplied with all the delicacies of the season done up in first-class style." A writer for the journal stated, "Judging by the experience of the tables, the most fastidious epicure would have no cause for complaint. The proprietor, H. Ohnick, has extensive experience in catering to the appetite, and will no doubt please the Prescott public."
The Bon Ton seems not to have succeeded, as by 1880 Ohnick had settled in Tombstone, Arizona (which would soon after become legendary for Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the OK Corral). According to one source, Ohnick went to work in the local silver mines but was refused employment because of his short stature and thin body, and instead was hired as a teamster hauling wood and water for the mine’s mess hall. He seems to have started there a new career as a financier. An article from 1886 mentioned that "the Jap Ohnick" had lent money to C.S, Banham, boss of the Cananea mine and, when Banham failed to repay the money, seized his mine’s mules, harneses and wagons. He also seems to have had a litigious tendancy, as several lawsuits to which he was a party were filed in the following years.
In the mid-1880s, Ohnick settled in Phoenix, Arizona, then a small town, becoming in the process one of the city’s first non-native settlers. According to one story, while in Tombstone he had inadvertently chopped down wood from federally-owned land, prompting a government lawsuit against the mine owners. After two representatives of the mining firm arrived in Tombstone to defend their case, they befriended Ohnick, who served as chief witness in court testimony. In the end, the mining company won the lawsuit. Ohnick’s new friends advised him to move to Phoenix and seek new opprtunities there. Once settled in Phoenix, Ohnick made his start by farming and selling drinking water. Soon he branched out into starting a streetcar line. After finding white partners (possibly the mining company officials he had met in Tombstone) in 1886 he founded the city’s first gas and electricity utility, the Phoenix Illuminating Gas and Electric Company (later known as Arizona Public Service), and requested a franchise from the Phoenix City Council. It was a daring proposal—the first electric utility company, Thomas Edison’s New York Edison Company, had begun operations only four years before. However, the contract was granted, and in 1887 the company introduced the first gas-powered streetlights in Phoenix. Meanwhile, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, served on the city’s Board of Education, and was a 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason. In 1888, Ohnick married Catherine Shannon, a 22 year old white woman from Tennessee (legend has it that the two first met when Ohnick went to her family’s Phoenix home to install electric lighting). The Ohnicks soon had four children: Helen, Ben, Tom, and Marion.
During the economic depression of the early 1890s, the Phoenix Light and Power Company endured serious problems and would end up under control of a receiver. Mrs. Ohnick sued the Phoenix Light and Power Company over loans she stated that she had made. In 1894, Mr. Ohnick resigned from the power company and brought suit as well for salary payments owed him. He received an 80-acre ranch and country house outside of town as settlement for an investment in a failed bank. He started a truck farm, Garden City Farms, and hired Chinese laborers from San Francisco to operate it, before eventually selling the land. He worked as an electrician and opened a gardening business.
In 1898, following the death of his mother, Ohnick decided to take the family on a trip to Hawaii (then newly annexed by the US government) and Japan. He and his wife and four children travelled to Seattle to embark on the transpacific liner. However, in the end Mrs. Ohnick and the children elected to remain in Seattle, and Ohnick made the trip alone. While he had intended to stay only a short time in Japan, shipping from Asia was interrupted by the Boxer Rebellion in China, and Ohnick was stranded in Japan for several months.
In 1901, after returning for some time to Arizona (where he stood trial for breaking a canal check gate, and was fined $20) Ohnick finally rejoined his family in Seattle, Washington. Taking two other Seattle Issei as partners, Ohnick founded the Oriental American Bank, and served as its business manager. He meanwhile worked in real estate and labor contracting. In 1907, after leaving the bank, he was appointed president and treasurer of a labor union, and attempted to obtain labor contracts and fair wages for Japanese workers. The fledgling union was hampered not only by opposition from white employers but from Japanese labor contractors, and seems not to have survived. After leaving the union, Ohnick experimented with sending red Holstein cattle to Japan for breeding stock purposes. He later formed another bank, the Specie Bank. In 1910 he applied to become a notary public. However, even though Ohnick produced his naturalization papers, state governor M.E. Hay (acting on the advice of the state’s attorney general) refused to grant him the notary licence on the grounds that Japanese immigrants were ineligible for citizenship.
Little information is available on Ohnick’s later years. According to one source, in 1912 Ohnick suffered a paralytic stroke and was left unable to work. He sold out his interest in the Specie Bank to a Mr. Furuya. According to another source, while Ohnick had been a moderately wealthy man, he lost the family money in a bad investment, and he was left without a dollar. In his later years, he moved to Southern California, where his daughter Helen lived, and frequented various hot springs. He died in Long Beach, CA in 1921.
The hapa children of the Ohnick family pursued various life paths. Son Tom Ohnick moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in the lumber business, married an Irish-American woman and had two children. He died shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific War. The two Ohnick daughters achieved renown in the 1910s as a vaudeville team touring in the Northwest, notably as headliners at the Lyric theater in Spokane. Helen played the piano while Marion sang. Sometime around 1917, Helen moved to Los Angeles and worked for an insurance firm (Perhaps because of family connections, or her non-Asian appearance, neither she nor any of the Ohnicks were removed from the West Coast following Executive Order 9066). Marion however, remained in vaudeville, touring on the Orpheum Circuit under the stage name Haruko Onuki (later Haru Onuki). In 1916, she moved to New York and performed in the successful Broadway musical The Big Show, where she introduced the hit song "Poor Butterfly", based on the character of Madame Butterfly. In 1918, she was featured in a show at the Royal Theater with comedian Chic Sale. When she performed in Los Angeles in a kimono, the Los Angeles Times referred to her as "That delectable morsel of Japanese femininity."
Sometime around 1919, she turned to opera and concert singing. First, she was listed as a featured soprano with the Society of American Singers. Soon after, she launched a singing career with the San Carlo Opera Company. Performing what would become her signature role with the company, Ciao-Ciao-San in Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, at the Curran Theater in San Francisco and the Majestic Theater in Los Angeles, she created a sensation. Sometime around that same time, she decided to travel to Europe to train for an operatic career. She claimed to have studied voice in Italy and France under the celebrated tenor Emile de Reske. In 1919-20 she spent a period in England and performed in music halls in London and Manchester. After returning to the United States, she performed at the Hillstreet in Los Angeles in 1922. In 1923, she returned to the San Carlo and toured the country performing Madama Butterfly. When she opened at Poli’s theater in Washington DC, a Washington Post critic praised her "infinite artistic sense" and the "many sweet notes in her register". The following year, she was featured as Butterfly in New Orleans, where Japanese soprano Tamaki Miura had previously become a local celebrity after singing the same role. Local critic Noel Straus asserted that Onuki was "An ideal Butterfly for the eye, if not for the ear." Straus admitted that her performance was disappointing from a strictly vocal point of view, but added "So fascinating was [her] expressive pantomime..and so charming her personality, that she held the attention riveted on her interpretation, thus making amends for many other shortcomings in the presentation."
Although a performance with the San Carlo at the Century Theater had been advertised in 1923, her official New York opera debut seems to have come in September 1926. Her performance was greeted with mixed reviews. The New York Times‘s critic praised her "striking entrance" which gave an "exotic flavor" to the opera, and added that her dramatic talent won her the interest and sympathy of the audience, but stated that her voice "was not quite heavy enough for the dramatic demands of the role." In addition to her tours with the San Carlo, she remained active in theater during these years. In 1923, she starred in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado in Baltimore. In 1925, she performed in vaudeville at the Hippodrome in New York and the Stanley in Philadelphia, and was featured as a ballad singer at the Washington DC nightclub Le Paradis. In 1927 she played the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles. In 1928 she toured England with the San Carlo company, and remained to perform in British music halls.
Throughout her career, Onuki was racialized, both in her roles and in the reviews, which emphasied her "daintiness" and her Japaneseness. She played her image as an exotic to the hilt. Although at first she made clear that she was born in Seattle (and her white mother acompanied her on her tours), as time went on she identified herself completely as Japanese. In her publicity, she stated that she had worked as a geisha in Tokyo before being discovered, and put out that she had personally chosen her costume wardrobe from shops in Japan. She performed in benefit concerts to raise money for the Tokyo-based women’s school Tsuda College after it was damaged in the great 1923 Kanto earthquake.
In the mid-1920s, Onuki began dating cartoonist Robert Ripley (she appeared in one of his "Ripley’s Believe it or Not" cartoons as a Japanese prima donna who took a full day to fix her hair). She subsequently claimed that he had proposed marriage to her and brought suit against him in 1932 for $500,000 for breach of promise. Curiously, at the request of Ripley’s attorneys the suit was transferred from the New York Supreme Court to the Federal District Court on grounds of "diversity of citizenship" (meaning that Onuki was a California resident, which she denied) Presumably the suit was ultimately dismissed, as there is no further record of it in the mainstream press.
By 1930, Onuki had left the San Carlo company. She was succeeded in the role of Ciao-Ciao-San by the celebrated Japanese soprano Hizi Koyke. After a vaudeville performance at the Warner theaters in Los Angeles, she seems to have retired. In later years she lived in New York City.
It was the Ohnick family’s oldest son Benjamin Shannon Ohnick (1890 -1951), who achieved arguably the greatest renown. Born in Phoenix, Benjamin spent his teen years in Seattle. After attending Lincoln High School, where he distinguished himself as a football player, he entered the University of Washington. While in college he played end on UW’s 1909-1910 football teams under the famous football coach Gil Dobie. He subsequently went on to study at UW law school. In 1913 he opened his law office in Seattle. From the beginning, he became engaged in commmunity affairs. Articles of incorporation for the Reliance Hospital Association were drawn up on December 28, 1912 and filed for record with the Secretary of State on January 6, 1913. The first trustees of the association were Hoshin Fujii, Benjamin S. Ohnick, and Selma Anderson. (Selma Anderson was a former Christian missionary who converted to the Buddhist faith and was an early member of the Buddhist Mission in Seattle) In 1917, after the United States entered World War I, Benjamin Ohnick enlisted as a private in the US Army, where he was stationed at nearby Camp Lewis. Following the end of the war, he returned to Seattle and resumed his law practice. In 1920 he attended the session of the State supreme court in Olympia. Sometime during these years he met and married a secretary in the firm, a white woman named Ina from the Chicago area. The couple had three children.
Despite his education and record, Benjamin Ohnick faced prejudice because of his Japanese ancestry. At least in part as a result, in 1922 the Ohnicks were attracted to move to the Philippines, then a US colony. Once in Manila, Benjamin Ohnick attracted renown for winning a million-dollar lawsuit. Sometime after, he became an attorney and vice-president of the conglomerate Marsman & Co., which developed into one of the largest mining companies in the world, and had extensive holdings in the islands, including a drug company, an airline and trading firms.
Throughout the 1930s, the Ohnicks split their time between Seattle and Manila, commuting across the Pacific on the Boeing Clippers flying boats. They bought a waterfront house at 7326 Bowlyn Place, near Seward Park, and sent their three children to school in Seattle. Their daughter Barbara attended law school in Seattle and later became an Assistant Attorney General in Washington State.
The Ohnicks attracted attention in the "society pages" that followed their activities. An article from 1940 in the society pages of the Seattle Times noted:
"Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Ohnick and family of Seattle and Manila fly through the air with the greatest of ease. The Ohnicks have a beautiful home in the Uplands where they spend several months each year, Mrs. Ohnick generally leaving here in September and returning from Manila in the early spring."
By the time the Pacific War broke out in December 1941, Benjamin Ohnick had become one of the wealthiest men in the Philippines. However, he narrowly escaped death on December 10, 1941, when the japanese air force bombed Manila. Once the Japanese overran the Philippines in Spring 1942, he became a marked man. In March 1942, Ben and Ina Ohnick were taken prisoners by the Japanese, and were held in the Santo Tomas prison.
"Santo Tomas was livable for two years," Ina later stated. "After that, there was a policy of deliberate starvation. The food was reduced each day. When I say food, I mean rice. Only rice. There were 800 women and children and two bathrooms. Never do I want to hear talk among women about dieting." Ben, for his part, lost 60 pounds during his ordeal.
The Ohnicks were liberated from prison in 1945, after American forces landed in the Philippines. By an interesting turn of events, their son Van Ohnick, who had joined the Army Signal Corps, participated in the rescue operation that freed his parents. Following their liberation, the three of them were photographed outside Santo Tomas prison by a newspaper photographer, their arms around each other, grinning at their reunion.
Ina Ohnick returned to Seattle in May 1945. Ben stayed on part-time in Manila in hopes of reestablishing his business interests in the Philippines, then returned to Seattle for good in 1950. During the postwar years, he was active in Masonic activities and served with the American Legion (he served for a time on the Legion’s national executive committee) In the words of his daughter Barbara, "They survived, but he never recovered his health". Worn out from his wartime ordeal, Benjamin Ohnick died in 1951, at age 60.
Eric Walz, Nikkei in the Interior West : Japanese immigration and Community Building, 1882-1945 Tuscon, University of Arizona Press, 2012
Tats Kushida, "Ohnick Saga", Pacific Citizen , December 18, 1953, A8
Neal Thompson, A Curious Man : The Strange and Brilliant Career of Robert "Believe it or Not" Ripley, New York, Crown, 2013