Min Kahng: From manga to musical (to Harvard)

Four Immigrants manga imageComposer and writer Min Kahng talks about developing a musical based on a Japanese comic and immigration themes. On Oct. 10, he will also offer a free vocal workshop for singers at Farkas Hall and a free lecture at Houghton Library. 

By Samantha Neville '19

Before reading about Min Kahng’s award-winning musical The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga, I never expected to see the words “musical” and “manga” side by side.

Kahng is on campus this week for a three-day Learning from Performers visiting artist residency, including a vocal workshop with students at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10 at Farkas Hall and a lecture the same day at 6:30 p.m. at Houghton Library as part of the ongoing exhibition Treading the Borders: Immigration and the American Stage. His visit will also include sessions with students in the English, music and theater, dance and media departments.

Although The Four Immigrants is the focus of his time at Harvard, Kahng has written musicals based on Greek mythology

Four Immigrants stage image
A scene from the San Francisco production of "The Four Immigrants" Photo: Kevin Berne
and fairy tales. The Four Immigrants, on the other hand, is a quintessentially San Francisco/Bay Area story. Kahng, a Bay Area resident, found his inspiration for the musical from a used bookstore in Berkeley, California.

I looked at the graphic novels section and saw the title The Four Immigrants Manga and thought that that was such an interesting title,” Kahng said. I was even more surprised to find that it wasn’t a contemporary manga, but it was a cartoon drawn by a Japanese artist who lived in the San Francisco area at the turn of the 20th century.” 

The original work, by Henry Kiyama, is Manga Yonin Shosei and is an unusual historical/autobiographical narrative based on the author's experiences of coming to America during his college years. 

When we learn about Asian immigrant history, we learn how they came to be laborers, farmers, so to know that there was an Asian immigrant who came to study art was very fascinating to me as an artist,” Kahng said.

First, Kahng said, he took a two-year period of researching Japanese immigrant history, San Francisco history, cartoon history, art history and other topics related to manga. The musical is written in the Vaudevillian style of light entertainment popular around the first part of the 20th century. Perfect for the time period, as Kahng said.

Adapting the manga to musical form was hard work.

A lot of building, a lot of writing songs, a lot of cutting songs, a lot of rewriting songs and scenes,” Kahng said.

Kahng found himself having to balance the humor of the cartoon with the antagonism that Japanese immigrants faced in America. In the course of mounting the production, Kahng also found echoes of historical immigration issues in current events, such as the travel ban.

In the musical, you definitely get a strong presence of the cartoon humor, but as the musical progresses, that more serious tone creeps in so by the end you really feel like it’s a mixture of this reality meets cartoon,” Kahng said.

One of the most fulfilling parts of his experience around the performance was when he got feedback from audience members who had a connection to immigrant history.

Kahng’s advice for aspiring artists is to not hold back from taking chances with their craft.

If you have a hard time thinking that you have what it takes, try tricking yourself for a little bit and say I do have what it takes and whatever I don’t have I can learn and I can grow with,” Kahng said. “Keep hanging out with other artists. And keep watching and listening and reading other art to keep inspiring yourself to do the kind of art that you want to do.”

This artist residency was made possible by generous support from the Clifton Family Fund and the Dawn Clifton Tripp Literary Artists Fund administered by the Office for the Arts.