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Mabel Jingu Enkoji Remembered for Cultural Legacy

The legacy of Mabel Jingu Enkoji will live on through the Japanese Tea Garden and the Jingu House, the home she grew up in.

Her daughter, Peggy Nishio, said she was a non-traditional Japanese person because she was boisterous and loved throwing parties. Just the same, Nishio said, her mother became a “Texas Asian.”

Enkoji died of heart failure last week at her home in California. But she was present in San Antonio, and some say will always be, during the major milestones of the Japanese Tea Garden. The city began major restoration efforts in 2005 of the pavilion, and later the lily pond.

In 1919, San Antonio’s Parks Commissioner, J.R. Lambert, was celebrating the completion of the garden, built on the site of the former Alamo Cement Company, that moved to the spot where the Alamo Quarry Market now sits. Lambert invited the Jingu family to live in a house on the grounds. 

Kimi Jingu, Mabel’s father, was a Japanese-American artist. In the 1920s, he opened the Bamboo Room  where his children served tea and light snacks.

The girls wore traditional kimonos. Nishio wishes she knew more about the story of her grandfather creating the first green tea ice cream.

"As the story goes, because he became a tea importer after he took over the Japenese Tea Garden, he was always wanting to do something different, something new,” she said.

Because the green tea powder to make green tea was too bitter for the guests, Nishio said Kimi made the ice cream with cold green tea, sugar and a slice of lemon. The family wants to know more about the business venture that came about from the idea.  But according to JapaneseGardening.org, the local Borden’s ice cream company partnered with Kimi to make the treat for the public.

In 1938, Kimi Jingu died. After the U.S. entered World War II, the city evicted the Jingus amidst anti-Japanese sentiment. But the family had an incredible support group, said Nishio, and she never heard her mother speak badly about San Antonio.

"She just said this is what we did and we survived and they were very fortunate that the church helped them find a place to live, and they had so many great friends,” she said.

The garden's name was changed to the Chinese Tea Garden, but in 1984 the Japanese name was restored. Enkoji stayed in touch with developments at the garden and leaves behind a legacy of culture and understanding, her daughter said.

Mabel eventually moved to California. She developed a successful ceramic sculpture career, and also obtained her Screen Actors Guild card, allowing her to appear in commercials, according to Nishio.

The non-traditional Japanese woman who became a great friend to many also wanted a non-traditional funeral – no funeral at all.

"It's kind of been a blessing for us and so it's been very calm and enjoyable to reflect on the woman that she was,” said Nishio. “Personally and kind of selfishly, I've appreciated my mother's decision not to have a service."

The family only asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Mabel Jingu Enkojie Fund of the Brackenridge Park Conservancy for programs and the future development and sustainability of San Antonio’s Japanese Tea Garden.

Enkoji was 87. She is survived by her husband of 65 years, Renso, three daughters, three great granddaughters and other family members. 

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.