Historians and residents push to keep Pacific Grove’s Chinese-American heritage alive.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
The past is as fleeting as footprints in the sand. But keen history buffs can find local clues to the Chinese fishing village that thrived on Pacific Grove’s Point Alones in the late 1800s – if they look in the right places.
Four local libraries and museums archive photos, documents and artifacts from the village. Two P.G. murals bring Chinese cultural scenes to life. A new sign on Cannery Row pays homage to the historic village, and Wave Street Studios’ tearoom is named after Point Alones resident Quock Mui.
This year, the P.G. Museum of Natural History will feature a summer exhibit on the Chinese immigrant community at Point Alones, and Stanford University will install an interpretive panel at Hopkins Marine Station, where the village once stood.
Museum and Stanford officials are also seeking a local home for the Free China, a Taiwanese junk that crossed the Pacific in 1955. Without a permanent docking place, the historic boat is in danger of being destroyed.
The latest efforts to keep Chinese-American history alive are, at least in part, thanks to pressure from Geraldine Low-Sabado, a great-granddaughter of Point Alones inhabitants. “There needs to be a lot more education about the Chinese-American history in Pacific Grove, and I’m trying to do that,” she says.
But one point is still sore. P.G.’s century-old Feast of Lanterns celebration – which brings the small city together every summer with parades, dinners, dances, scholarships and fireworks – closes with a play that makes some cringe.
The Legend of the Blue Willow is the tale of a Chinese mandarin who forbids his daughter to marry the poor man she loves. Nine high school girls form the “Royal Court,” donning Chinese dresses to play the mandarin’s daughters. When the mandarin banishes the scrappy lover, the audience boos.
Low-Sabado sees the play as a Western moral romance, not unlike Romeo and Juliet, that doesn’t translate to Eastern culture. “When you gather your families on the beaches of Pacific Grove and you boo the mandarin, you teach your children and your grandchildren to villainize not just Chinese people, but Asians,” she says.
Granted, the festival has nothing to do with 19th-century fishermen, and a white woman scripted Blue Willow in the 1950s. But Low-Sabado says that’s exactly the problem: The play invokes a mythological Chinese history while ignoring the real, local one. “The Feast of Lanterns is a celebration of the history and culture of Pacific Grove,” she says, “and that Chinese village is a part of the history.”
In a presentation to the festival’s board last spring, Low-Sabado suggested ways to teach festival-goers about Point Alones, such as an informational booth or a screening of the CSU Monterey Bay documentary By Light of Lanterns.
No one from the board has gotten back to her, Low-Sabado claims. “I have made my attempts, and they’re falling on deaf ears,” she says.
Feast of Lanterns Board President Dixie Layne says she doesn’t know of any response, but declines further comment. Two other board members did not respond to requests for comment.
The board’s apparent unwillingness to discuss the issue perplexes P.G. Councilwoman Lisa Bennett, who notes that the festival organization is unaffiliated with the city.
“The Feast of Lanterns is one of our traditional events, and at the same time, it depicts characters who are ethnic minorities,” she says. “It would be a very good thing if the Feast of Lanterns committee were open to talking to people of Chinese ancestry about it.”
Although Bennett says the play isn’t intended as discriminatory, she adds, “I don’t think it’s right nowadays to uphold a tradition that is offensive to an ethnic group. We’ve been told that it is. Now what are we going to do about it?”
P.G. resident Sue Parris, chapter director of the National Coalition Building Institute, feels that the play blights an otherwise charming festival. “We do this scene of fake Chinese-ness, and there aren’t any Chinese people involved or even consulted,” she says. “That part seems so unnecessary and kind of backwards. It’s not taking into account the effects on the people who are being portrayed.”
Local historians give the play mixed reviews. Monterey Peninsula College art history teacher Kent Seavey, a P.G. resident, calls it a “nice romantic story” that has nothing to do with the historically important Chinese residents of Point Alones.
Tim Thomas, curator for the Monterey Maritime Museum, agrees that the play is historically irrelevant – but he doesn’t see it as sweet.
“It’s totally inappropriate today,” he says. “To me, it’s almost like doing something in blackface.”