Memory of Pacific Grove’s historic Chinese village lingers.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
T he fire changed everything.
The May 17, 1906 blaze that swept through most of the Chinese village at Point Alones seared not only the landscape of the Monterey Peninsula, but the memories and histories of its people. The fire continues to loom as some kind of Original Sin whenever there are discussions about this remarkable Chinese village tucked into the cove on Pacific Grove’s eastern boundary.
Everybody seems embarrassed to talk about it. They needn’t be.
The Chinese invested hopes and dreams in the village; from 1853 to 1905, the community prospered. Spared the anger and violence of anti-Chinese racism that swept the rest of California, the immigrant fishermen felt secure enough to bring wives to Point Alones, start families and bury their bones in the cemetery overlooking the sea.
It was the Chinese-America that many dreamed of, a place so unusual that wagons from Hotel Del Monte came past, guests ooh-ing and aah-ing at this small piece of South China that seemed to have drifted across the sea. The tourists were particularly taken by the lights of the Chinese squid boats twinkling offshore on moonless nights.
TOURISTS WERE TAKEN BY THE LIGHTS OF THE CHINESE SQUID BOATS.
The village’s fishermen were an economic fixture of the Peninsula. But that began to change as Monterey awoke from its economic slumber. Starting in 1904, when the odor of the drying squid became stronger than the new fish canneries, the public began to pressure the Pacific Improvement Company, Point Alones’ landlord, to drive the Chinese away. In early 1905, the PIC notified villagers of plans to cancel their leases.
Led by two village-born men (and U.S. citizens), Tuck Lee and Yen Tai, the Chinese community entered into negotiations with PIC; together, they began looking for an alternative site. The earthquake and fire in San Francisco on April 18, 1906, upset the negotiations, destroying not only PIC’s offices but most of San Francisco’s Chinatown. An estimated 150 Chinese refugees came to Point Alones, almost doubling its population.
By early May 1906, the PIC resumed eviction efforts, planning to offer a relocation site near the Point Pinos lighthouse. But they never had the chance. The fire broke out in a barn in the western village. Even after a backfire was set to stop it, all but a few buildings burned to the ground.
The fire was a tragedy, but what happened during and immediately after it has troubled folks ever since. A huge crowd of non-Chinese spectators gathered along the railroad tracks bordering the village, laughing and shouting as they watched the terrified residents scramble through the flames to rescue their possessions. As the Chinese piled their belongings out of the fire’s range and ran back into the village, onlookers stole what they had rescued. The next morning, many local townspeople were seen poking through the ashes looking for valuables. Within days the local newspapers were filled with statements of outrage about the lack of “Christian sympathy” shown the fire victims.
Some Chinese residents, led by Lee, refused to leave the small cluster of buildings that had escaped the flames. Over the next year, the Chinese staged the region’s first major nonviolent sit-in. Before it was over, they’d not only negotiated a new village site at McAbee Beach in New Monterey, but forced the PIC to abandon plans to subdivide the property into oceanfront homes. The end result: Hopkins Marine Station is now located on the village site.
Some of the original Point Alones residents moved over to McAbee Beach. Others headed to S.F.’s rebuilt Chinatown. But they never forgot the cheering crowd or the looting. Neither did the good people of Pacific Grove. Eventually, the story of this amazing village and the collaborations between the two communities was lost in the lingering smoke.
What emerged was a festival that replicated the lights of the squid boats that had been driven away. Some members of the Chinese community find the resulting festival offensive. The Feast of Lanterns folks respond that their event has nothing to do with the Chinese village.
Perhaps in 2010, they can find some common ground to celebrate the remarkable and unique Chinese village at Point Alones and courageous residents like Lee, who brought the most powerful corporation in California to its knees.
Oh yes, I’m sure you want to find out who started the fire? Well, after 30 years’ research, in my considered opinion, we’ll never know.
But it doesn’t matter, really. It’s time to finally douse the flames and move forward.