Does Pacific Grove’s Feast of Lanterns celebrate a racist past?

History Burns: Looking Deeper: (From right) Gerry Low-Sabado, descendant of members of the 19-century fishing village at Point Alones, and Stanford student Bryn Williams excavate artifacts at Hopkins Marine Research Station. —Kera Abraham

On a sunny Thursday at Hopkins Marine Research Station, Stanford sophomore Claire Menke digs carefully in a four-foot hole. Within minutes her arm pops up, victoriously clutching a ceramic shard painted with a floral pattern. She adds it to a collection of artifacts reclaimed from the Chinese fishing village that occupied the Hopkins property more than a century ago: an American coin, a toothbrush handle, rice bowls, bullets and animal bones.

Geraldine Low-Sabado snaps a photo of the shard, and her cousin, Rod Jone, scribbles in a notebook. Both are the great-grandchildren of Chinese fishermen who lived near the excavation site in the mid-1800s. Stanford doctoral student Bryn Williams, who is writing his dissertation on 19th-century Chinese-American communities, has invited the two descendants to participate in his five-week archaeological dig.

“It’s very special for me to come here and sit on the rocks and imagine what life was like for my ancestors,” Low-Sabado says with a tepid smile. My eyes are drawn first to an American flag pin stuck in her red collared shirt, and then to a gold-and-opal peacock ring that she inherited from her great-grandmother, Quock Mui.

Just a few blocks away, Pacific Grove residents are decking the streets in Chinese bling of another sort. They’re preparing for the Feast of Lanterns, a century-old celebration that paints the town in distinctly Oriental hues. The festival’s organizers view the theme as innocent fun, as much an annual tradition as the salad chow-down and fireworks.

But Williams and other scholars see the festival playing to stereotypes of the Orient that more closely resemble Disney cartoons than the recorded history of the Chinese in Pacific Grove. The kindest phrase for it is ignorant romanticism.

Williams, drawing from historical research, oral histories, and publications such as Sandy Lydon’s Chinese Gold, offers this history:

In the 1850s, Chinese immigrants sailed onto the Monterey Bay, where they promptly set to work fishing and building a community. After frustrated attempts to settle at Point Lobos and Pescadero Point they established a village near Point Alones, on the coastal border between Pacific Grove and Monterey.

The first local Feast of Lanterns celebration was held in July 1905 at the end of the “Chautaqua season,” when adults would congregate for educational presentations organized by the Methodist-run Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle of Pacific Grove. During that first feast, participants decorated the town’s buildings and roads with paper lanterns and gathered to watch fishing boats lit up by glowing charcoal baskets – not unlike those the Chinese fishermen used to lure squid – float across the water at dusk. Chinese residents were invited in order to “lend authenticity” to the celebration, according to a 1905 article in the Monterey New Era newspaper.

Simultaneously, some of PG’s white residents went out of their way to make their Chinese neighbors feel unwelcome. Portuguese whalers made a practice of cutting the fishermen’s nets. Police, responding to complaints from citizens or the mayor, routinely arrested the Chinese for creating a “public nuisance” by drying squid – a smelly practice that was eventually banned. In the 1880s Congress adopted the Chinese Exclusion Act to staunch the inflow of Asian immigrants, and over the next two decades the state imposed ever-tighter restrictions on Chinese fishing.

In 1905 the Pacific Improvement Company, which owned the Point Alones property, failed to renew the Chinese community’s lease and began to evict its tenants. That process was underway on May 16, 1906, when a fire ignited in the village, burning down most of its wood-framed houses. Historians haven’t confirmed the origins of the fire, but oral evidence – including a testimony that the residents’ hoses were cut – points to arson. Photographs show whites picking through the ashes within 24 hours of the blaze.

The Point Alones residents unsuccessfully challenged their eviction in court; some staged a brief sit-in in the few buildings that remained standing. The expelled fishermen didn’t have much luck relocating within Pacific Grove, Williams says, because most properties had racially restrictive covenants. Low-Sabado’s great-grandfather, reportedly the last to leave, moved his family to Monterey.

Despite the turmoil at Point Alones, the Chautauqua group held its second annual Oriental-themed celebration that summer. The Pacific Improvement Company donated hundreds of dollars to the festivities, even as it built a fence around the Point Alones village and hired armed guards to keep the Chinese out.

The Feast of Lanterns celebration disappeared during the two World Wars, but locals revived it in 1958. For the past 49 years, festival organizers have maintained its cartoony Oriental aesthetic with little acknowledgement of PG’s historic Chinese community.

During the four-day festival, a Chinese dragon snakes through streets lined with paper lanterns. High school girls – the Royal Court – pose in Chinese gowns, their hair piled high. Until the mid-1980s the Queen and eight Princesses even made up their faces in Asian caricature, with white skin and elongated eyes, which Williams describes as a classic “yellowface” performance. The practice was eventually ditched, says festival spokeswoman Dixie Layne: “It became politically incorrect to do it.”

But other traditions remained, such as the Royal Court’s enactment of “The Legend of the Blue Willow,” a romance involving a princess who drowns herself when her father forbids her from marrying her poor lover. Layne describes the story, based on a famous ceramic pattern, as an ancient Chinese myth.

In fact, according to Williams’ research, the story is not a Chinese legend at all: Both the blue willow pattern, and the story to explain it, were fabricated in the UK.

Another festival tradition puts the mayor in stereotypical Asian attire. This year Mayor Dan Cort plans to don a Chinese robe – and if he can’t find it, he says, he’ll wear a Japanese one – to kick off the July 27 street dance. “There was an uncomfortable history with our Chinese immigrants,” he admits. “We hope that celebrations like the Feast of Lanterns honor the contributions of the Chinese to Pacific Grove.”

Doctoral student Williams views the dynamic in psychological terms. “It’s an interesting juxtaposition to have this celebration of the Chinese at the same time that a legal mechanism was taken to burn them out,” he says. “There are various possibilities for why any group of people will celebrate the aesthetics of what they’re in the process of destroying.”

Granted, the Feast of Lanterns only leans lightly on its Oriental theme. The Feast of Salads, Feast of Chalk, pet parade and street dance are Pagrovian traditions that make no claim of Asian authenticity. Still, the history of the local Chinese community’s unkind reception contrasts queasily with the festival’s glib Oriental decor.

That contrast is made starker by the fact that neither Cort nor Layne acknowledge the expulsion of PG’s earliest Chinese community. Both say they think the Chinese left town because jobs were limited – not because they were forced out. “I don’t think they left because they didn’t feel welcome,” Cort says.

That kind of ignorance would seem a good reason for a fourth-generation Chinese-Peninsulan to feel bitter. But Low-Sabado is forgiving, saying she’d prefer to reach out to festival organizers than to sling mud. “I can appreciate an event that brings people together,” she says. “It’s important for people who might view the Chinese in that old-fashioned way to see a more modern picture.”

Still, Low-Sabado pointedly notes that she’s presented her family’s history at Monterey schools and retirement homes, but she’s still waiting for an invitation to speak at the Feast of Lanterns. “I don’t want to barge in,” she says coyly.

Layne acknowledges that event planners haven’t made a special effort to reach out to local Chinese-Americans. Yet. “I think next year will be the year,” she says.

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