It is a hallmark of the Pacific Grove Unified School District to educate its students about the rich history of the Monterey Bay. The John Steinbeck scrapbook project is a local tradition – photographing our eighth-grade selves in front of his literary landmarks felt like a rite of passage to full 831 citizenship. Even the flora and fauna native to our hometown was incorporated into lesson plans: everyone who had a PGUSD education understands the mortal threat birthday balloons pose to local wildlife. So when I asked myself why I was 22 years old when I learned about the Chinese fishing village, I came up empty-handed.
In the late 19th century, 500 Chinese people migrated from Point Lobos to Pacific Grove and formed the largest Chinese village the country had thus far seen. They were able to prosper in Pacific Grove because they started the commercial fishing industry that is still in operation today. Their success was met with violent racism from non-Chinese neighbors, and in 1905, their village burned to the ground. Since then, shards of porcelain dug up and stray informational signs are the only physical evidence that they were ever there.
My initial rationalization for this conspicuous lack in my schooling was that decades of racist journalism has pushed P.G. into amnesia. But that is untrue. Every summer, lanterns line the trees and porches of P.G. in preparation for the Feast of Lanterns, where that year’s most excellent young women are chosen to don confused takes on traditional Chinese garb. This sloppy imitation of Chinese culture began in 1906, the year after the fishing village and its authentic Chinese lanterns disappeared. It is a tradition that is inextricable with the forced expulsion of the Chinese community.
The Feast of Lanterns cannot be redeemed. There has been effort to recast it in a “medieval” theme, with princesses and princes that hail from a European tradition, but that has nothing to do with the heritage of Pacific Grove. Anti-Asian racism, on the other hand, is an integral element of our town’s creation.
The choice lies between continuing to distance ourselves from history by way of meaningless reform, or owning up to the past and understanding that this festival perpetuates racism. If we learned about the Chinese fishing village in school, and how the Feast of Lanterns picked up where actual Chinese people left off, our town would be hard pressed to justify the racism it re-commits every year as a spectacle and a diversion. The absence of education about Chinese history in Pacific Grove’s consciousness creates the ideal conditions for such flagrant racism to persist.
As a Chinese person who grew up in P.G., I am saddened that I was unaware of the ancestral ties I had to my hometown. The only connection I had to it was a sense of discomfort that would strike every summer. The Feast of Lanterns is made possible by sustained denial of the city’s racist past and present – by ignorance. We can continue to nurture our ignorance, or we can teach our youth about the reality of their town, and see what better ideas they come up with about how to celebrate its beauty and community.