Five years ago this coming July, two friends from Silicon Valley came to visit me in Pacific Grove for the day. Both are Asian American: one descends from Japanese immigrants, the other immigrated as a young child from the Philippines.
We decided to go for a drive around town to see the sights. After driving past the beautiful coastline we headed for downtown and began cruising Lighthouse Avenue. One of my friends asked, “What are all those lanterns hanging from the trees?”
My heart sank. I am nothing but honest with my friends and I knew I would have to tell them the truth about Feast of Lanterns.
I told them about the white townspeople who crafted a pageant in 1905, appropriating different aspects of Asian cultures. About the Chinese fishing village that burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances in 1906. And how the feast was discontinued during World War I only to be reborn in 1957, when white teenage girls donned their interpretation of Chinese garb and performed a made-up story about two ill-fated Chinese lovers.
The car went silent. One of my friends then spoke up from the backseat. “That’s embarrassing.”
I’ve been covering Feast of Lanterns for a few years now, including an internal effort to publicly accept the racist legacy in an effort to remake the event, as well as last year’s announcement by the FOL board that they had chosen a new closing pageant and new costumes that completely erases the faux-Chinese appropriations.
In this week’s edition of the Weekly, a young woman of Chinese descent, who graduated from Pacific Grove High School in 2016, lays out the case for why the festival should be ended completely. Arielle Isack writes: “The Feast of Lanterns is made possible by sustained denial of the city’s racist past and present—by ignorance.”
Isack concludes by saying 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.”
I’m not a P.G. youth, but I have some ideas myself. One came after reading about Julia Platt in The Death & Life of Monterey Bay by Stephen Palumbi and Caroly Sotka. Platt was P.G.’s first female mayor, elected in 1931, and held a PhD in marine zoology.
Platt saw the destruction to Monterey Bay caused by overfishing and the cannery industry, and she worked diligently to protect the bay. Her efforts led to the creation of two underwater marine parks that provided the seeds for today’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Her legacy is huge, and the more I read about Platt in Palumbi’s and Sotka’s book, the more I fell in love with her passion for doing what was right for our environment. I’ve since thought honoring Platt would be a much better legacy for Pacific Grove than the feast.
In my head a working title of “Julia Platt Days” was born, a three-day festival that celebrates our coastline and combines elements of STEAM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math—with fostering a closer community connection. “Monterey Bay Festival” is probably a better title since Platt’s name probably doesn’t ring a bell for most people.
P.G. can and should still have community events like pancake breakfasts, parades and picnics to accompany demonstrations and displays about the bay and life here, both above and below the water. I suggest a component that teaches about all the peoples who have depended on the bay for their survival over the centuries starting with the first Indigenous people.
And for a pageant? How about a reenactment of Platt demanding that a rich private landowner stop blocking public access to Lovers Point Beach. On Jan. 17, 1931, two months before she was elected mayor, Platt famously took a hammer and crowbar to a gate padlock that locked the public out. She posted a placard: “Opened by Julia B. Platt. This entrance to the beach must be left open at all hours when the public might reasonably wish to pass through.”
(Part 2 of the placard is especially delicious: “I act in the matter because the Council and the Police Department of Pacific Grove are men and possibly somewhat timid.”)
As for those lanterns that hang in the trees along Lighthouse Avenue? How about images of billowing jellyfish, squids and other creatures of Monterey Bay, to remind us of the legacy we are bound to protect.
This is not to say this is the only or best idea—but that we can still get together as a community for a big, festive, annual celebration, without the cringey part. What do you think of the idea? I’d like to hear from you with your feedback, and your ideas.