Pivotal moments don’t always take place in front of big crowds. Sometimes they bubble up out of small conversations. There were two such moments at a meeting of the board of directors of Feast of Lanterns on Sept. 10.
That night the board members, led by president Kaye Coleman, were navigating their way through a sensitive issue. Last year, the board voted to rewrite the decades-old faux-Chinese pageant that closes the annual summer festival, beloved by many as a weekend of fun community activities, derided by others as racist and cultural appropriation. The tradition launched in 1905, was interrupted by World War I, then relaunched in 1958. The festivities include a pet parade, dance performances, fireworks, and the controversial part: the pageant. Members of the Royal Court still wear Mandarin-style brocade costumes in a fictional tale set in ancient China.
The pivotal moment of the Sept. 10 meeting came when a long-time resident spoke up. “Has there been feedback from people who don’t want change?” she asked. She wanted to know if it was just the “new people, the transplants,” calling for changes to the Feast of Lanterns.
Another woman bristled. “When we use words like ‘transplant’ – to me it’s offensive,” she said, pointing out that no one in the room is originally from here.
At that moment, the clash of attitudes that run just under the surface in “America’s Last Hometown” came crashing in: who belongs and who doesn’t, whose opinions count more than others.
The theme of insider versus outsider runs through P.G.’s 144-year history, sometimes in jarring ways. Property deeds once prohibited the sale or renting of homes to “Asiatics and Negroes,” among other races, something for which former mayor Carmelita Garcia and the City Council publicly apologized in a letter to the Monterey County NAACP in 2012
That was the same year Coleman joined the Feast of Lanterns board. Coleman is about as close to royalty as one can get in Pacific Grove. In 1993 she reigned as Queen Topaz of the Royal Court – a group made up of high school student volunteers chosen by committee – and also served as a princess twice. She saw her first Feast pageant at age 6 when her older sister was a princess of the court and instantly wanted to be one herself. “It’s every child’s dream to be royalty,” Coleman says. More than just wearing a pretty costume, Coleman says she felt being chosen celebrated her substance, intelligence and her desire to serve the community.
As a teen, Coleman says she gave no thought to the pageant’s content, which she saw as more of a campy theatrical performance. It tells the tale of a young woman, Queen Topaz, escaping with the man she loves before her powerful father can marry her off to a rich, older man. For decades, audiences booed the father, originally portrayed as an angry villain.
Several years before Coleman joined the board, Gerry Low-Sabado, a descendant of residents of P.G.’s Chinese fishing village destroyed by a fire in 1906 – on the site of what is now Hopkins Marine Station – petitioned the board to change some of the play’s wording, but nothing happened.
“I want to know why the villain must be Chinese, especially in the town where the Chinese fishing village burned down,” Low-Sabado says.
Coleman and Low-Sabado began meeting in 2016 and those conversations spurred Coleman to nudge the board toward transforming the pageant. The script was altered, and few seemed to notice. Then came the decision last year to do a major rewrite.
“Even though I love the old story, I recognize it’s time for change, and if anybody should lead that change, it should be someone like me with a long history with the feast,” Coleman says.
How to decide what the 2020 pageant should look like was on the table during September’s board meeting, where another quiet but pivotal moment happened. A young Chinese woman named Natalie Low, a Chinese Singaporean immigrant who works at Hopkins as a researcher, spoke up. “The board should really clearly communicate to the public why these changes are being made,” she said.
Articulating the why – acknowledging how the event hurts those of Chinese descent – is as important as making the change itself, Low says. “It’s part of a much broader scale understanding of the history, not just of Pacific Grove and the state of California, but also the West Coast and the whole country,” she says.
Board members are accepting new story ideas and scripts through Nov. 15. On Nov. 2, Coleman and Low-Sabado will lead a community meeting under the banner of 2020’s theme: “Change With Kindness.”