Feast of Burden — 19th Century Violence reproduced in 21st Century Pacific Grove
I. FIRST OF LANTERNS
I had always known about the Feast of Lanterns celebration, except that I really knew nothing about it at all. It existed and that’s all I knew. Growing up 15 miles east of Pacific Grove, my parents never felt inspired to take me to as a child — if we went into town it was to go to the beach, or the Trader Joe’s. Going to high school in adjacent Monterey, my peers never encouraged me to attend as an adolescent — we played music or smoked weed in the woods instead, went camping in Big Sur.
After I returned to the Monterey area upon graduating from college I found myself suddenly thinking actively about the Feast of Lanterns for the first time. The event was brought up by a colleague of my father’s at a dinner party at my parents’ house. The dinner was in honor of half a dozen Fulbright students from all corners of the world; and in this context of cross-cultural excitement and understanding, the premise, described by a man married to a Chinese woman, struck me as absurdly distasteful, irresponsible, and insensitive. Unfortunately, I would have to wait a year to see for myself, for it was asked “Did anyone go?” And no one had.
So when July came around the next year year, some 340 days later, I was ready to investigate and decide for myself. Was this small-town community event simply a little naive and insensitive, and maybe even charming, or something that was more severely racially ignorant. My friend Jaymee dove right in with me when I told her what I was doing that weekend — and when I saw herthe last Saturday of July she was fresh off a bout of internet research, and we excitedly discussed in downtown Monterey before riding our bikes over. “Andrew! The Chinese were invited to the first Feast of Lanterns and they came! And the year before the village burned and they were run out of town!” We stopped at the mural on the bike path that describes the history of P.G., again always noticing it, but never really noticing it. In describing the Chinese fishing village’s destruction it concludes that the population “disappeared from the area.” Jaymee explained to me the concept of “yellowface,” which I understood in concept from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Charlie Chan movies, and that it outlasted blackface in film by decades. Feast of Lanterns queens and princesses stopped mimicking asian features with make-up in the 1980s.
We arrived at Lover’s Point to find a mass of people on the beach and around the park enjoying picnics and taking in a rock and roll cover band on the concrete stage above the water. Jaymee had to go home and I was to meet my family to see the last Harry Potter movie before returning for the main events — the crowning ceremony, Legend of the Blue Willow, and the fireworks — so I limited myself to one interview.
I talked to a man who wrote an occult detective novel that took place in Pacific Grove. He explained to me the occult nature of the town. “There’s a lot of strange things in Pacific Grove,” he began, explaining that his novel thus functioned as historical fiction, and he cited an obelisk by the rocks of Lover’s Point and a gargoyle built by Clark Ashton Smith, a friend of H.P. Lovecraft, that points to it, and a wall beneath it with a matching obelisk.
“Now if the world has chakras — and it does in metaphysical societies — Pacific Grove is the healing chakra. And the exact point, the center, of this fibonacci spinning of energy is emanating from that particular point out there at that obelisk. A lot of people wind up in Pacific Grove never thinking they’re going to stay. Everything opens up — they get the job, they get the apartment, it’s perfect: they’re here. And over 89% are going to say they’re in some kind of healing — healing a relationship, physical healing: something. It’s very, very strange.”
And he explained the Feast of Lanterns to me. “Think of it as an open, private party. The town had its own little holiday. It used to be that there were all these crafts people, and artists, dancers, writers — filled up P.G. It was super cheap; the sardines went away; the town’s worth nothing. You could rent an apartment for sixty bucks, so great for artists: low overhead. So the festival had all these crafts booths and people and the talent show, etc. etc. So at the end of the festival when the fireworks went off you’d go up to maybe fifty or sixty open parties. It was a community, everybody knew everybody. 1982: the chamber said ‘Why don’t we advertise it; could be good for business.’ 40,000 people showed up. Insanity. And nobody realized because the parties were still open. So a friend Michele looked up and she had 200 people in a 600 square-foot house, and she said she was lucky she had a mattress to sleep on when it was over, all these strangers.” As a band covered Michelle Branch’s duet with Carlos Santana, “The Game of Love,” he put the festival in context, compared with “what they say it is.”
“After the sardines went away and the town was nothing, before they could sell it as a tourist joint or valuable coastal lands, it was just, sort of, a ghost town. And this little thing kept going on and turned into a wonderful private holiday which anyone could attend.” I also first heard of Elmarie H. Dyke, the woman who revived the festival fifty years after it had initially began. The lifelong mission of “Mrs. Pacific Grove” was to keep Pacific Grove a dry town until 1969, which, of course, it no longer is, though the town still cannot boast a single bar; and after she died the Feast almost went with her. “They were thinking, ‘it’s an old festival thing, nobody likes it, it’s a pain, why do it?’ But it wasn’t let go. People had badges saying ‘We want fireworks.’ They said we’ll do it but there won’t be any fireworks. Well, it was put out that there would be bottlerockets on a rubber raft out there,” gesturing past the point, “so the coast guard was cruising looking for the famed rubber boat. Unbeknownst to them that was to keep them busy because, actually, all of the bottlerockets were down on the beach with hundreds of people. And at the end of the play when everyone stood up, all the rockets went off. You just couldn’t identify who did it.” I thanked him for the information, gathered that the myth would occur at eight, and the fireworks at nine, I walked up the hill as the band played a flawless cover of “the Sultans of Swing.”
I went to the movie theater and met my parents and my brother who was visiting from Seattle and we saw Harry Potter and had dinner at Mando’s. They were not interested in staying for the show, confirming the familial disinterest that had sheltered me from this thing my whole life, so I walked down to the water by myself.
Many houses around downtown P.G. are adorned with colorful Chinese paper lanterns in July and many businesses stock and display them in their windows. As I walked down toward the bay and the music got louder it seemed like more houses displayed a greater number of lanterns. The music sounded like Gloria Estefan and when I turned the corner I saw a group of girls doing a Caribbean-style dance on the platform across the water. As I circulated among the crowd considering interview options the genre and the dance changed from Mexican to hip-hop to Florence and the Machine’s ubiquitous 2011 hit.
I talked to volunteer security guards, parents of princesses selling Feast of Lanterns cookbooks and pageant histories, representatives of the Paper Wing Theater Company from whom I bought a coffee, a police officer to whom I used to sell coffee, and finally Jaymee arrived and we considered from where we should take in the Legend of the Blue Willow.
We took some pictures, she ran into a friend, who we asked for a quick thought — “I’m glad theater is valued in some way” — and as we settled across the water from the stage the coronation began. After the coronation was a dance to a Chinese pop song. The girls were wearing Japanese kimonos and waved fans. The next dance was Arabic in style, though still with kimonos and fans. I recognized my neighbors and we compared impressions of first respective Feasts. “It’s a really unique example of small-town community,” she said. “It was much more stylized than I expected,” he said.
Jaymee and I came clean about our amateur sociological study and they revealed they were both, in fact, anthropologists. He, a professor at NPS, explained that he came down the hill partly because a student introduced it to him as, and what he thought it was, a reconciliation or some kind of acknowledgment of the Japanese internment during World War Two. It seemed the event was multicultural only in that it was misunderstood to be representative of many different cultures. The vagueness of the weekend’s significations made it potentially about everything. This is California, after all. We owe our heritage to dozens of sources, and we recreate any landscape or society in film on location throughout this land. Also, our ’90s Republican governor Pete Wilson acknowledged Monterey’s diversity and internationalism by declaring it the Language Capital of the World. It would only make sense that a group of teenage dancers take us through the cultures of the world through its music and movements, that a bellydancer instructor and her students bring us from Egypt to India, and that high school girls wear Chinese dresses and be accompanied by Queen Topaz’s father in a cap that dangles a dark braid from its back, and that this group parade down the stairs and onto the stage to re-enact an English legend first propagated to sell British-made porcelain with the Blue Willow pattern in the late 18th century. Of the the pattern one critic wrote, “It is at best an imitation or distillation, at worst a distortion of Chinese culture.” Or as our announcer, a combination of Ed McMahon and the narrator of a nature documentary, tells us, “no one knows who first told the story of the Blue Willow plate.” And, though very unlikely, “possibly it was some Chinese storyteller who began spinning the story of Chang and his love for the beautiful Koong-se.”
If this all did relate to the cultural tapestry of the town, and its history and people were celebrated, then it very well could be explained on some level. However, there is no explanation. The only reference to the past, the only acknowledgment and celebration of history and culture, is to the play and the Feast of Lanterns itself, the history of celebrating some undefined obscure history, and that the lovers flee the evil Mandarin and turn into monarchs, of course, because it is Pacific Grove, California — Butterfly Town, U.S.A. The monarchs and tourists are historically the area’s only celebrated migrants.
Jaymee and I walked around as the fireworks went off to record the ambience and take one last look before heading back to her apartment to meet my brother. As we walked up the hill away from the water we saw hip-looking young men park a van and walk in the other direction with musical equipment. We were later invited to what turned out to be a concert in the living room of the bellydance instructor’s house. An impromptu all-welcome rock show in a living room in P.G. There really was something special about Feast Night. To continue the trip back to the Bohemian ’70s in Pacific Grove we took advantage of Rolling Rock throwback return to cans and bought a 12-pack on sale. Someone else had the same idea — it was the cheapest — and many of the other young, hip white people were also throwing back the throwbacks. At one point I got “Beast of Burden,” stuck in my head by the Rolling Stones, and I proposed we title our piece, whatever it was to become, “Feast of Burden.”
II. FEAST OF RETURNS
California, here I come
Right back where I started from
Where bowers of flowers
Bloom in the spring
Each morning, at dawning
Birdies sing and everything
A sun-kissed miss said, “Don’t be late”
That’s why I can hardly wait
Open up that Golden Gate
California, here I come
— “California Here I Come,” made famous by Al Jolson
I began a new job at a seafood restaurant, in downtown Pacific Grove interestingly enough, right as I was processing the experience. As I was researching how the Pacific Improvement Company evicted the fisherman families of China Point in 1905, partly in reaction to the odor of their squid-drying methods, I learned that Monterey squid is not really local — it is shipped to China for processing and then shipped back, less sustainable than simply purchasing squid caught in Asia. I saw the green lights of the squid boats at night in a new context when I read that the Chinese were pressured out of the daytime fishing industry by the white locals, and instead of forcing the issue they simply adorned lanterns to their boats and fished for squid at nighttime instead. And, as worded by a history of Cannery Row in Monterey, just down the coast from China Point, “Pacific Grove’s ‘Feast of Lanterns’ is an ironic tribute to the torches and pitchwood fires used from the Chinese sampans to attract the curious squid to their waiting seines.” And I learned that the Chinese attended the first Feast of Lanterns in 1905, the last summer they were to spend in P.G., and, with the exception of ceremonies in 1935 and 1938, the event didn’t take place annually until 1958.
Even the free local periodical — the Pacific Grove Hometown Bulletin , which I would write for a year later, right before it was sold to the Cedar Street Times— acknowledged there was something off about the relationship between ethnic tensions that came to a head in 1905–1906 and “lantern week,” referring to an exhibit in the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum . “To its credit,” the article read, “the museum also debuted without irony a scale model of the 70-home Pacific Grove Chinese village razed by fire in 1905 [sic], the feast’s inaugural year.” The celebration of a racist mockery of a people in the moment they were being run out of town as a cultural tribute is ironic. But to display the account of this is unironic? What “to its credit” means is as strange as declaring that the exhibit was “debuted without irony.” It’s as though the museum spoke enough truth that the face-painting didn’t seem frivolous and insensitive, but not enough truth to create a contradiction between the levity of the family-friendly afternoon and the weight of the unjust and violent history.
This was the August 17th edition and shared a recap written by someone who, like me, was sharing his “First Timer Impressions.” I also managed to visit the Natural History Museum, but for a different reason. Jaymee told me that she remembered a “Walk for Remembrance” in May, to commemorate the destruction of the village on May 16, 1906. She said it was led by a descendant of the village and had begun at the museum. So we decided to begin there as well during my Saturday break between answering the phone and returning messages in the afternoon and returning to the restaurant for the dinner shift. The woman there recalled, vaguely, the event, but told us they would have a better idea at the Heritage Museum which happened to be open from one to four only on Saturdays. And not only that, but there was the aforementioned installation up about the village and its demise. Not since Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall have clues lined up so readily for a curious truth-seeking duo.
The exhibit was very well done with a scaled construction of the village by Michael E. Croft. And the text that accompanied the visual went further than most we’d seen to address the ambiguity of agency that accompanies a fire. It is never people who destroyed the village, it is the avatar of their hate: a fire. Like most accounts it didn’t make a judgment about the origin of the fire — “In May 1906, a fire broke out in the village and despite firefighter’s efforts, the village burned to the ground” — though it did give historical context to allow us to doubt the innocence of the break out of the fire:
At this time, “Chinatowns” in cities across the state burned down in fires, often started by arson. The Chinese could not take legal action in most cases, because the state congress even passed laws preventing citizenship rights to people of Chinese descent, even if they were born here.
Why can’t we have such a candid understanding of the Feast of Lanterns? If we had that perhaps we could have a candid discussion of how these two narratives relate. Instead we act like because the whole population moved half a mile away into Monterey the story ends in Pacific Grove. It “disappeared” as the mural informs us.
So we probed further for answers, walked up the hill to the old gray barn that is the Heritage Museum and were welcomed by the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” emitting from a player piano. A woman sat there pumping her feet up and down, rocking back and forth happily with the music. When the scroll reached its end she got up and greeted and invited us to take in all of the historical knick-knacks the place had to offer. She offered for us to have a look around and to try the player piano; Jaymee wandered around the old maps and books and artifacts, and I chose the “California, Here I Come” scroll and pedaled out the tune.
Afterwards we explained what we were looking for and the woman knew exactly the event we described. She shuffled through old copies of the Heritage Society of Pacific Grove Newsletter (Dedicated to Maintaining the Beauty and Individuality of Pacific Grove) and found the May 2011 edition whose cover showed Gerry Low-Sabado and the Monterey Bay Lion Dance Team on the recreation trail with Hopkins Marine Station behind them, the old site of the village.
Inside was an article describing the event: an address by Mayor Carmelita Garcia, Gerry Low-Sabado, the direct descendant who helped organize the event, a reception, and a walk to Hopkins led by the Monterey Bay Lion Dance Team and their two spectacular lions. The city, its natural history museum, Heritage Society, the dance team, the National Coalition Building Institute, and even the ACLU collaborated to make this happen.
The article even foreshadowed an “Historical Context Statement” that the city was scheduled to release to acknowledge and honor the contributions of the Chinese population. The synopsis of their exit from the town was actually one of the most sympathetic yet: “Sadly, at a time when a state-wide anti-Chinese immigration movement was underway, the village was forced out of existence by a fire and eviction, and the villagers dispersed.” Pairing “eviction,” whose causation stems from human action, with “fire” implies most reasonably that people started the fire that drove them from town. And I was reading this in the Heritage Society newsletter? The woman was so thorough in answering our questions she even found a roll of film developed from May and gave me two prints of the traditional Chinese dance outside the museum with the two lions that preceded the walk. I was dumbfounded and charmed. How can this be so out in the open, existing so thoroughly on the surface alongside an annual tradition that transforms the predominantly white town into a faux Chinese village?
Jaymee and I left contented and went to a coffee shop to discuss before I went to work. There was a contact telephone number at the end of the article that I called, assuming it was some kind of historical organization that on a Saturday would give me a recording or a quick account of the event or a website. After three rings a woman answered the phone, “Hello?” I explained where I found the phone number and why I was interested, and she said she was Gerry Low, and this was her phone number. They had just included her personal phone number at the base of the article for those who wanted “more information.”
With a few interruptions we talked for more than and an hour and I frantically scribbled notes all over new job’s training check list, and in the margins of both copies of the newsletter we were given. When she asked my impressions of the Feast of Lanterns she seemed genuinely curious, and she was deeply moved that I had taken such an interest in her family history. She said it was interesting that I found it not undifferent from a beauty pageant, as that was exactly how it began. Her biggest complaint was not in the mess of stereotypes that compose the event, the unwieldy, ambiguous myth that arises; it was much more simple: the crowd is encouraged to boo a Chinese person. The man who represents what is Chinese (literally named “the Mandarin”), who insists on the traditional arranged marriage, is shouted down by hundreds of white spectators. The problem is not just that he wears a fake ponytail and dresses up in Chinese clothes, it is that his character acts as a kind of catharsis for racism. Gerry explained that her great-grandfather was born from a match that was made in 1881, that it was a tradition that remained acceptable through the time that the Chinese occupied the village. “When you bring the community together,” she said, children, tourists, the whole town, “you are teaching them to villainize Chinese people.” This was also part of my complaint: an incredible opportunity to share knowledge and cultural understanding with a large group of people, and to instill these values in the next generation, is wasted. The exact opposite is accomplished: misunderstanding cultural difference, mocking the heritages of others, and instilling instead these values in children.
Eventually the conversation turned to her family and the village her great-great-grandparents inhabited. When she told me her great grandmother was Quock Mui it blew my mind. The famed polyglot symbol of Cannery Row’s multiculturalism, “Spanish Mary,” her great granddaughter had just answered my phone call, and she was excited to talk to me. I pass by her house every day where a sign with her picture alerts the passerby to the richness of her history, the contribution of her life to Monterey. Of course she would have descendants, but I thought if I ever met them it would be the way I would see Thomas Steinbeck signing books at the Steinbeck Festival or something, not simply having a conversation about the history of the Peninsula.
Eventually we came to the fire. What conclusions did she hold; where did someone whose family was directly devastated turn the ambiguities into judgments? She shared that it was documented that the village’s hoses were cut; the newspapers carried editorials in the days after that condemned the white Christians for cheering the events and looting the salvaged belongings from the sidewalks when residents went back for another armful of possessions. Even knowing this Gerry insisted that it did not matter what happened then, how the fire started, but how we behaved now, what we value now, what we model for children now. And what we are doing now is putting on negative Chinese stereotypes and, as a community, booing them.
I told her I looked forward to meeting her if I didn’t have to work the evening of the Historic Context Statement, and if I did my friend Jaymee would attend.
I was once told a story at Bottles in Bins, the liquor store at the bottom of David Avenue on the Monterey side of the border with P.G. The old owners and their mob connections affected a change in the city boundary so that their store would be in Monterey and they would be allowed to sell alcohol. It didn’t seem crazy, but it did seem like a story that would naturally develop over decades in any store that bordered a town that was dry into the second half of the 20th century and that, to this day, did not have a bar. However, when Jaymee and I looked at the map of Pacific Grove, in the years of its construction (1903–1926), the border was indeed Irving, one block further into Monterey; at some point Monterey annexed an entire block of PG; and further, this meant that I lived in what was historically Pacific Grove; the old border puts me squarely in a different town. And this, of course, also included my neighbors. The community that the Feast of Lanterns was for was our community. They didn’t travel so far out of the way with those dogs after all.
There was much to be learned about my new adopted town. In 1903 Theodore Roosevelt visited our humble peninsular lived-in forest. Later that year a 43-room hotel brought a two story building to Lighthouse Avenue. The Winston Building, erected in 1904, included a bakery, an “ice cream room” in the basement, a “women’s exchange,” dining room and kitchen, 16 apartments, a social hall and a third-story sitting room and balcony. More hotels, a bank, a new Holman’s building (though not the one we have now, nor the one skated upon in Steinbeck’s sequel to Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday), a skating rink, a movie theater, and a whole block constructed by Scottish native Thomas A. Work, known as the “Work Block,” featured heavily in the exterior scenes of Turner and Hootch, if anybody cares.
A few blocks toward the bay Lover’s Point was also undergoing great changes, no longer just a Methodist retreat composed of tents. A man known as “Bathhouse Smith” had constructed a new boathouse and a new bathhouse. A Japanese immigrant built a tea house that operated until its razing in 1924. By 1910 the bandstand on the water used in the modern day Feast of Lanterns was constructed. The tourist future of Pacific Grove had its scaffolding.
The language of combustion is often present in discussing the burgeoning of towns, cultures, civilizations; a tourist industry explodes; a boom is celebrated by all; artistic scenes blow up. Such language is tastefully omitted in the Historical Context Statement (HCT), for at the precise moment of these advances the Chinese fishing village at Point Alones did explode, and in a way that was celebrated by the town as progress. The Statement acknowledges “ethnic prejudice” as a reason for “increasing tensions” between the Chinese village and the white townsfolk; however some were “purely economic.” Is that not a strange adverb to choose?
Before things were PC in California there was an “I” inserted and the Pacific Improvement Company (PIC), a vast land-owning euphemism, controlled the fates of the Monterey Peninsula. For some reason the HCT wants to apologize for the PIC:
The PIC was initially reluctant to act. The company had promoted the village as an integral scenic spot along the Seventeen Mile Drive, and its presence was considered a vital part of the tourist economy. Public pressure increased, however, which led the PIC to offer to relocate the village to Pescadero Point on the Seventeen Mile Drive near what is today Pebble Beach. While this appears to indicate that the PIC was not wholly unsympathetic to the plight of its Chinese tenants, there are other indications that they were also intensely interested in the land.
And here enters the myth in question, the great creation story of modern day PG-Chinese relations, 1906-present: the PIC stops renting to the Chinese, “all of the villager’s buildings and fish-drying racks were to be removed no later than February 1906.” The white people celebrated, writing editorials like “Chinatown Will Cease to Exist”:
The announcement that the Pacific Improvement Co. has notified the Chinese to vacate the territory now known as Chinatown is one of the best pieces of news we have heard for a long time. It not only means that an eyesore will be removed from one of the most beautiful and picturesque spots on the bay shore, but that a highly desirable residence tract will be opened up. For it is the intention of the P.I. Col, as quickly as the Chinese can get away, which will be in about two or three months, to place the tract on the market. There are about thirty acres in the piece, extending from Lighthouse Avenue to the water front. The Chinese will move to Pescadero on the 17-Mile Drive. Another excellent thing about this action is the P.I. Co., is that it will clear the way for the extension of the Ocean Boulevard, proposed to be constructed through New Monterey, to connect with Ocean View Avenue in Pacific Grove.
And, the great of irony of the tale:
Ironically, at the same time anti-Chinese sentiment was reaching a crescendo, residents of Pacific Grove held their first Feast of Lanterns celebration in 1905.
July 22, 1905. And then, in the admirable spirit of truth-telling, the HTC tells it straight, sparing the feelings of the deceased founders of the town: the PIC was worried that the village would increase in size because of the recent earthquake and fire that destroyed much of San Francisco, including its Chinatown; in other words that Pacific Grove’s citizens might aid the recently destitute, as taught by their great Chinese prophet Jesus Christ. By May 1906, already after the eviction deadline, the worried PIC General Agent wrote his bosses that “something must be done to show the Chinese we mean business.”
Eight days later, on the evening of May 16, 1906, fire broke out at the west end of the village. Bucket brigades were formed, and fire breaks were created by tearing down buildings in the fire’s path. But strong winds forced the Chinese to give up and the villagers rushed to drag whatever personal belongings they could to safety. By 10:00 p.m., only 16 out of over 100 buildings were left standing. During the fire, hundreds of white spectators had lined the railroad tracks and cheered the flames. Piles of belongings that the desperate Chinese had carried away to try and save were looted, as were the stores and dwellings that were not burned. One observer noted that, “Had it not been for a few of the officers present the Chinese would have lost everything they possessed.” Newspaper editorials lamented the looting behavior and questioned “the morality of such actions in a community dedicated to Christian principles.”
The remaining Christians in the town created a relief fund of 29 dollars. The PIC guards kept the villagers from returning to the land to salvage or rebuild. Some Chinese moved into Monterey’s McAbee beach, right smack in Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” and Point Alones became academic, to this day hosting Hopkins Marine Station, its oldest building dating back to 1917, a patch of scientific inquiry contiguous with the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
IV. BY LIGHT OF LANTERNS
On Saturday, October 22 the Monterey Public Library and Gerry Low-Sabado were hosting a screening of a film made by CSUMB students, By Light of Lanterns. Months before Gerry had mentioned it was fortuitous that I was composing a piece on this subject because she was coordinating these events this weekend. It seemed especially appropriate that the site of much of my research and typing was the very spot of the weekend’s first event. I pitched the story to the Weekly a few weeks before, but received no reply, so I made it downtown anyway, still filling out the story for myself, and walked through the lobby and its computers and the youth reading room past the bathroom into the community room.
Gerry was wearing a bright red ornate cheongsam and smiling and circulating among the dozen people who had already arrived. Two tables were set up at the back, one with Sandy Lymon’s China Gold, which I have gathered is the quintessential scholarly work on the Chinese presence in Monterey County; and the other had a representative from CSUMB selling copies of the DVD of the short student-made documentary.
I had failed to follow up with Gerry after that first phone call two months ago, and Jaymee was forced to watch her speech on TV in the hallway of city council chambers, and I wasn’t ready to interrupt and introduce myself yet. So I sat in one of the cushion-topped grey folding chairs, five rows back, with a feeling of anticipation mixed with the vague dissatisfaction of being inside on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, especially after such a fogged-out, cold summer. I quickly realized that the forty-something librarian in charge of the event was the youngest person here. The women two rows in front of me were talking about the famous Jerry that was in town the weekend before. One had seen Seinfeld’s 100-dollar-a-seat act and was recalling the charm by which he commented on “the simplest little things,” like bathrooms. “Why don’t the doors go all the way to the ground? What’s up with that?” An older Chinese man came in with two girls who must have been his grandchildren. Now I was closest in age with an 11 year old.
The next day’s event was a walking tour of Cannery Row led by Gerry. From what I had heard it was sold out, but I heard the librarian at the front of the room mention that people could just come. I intercepted her as she walked to the back room and asked if there was room on the tour. “You didn’t hear it from me,” she said, but it was a public place and they couldn’t really prevent people from being outside with them. I sat back down happily. The day before I had called the library to reserve a spot, well two, but Jaymee couldn’t make it, for the free film screening, as I was advised by the newspaper. The librarian on the other end had no idea what I was talking about and after a few explanations she reluctantly took down my name. There were no more spots for the more coveted free walking tour that began at the Intercontinental, where a luncheon with author Lisa See and book signing were to precede it. Problem solved.
Gerry and the librarian mingled for a few more minutes before introducing the library — California’s first! — and the event to a warm round of applause. Gerry desired to share a few words and bring some context to the documentary, how she, in her fifties, became interested in and aware of her family’s history with the help of these college students who went searching for what was left of the Chinese’s legacy on the Monterey Peninsula. Then the film was to begin. The librarian struggled to find the full screen option on the laptop as the DVD loaded. The sound was very off and I quickly realized that the set-up was simply to have the sound come from the laptop’s tiny speakers. I was horribly embarrassed as I watched several older volunteers pop up to lend a hand and the librarian ran out of the room to find speakers.
It seems that the cards are always stacked against substance. Jerry Seinfeld gets the stage in the lavish, velvet-curtained, sold-out Golden State Theater with the best sound a show could have, and talks about nothing. Geraldine Low-Sabado gets a glorified box with folding chairs and an old laptop plugged into a projector in the front of the room, and gets to the heart of the way racial hatred can destroy identity, the way entire generations have lost the very story of themselves.
Gerry handled the mini crisis with the sweet charm with which she addresses any situation. She consulted the tableful of items she brought and decided upon a plastic-sleeved typed letter that she revealed to be written by Thomas Steinbeck, the son of a famous local author. He apparently had written a historic novella on the very subject of this piece and the film and the walking tour called In the Shadow of the Cypress. How was it that I was learning this now?
V. LIGHT AND SHADOW
Gerry read the letter, which she keeps in a plastic sleeve and is obviously very fond of. Their acquaintance was apparently made in Steinbeck’s research of a novel about the history of the Chinese on the Monterey Peninsula. It described his youthful friendship with second generation Chinese children, and his father’s admiration for them and his friends’ parents’ admiration for Steinbeck, a white person less uncivilized than the rest.
Since the event was in the library I had the good fortune to be able to go simply to the next room over and pick up In the Shadow of the Cypress. I didn’t even have to go upstairs, the local interest books are primely located right next to the reference desk; I also picked up China Gold, ready for my winter retreat into a more academic study of this confusing story. She had said there was one thing she disagreed with, she didn’t want to say, but I knew I could figure it out. I wanted nothing more to do than to figure it out; and I would; in my mind I inherited the Monterey County literary tradition, for it is not a genetic transferral; it is bigger than that. This story had to be bigger than T. Steinbeck, and already obliquely comprehensible in his father.
Unfortunately in those immediate moments I had to go to work; and the next day I was participating in a yard sale; and then I had the moments to join the second part of the weekend’s events: the memorial walk to McAbee Beach. I picked up Jaymee in Pacific Grove and we rode bikes to downtown New Monterey. I traded in records I didn’t sell at the yard sale, and got enough store credit to buy Lou Reed’s Transformer in fine condition (an unimportant detail, as far as I can tell), while Jaymee talked to her mom on the phone, which she continued to do on the walk to meet the festivities on Cannery Row.
We waited at the open expanse between a hotel and El Torito’s that is McAbee Beach. I chatted with someone overlooking the tea ceremony that was all set and ready to go. “They should be here any moment she said,“ unable to perfectly approximate the initial schedule of the never-before led walking tour. And then Gerry Low and, behold, there they came, rhythm section, costumes and all, and several dozen people in tow. October days don’t get much more beautiful and a sudden performance/celebration/rite in the middle of such meteorological splendor was a special treat. The rhythm section stayed put while the dragon danced his or her way down the steady, zigzag handicap-access ramp to the beach before sprinting to and fro, popping up and down, turning an under-rated beach into an impromptu glorious stage. Gerry recognized me on her way down, and we gave a brief smile/hello, and by the point the tea ceremony finished it was time for me to go back to my house and give a guitar lesson, which, as it turned out, was the last time Mr. Wright came over to learn how to play the guitar.
VI. IN THE SHADOW OF THE CYPRESS
In the next week I devoted all spare moments to this book. First it gives a first-person narrative account (it is his journal) of a marine biologist that befriends a man who sets the Point Alones fire. Then it gives a third-person account of San Francisco affluent Chinese man’s intervention in the events. Then it gives another objective telling of a young man (not unlike me) who lives abouts where I do up David Avenue and likewise becomes obsessed with, devoting all of his free time to, what happened on this cozy peninsula, on the unassuming point next to the Aquarium (he works at Hopkins Marine Station) one hundred years before.
Unfortunately, by the book’s end it owes more to Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code than to any peninsular truth-telling. Instead of the Holy Grail being the host for Jesus’s child, the progressively rewritten history tells of grand spheres planted underneath cypress trees by Chinese sailors a century before the Spanish arrived in California, strategically hailing future generations like flags. I probably wouldn’t have finished it if it did not directly describe, or at least metaphorically refract, everything that was occurring at that moment in my consciousness.
One day in this heady oh-my-cypresses-were-planted-by-a-Chinese-colonial-force-that-pre-dates-the-Spanish excitement I rode my bike to Carmel to visit an old friend recently moved back to the area. I saw Point Joe — either named for a Chinese fisherman who lived there long ago or responsible for his being named “Joe” — I rode past the copyrighted image of the Lone Cypress, and past the preserved grove of the oldest cypresses in the area, past the sight of the Pescadero Chinese fishing village, and into Carmel, where I sat on a bench, waiting for my friend, first taking in the view of the cypress-framed Carmel Bay, and then returning to the story, joining my sleuthing avatar in the tidy pursuit of truth and closure.
It’s now over four years later since I finished that book and ran out of clues. All that manic energy was spent and these words are all that remain. The Feast of Lanterns continues to occur every August, and Pacific Grove remains composed of a shadowy, unconfronted history. I left the Monterey Peninsula in August 2012, with this, among many, projects unfinished. The battle against injustice is no longer lost to racism, hypocrisy, and apathy in the same forms of arson, eviction, and open intolerance. We are worn down by the inability to contradict power, to choose truth over what is easy. This path does not take hold. It does not create and further concentrate capital, and is washed away by another economic cycle, by another coat of whitewash, another Feast Week, as the citizens of Pacific Grove huddle along Lover’s Point and as a community boo the portly white man dressed as the Mandarin.
We celebrate only that which does not contradict our holdings — the more ill-gotten those gains, the louder we cheer, and the more complicated the acquisition, the more baffling the story.