Thursday, July 23, 2009
Chinese Exclusion… Squid finds it kinda cute, the way William Hung was kinda cute, how exhibits about Pacific Grove’s burned-out Chinese village and the Feast of Lanterns are neatly segregated on opposite sides of the P.G. Museum of Natural History’s lobby.
On the right side, visitors find the somber history of a lost ethnic community. They see C.K. Tuttle’s intense portraits of the Chinese-Americans who lived on P.G.’s coast at the turn of the 20th century, probably taken for their certificates of residence under the Chinese Exclusion Act. They see artifacts excavated from the former village on which Hopkins Marine Station now sits: a toothbrush handle, an opium pipe. They read about the lanterns the villagers hung over their sampan boats to attract squid at night, until a May 1906 fire (thought to be arson, though the exhibit skips that detail) finally extinguished the 50-year-old community.
On the left side, a gallery celebrates the Feast of Lanterns, a P.G. tradition since 1905. Though the signs feature an Asian-inspired font and a bamboo trim, they don’t address why white P.G. high school students started enacting “a Chinese operetta” (featuring “Princess Yum Yum”) only a few years after P.G.’s actual Chinese-American residents were forced out of town. It doesn’t address what originally inspired the festival’s trademark Chinese lanterns, dresses and art styles. It doesn’t discuss Stanford Ph.D. student – and excavator of the Chinese village artifacts – Bryn Williams’ theory that the Feast of Lanterns tradition sprang out of a human need to romanticize, and appropriate, pieces of the very cultures we destroy.
The museum’s failure to explicitly connect the two exhibits is a lost opportunity. It’s also right in line with Feast of Lanterns Board Chair Dixie Layne’s continued refusal to talk about whether the festival would benefit from some sensitivity adjustments, perhaps in collaboration with Gerry Low-Sabado, a descendent of the original Chinese village who has been relentless in her efforts to educate the board – which doesn’t include any Asian-Americans. Denial is more than just a river in China.
Smoke Screens… Maybe Squid just rolled out of the wrong side of the ocean floor, but the spectacle of our Terminating Governor locked in a grim embrace with Democratic Speaker Karen Bass announcing the budget “compromise” reminded Squid of former Assemblyman John Burton’s Swiftian proposal: Make poverty a crime. But will Schwarzenegger pass out cigars to celebrate the births of the babies who are not being cared for? Hey, everybody’s in show business.