Thursday, April 26, 2012
Salinas’ Chinatown neighborhood is cordoned off by cyclone and iron fences, and train tracks. It can be tricky to get there, purposefully or by accident. Social service nonprofits like Dorothy’s Place, which feeds homeless and addicted people, anchor parts of it. So it’s a blighted mecca for the downtrodden and desperate.
Wellington Lee, chair of the Asian Cultural Experience and member of the Salinas Downtown Community Board, knows its past in a different incarnation, sees its future in another one, and will share both at this Saturday’s Salinas Asian Festival. It’s a celebration of the area’s former Chinese, Japanese and Filipino residents and cultures through an entire day of food (like sushi and pancet), art, historical photos, demonstrations (of ping-pong, ikebana flower arrangements and martial arts), walking tours, a piano and violin recital, and dances.
“I was born in Soledad in 1944,” Lee says. “My grandfather came in 1908. He ran the merchandise store, had a cocktail lounge, hotel and gambling lounge. He was known as the mayor of Chinatown, Shorty Lee, because he was 4-foot-8.”
Chinese immigrants arrived in Salinas in the 1880s as cheap, reliable ag labor. But because of racial discrimination and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, they were segregated into what is today still known as Chinatown. Japanese immigrants came shortly after, with Filipino immigrants following in the 1920s. They shared the dozen blocks of land, building homes, barber shops, restaurants, hotels and gambling houses.
“On weekends it was hopping,” Lee says. “Soldiers in uniforms, playing cards, picking up ladies of the night. Street preachers preaching the gospel to all the sinners. Three generations of my family lived in back of my grandfather’s store. I would wake up Saturday and Sunday to Mexican love songs blaring from loudspeakers and jukeboxes. Even blacks came to the pool halls. That was a scene.”
The three main venues that will keep the pan-Asian culture circulating at Saturday’s festival testify to the firm foundation of life back then: The Japanese Buddhist Temple, the Confucius Church and the Filipino Cultural Center were all built in that heyday. But since the 1970s, Chinatown has become, according to a historical summary of the Salinas Downtown Community Board website, a place of “drug trafficking, illegal dumping and the homeless.”
Jill Allen, development director for the Franciscan Workers of Junipero Serra, which runs the colorfully painted Dorothy’s Place, agrees. The neighborhood was cordoned off to contain that element, she says, and so the nonprofit soup kitchen and social service building set up shop there more than 20 years ago to serve them. Now, ironically, that brings more homeless people and addicts to Chinatown.
“I want people to know there is a need for services for the poor and homeless,” she says. “Around lunchtime [during the festival] people can get in line for lunch with everybody else, rub shoulders with people they’ve never rubbed shoulders with and find out they’re human beings.”
There are eight sites involved in the festival, all within walking distance. The Steinbeck Center will show the exhibit Filipino Voices: Past and Present; Ted Ponton’s Glass Shop will host classic cars and photos; and the Chinatown Community Garden, hosted by CSUMB, will be open. Dorothy’s Place is also one of the sites of the festival, including their once-defunct but rechristened @risK Artisan Gallery, which Allen says will serve as a creative outlet and business enterprise for homeless people: “God willing, we will be open [Saturday] in some form or another.”
The 2010 iteration of the festival focused on Chinatown’s former Chinese community, last year’s on the former Japanese community. This year the Filipino community takes center stage with the opening ceremony – attended by mayor Dennis Donohue, Deputy Consul General of the Philippines Doy Ver and others – and a dance that serves to drive out bad spirits and ensure good tidings.
There is common ground between the business vision of the Chinatown Revitalization Project and the social net of Dorothy’s Place. Allen says there is talk of consolidating the social services work further down the street and turning their soup kitchen into a viable commercial restaurant in the model of L.A.’s Homeboy Industries.
“This used to be a restaurant and a bar, and we could capture some of that Chinatown ambiance,” Allen says.
“We’re trying to do our best to work side by side,” Lee says of the dual efforts.
The Salinas Asian Festival has been – and promises to be again – a bustling event that suggests what Chinatown might look like in the future.
THE SALINAS ASIAN FESTIVAL runs 11am-4pm Saturday, April 28, in Chinatown (Soledad, Lake, California and Calle Cebu streets), Salinas; parking at Expo Park, end of Calle Cebu. Free. 757-3592, www.salinasasianfestival.com