In 1971 my family moved to the Monterey Bay region. We were drawn to the mist-swaddled crags at Point Lobos, which whispered of our ancestral homeland. Yet we felt ourselves alien people, one of the first Chinese to have found a nesting place.
When we attended the annual Feast of Lanterns Festival in Pacific Grove, I did not imagine that 65 years ago squid boats lit at night were used to attract the mollusks, a harvest no one desired until the Chinese created a market for them. After 1906, the year someone set fire to the Point Alones Chinatown, where the Monterey Bay Aquarium now stands, Pacific Grove residents grew nostalgic for the lights, like fairy lanterns on the water, and so a magic tale was born to glimmer.
In my teens, I moved away from Chinese culture and history being Chinese in no way helped me fit in outside the home. It was on my return from the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 that I began to understand the importance of stories. I was 29. Stories, when burned, glow more brightly. On my homecoming, I was given a copy of "Chinese Gold," written by a man of passion, professor Sandy Lydon, and published by a man of philanthropy, George Ow Jr., from which I learned about the Chinese of Salinas.
The 19th century Chinese in Salinas signed five-year leases to work the land. In the first two, they cut trees, wrestled out peat soil, yanked out the roots with knife-like spades; they exterminated the gophers and ground squirrels; they drained and dried out the swampland. In the third year, they planted vegetables dictated by the landowner large-root crops like potatoes to further break up the soil. Only in the fourth year were they allowed to recover their three-year investment before returning the land to the owner. The Chinese risked all, whereas the landowners were ahead of the game the moment they signed the contract.
Salinas Valley land, worth $28 per acre in 1875, came to be valued at $100 an acre in two years. When big landowners like C.D. Abbott were accused by anti-immigration agitators of being a Chinaman lover, he told them, "White men refused to work up to their knees in the water, slime and filth of the sloughs."
In a recent hike in the Santa Lucia Range above Spreckels in the Salinas Valley where wheat was once dominant, followed by hops, tobacco and where sugar beets succeeded as emperor I could see Salinas Valley as it is today with its viridian and chartreuse patchworks of lettuce. It was easy to picture what the Chinese saw when they unkinked their aching backs and scanned the land.
The Chinese knew that where willow grew, there would be fresh water, not salinas, which in Spanish means salt water. I could smell their desire for land and all the rights that landownership meant. They had known about the poverty of terrain from the populous provinces of Guangdong whence they came. This land all this land it could feed so many mouths! Most of the arable land was in the hands of a few rancheros. In the eyes of the Chinese, these acreages were not used at all.
Every time I drive to the valley, crossing the highway bridge over the shallow Salinas River, the sky yawns amply and I recall the topography, which John Steinbeck described in "East of Eden." It was rich land for which men hungered land that men fought pitched battles to take or retain. It was the same kind of land that the Communists in my great-grandfather's Manchuria wrested away from the haves to be redistributed not necessarily fairly. From the stories passed down to me by my father about the House of Yang, eight generations in the telling, I inhale the love of land.
In 1913, the California Alien Land Law targeted the Japanese, but snared all Asian immigrants and barred them from becoming naturalized citizens who could own land and property. The Chinese never gained control of the land in the Salinas Valley, but they always had a keen sense of what was valuable where other ethnic communities considered trash or weed. According to legend, the Franciscan friars had scattered mustard seeds to create a trail of gold hitching one mission to another. Chinese saw the value of the oil and cut the weed for landowners in exchange for the seeds. When the mustard crop in Europe was wiped out one year, buyers came to the Chinese and paid well for their stash.
Three decades earlier, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act singled out and rejected the entry of Chinese on the basis that they disrupted the social order. The law barred large numbers of Chinese women from entry into the country, which meant Chinese men were unable to marry. I can visualize the strain, which suspended their lives between their desires to return to China they needed to obtain certificate of re-entry if they wished to come back to America and their aspiration to stay, living lives of normalcy, jiggling children and grandchildren on their laps. But they would always remain the outsider, looking in hungrily, then dying alone and forgotten in county hospitals.
In my adult years, I have read "Cannery Row" multiple times, which was first given me at age 11. Steinbeck's penetration of the outsider knocks me off balance each time I meet him in the pages: the old Chinaman with one flapping shoe, who walks down to the water at dusk and fishes in the night. A boy from Salinas saw the Chinaman and itched to be contrary. He cried out, "Ching-Chong-Chinaman sitting on a rail 'Long came a white man an' chopped off his tail." When the old man turned, the boy saw into brown eyes a landscape of utter desolation. The landscape of China, from which the Chinese fled in the mid-19th and 20th centuries, was indeed one of spiritual waste. In those brown pools, the boy encountered utter despair of the excluded.
I am currently at work on "Umbilical Cords," a graphic memoir about my Hakka mother, who lived under the Japanese colonial system from 1895 to 1945. What does this story have to do with the Monterey Bay region? As it turns out, from "Chinese Gold," I read that Tanka Chinese a subgroup of men and women from the minority Hakka people living in Canton, who lived and died on boats did not come from San Francisco or the mining camps of the Sierra. They came directly to the Monterey Bay region, riding the kuroshio black tide shipwrecked at the mouth of the Carmel River and settled for a time at Point Lobos, where they constructed a simple home known today as the Whaler's Cottage. The story of their landing has been passed down to their descendents.
The characters in Chinese for Hakka mean guest people. The Hakka had lost their homeland north of the Yellow River in the third century A.D. to invading nomads. They eked out a living, farming the poorest soil, or were ultimately driven in desperation to the sea to found colonies in Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Borneo and Southeast Asia. So the story about a branch of landless Hakka people to which my mother belongs by an extenuated 1,400 years of history came to the United States in 1851. Could other Chinese have come before the California Gold Rush by this direct route?
Apart from vague names, in the mountains or along the seashore, such as China Camp, Chinese Camp or China Cove, the Chinese garnered few acknowledgments in local histories. Both the Chinese and white participants wished to obscure the fight: the Chinese to avoid further persecution by immigration officials, and the whites to cover up murder, lynching and arson. Chinatowns in the Monterey Bay region have been burned down, but their stories await favorable moments for the seeds of history to erupt from incinerated cones.
Since the 1960s, the largest existing Chinatown between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the Salinas enclave, has been boarded up and has become the orbit of prostitution, gambling, drug dealers and illegal dumping. In the mix are a Confucian temple and a Japanese Buddhist temple. With the determination to redevelop Chinatown, Salinas organizations and students from California State University, Monterey Bay, who teach the homeless how to grow sustainable gardens, are slowly seeing a revival. The community, comprising people of all ethnic backgrounds Latino, Filipino, Japanese among others has taken up the cause. Their intention is to make this area a safe, livable, pedestrian-friendly mixed-use development with the old Republic Café at its heart, to become a museum where stories can be passed down in a continuum from old-timers to another generation.
Forty years ago, my parents drove a rusted Ford station wagon, which bore clanging pots, pans and one canary in a cage, south to the Monterey Bay region. We felt ourselves raw strangers. It took a sojourn to China in adulthood for me to care that other Chinese preceded us because of their hunger to extend their muscle and talents. They may not have come to own the acres, but the sweat that was stirred into the soil profited the expansion of this agricultural land. By the toil of early-arriving Chinese, my family is gifted with a sense of inclusion. This is home. This is our chosen homeland.