A Disgrace to Decency Pattern of racist diminishment culminated in a fire that destroyed Pacific Grove's Chinatown in 1906


By Joe Livernois

The first Feast of Lanterns celebration in Pacific Grove was a colorful event held on July 22, 1905. People of all ages and cultures gathered — residents from the bustling Chinatown at Alones Point wore ceremonial gowns and hundreds of lanterns lined the shore from their community to Lovers Point.

The celebration didn’t exactly dispel the overt racism the Chinese suffered. They had been relegated to their segregated corner of the city, living in shanties and shacks, and eking out a living as pioneering squid fishermen.They were the constant targets of significant verbal abuse and disrespect, as evidenced by the toxic language used to describe them in contemporary publications.


Procession from Chinatown, possibly 1905 Feast of Lanterns | Photo courtesy Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

The village in Pacific Grove was already the largest settlement of Chinese immigrants on the West Coast, and some people outside the community were alarmed that the settlement was attracting even more Chinese people displaced by the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

And 10 months after the first Feast of Lanterns, most of Chinatown went up in flames. It was a suspicious fire, to be sure. The Pacific Improvement Company — a real estate and holding company created by railroad tycoons, who were universally despised — had its fingerprints all over the arson. The company had staked a claim on the Point Alones property and the Chinese residents refused to obey eviction orders. So, yeah, the fire was suspicious. But no one ever proved a thing.


Chinatown, before the fire | Photo courtesy Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

But even given the racist sentiments of the era, the fire and the looting that followed was a shock to the sensibilities of good people in Monterey County. A newspaper in Salinas summarized those sentiments with a next-day headline that read “A DISGRACE TO DECENCY.”

In the latest edition of Where the Bodies Are Buried, I do a deep dive into the prevailing attitudes and racial animosities that segregated the Chinese community from others — and about the events of May 16, 1906, when most of Chinatown turned to ashes.


Chinese Fishing Village | Photo courtesy Monterey County Free Libraries

The events of 1906 and the treatment of the Chinese on the Monterey Peninsula has been a hot topic in the present day, as representatives from Asian American and Pacific Islander groups lobbied the modern Feast of Lanterns organization to end the “celebration,” citing the unfortunate events of the past. The Feast of Lanterns board announced last month that it is indeed shutting down the celebration and will consider an event with a different emphasis.

Bodies Are Buried is a publication in support of Voices of Monterey Bay, and is dedicated to preserving the forgotten history of the Central Coast. Bodies Are Buried is a paid subscription service, with proceeds benefiting VOMB.

Featured image: Aftermath of Fire, May 17, 1906, | Photo by J.K. Oliver, Courtesy of Monterey City Library’s California History Room

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About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.