Editor’s note: Voices of Monterey Bay presents the winner of Voices’s History Slam Voices Award, which this year is a dramatic reading by Nancy Wang of a chapter from her historic novel called “Red Altar: The Story of Six Chinese Teens Who Started the Fishing Industry in the Monterey Bay Area.”
While a work of fiction, “Red Altar” is steeped in local culture and real characters. Wang’s work is especially relevant this month, as the city of Pacific Grove formally apologized for the treatment of Chinese immigrants in the region, and especially for a suspected arson fire that destroyed the entire community along Alones Point in 1906.
The History Slam is an annual competition sponsored by Monterey Public Library, in partnership with Western Flyer Foundation, Cannery Row Company and Voices of Monterey Bay. This year’s slam, held on May 7, featured presentations by 17 historians and history buffs from throughout Northern California. See all the presentations here.
By Nancy Wang
‘Red Altar” is my book, yet to be published, that follows three generations of the family that started the fishing industry in the Monterey Bay area in 1850.
For the Monterey History Slam, I read Chapter 15 of the 29 chapters which I hope captures the cultural and social milieu of the latter half of the 19th century. The events of this historical novel are seen through the eyes of young Quock Mui, also known as Spanish Mary, at the age of 9 during Monterey’s Lunar New Year celebration at the Chinese fishing villages.
As a direct descendent of the first generation who crashed into Carmel Bay in 1850, Quock Mui is the second generation — and she is my great aunt. I am the fifth generation and I grew up away from Monterey due to the match marriages of both my great-grandmother and grandmother. However, my Aunt Mary Lee, who is fourth generation, told me all the stories she learned from the elders who spent summers in Monterey as children.
“Red Altar” started as a 75-minute multimedia performance and has toured across the country to audiences that express “this is history America needs to know.” It is now a DVD with a teacher’s guide for grades 4 and up. Hopefully, it will also be published in book form and will be required reading in high schools and colleges. The intent of my book is to give a sense of the lives of my ancestors and their relationships as typical, real people who lived and worked and contributed to the economy, development and history of Monterey despite discrimination.
- Watch the entire History Slam here.
- Watch Gambatte Kimashita by Eric Palmer: Last year’s Voices’ History Slam winner.
Meanwhile, I was fortunate to have two passions and was able to fulfill both in San Francisco. I am a social worker and had a private practice in psychotherapy. I also became a professional modern dancer, teacher and choreographer.
In 1981 I co-founded Eth-Noh-Tec, a kinetic storytelling theater nonprofit with a mission to build cultural bridges that celebrate diversity and create compassionate communities through the art of storytelling. With my co-director and husband, Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo, we have performed our unique and award-winning style of telling of Asian folktales and myths, and inspiring contemporary Asian American stories around the world.
We continue to write and perform while enjoying the communities of both Asian American artists, the storytelling community worldwide, and lovers of history.
Chapter Fifteen: More Villages, More Men, More to Fear
Monterey Bay, 1868
Each year, the Chinese community grew larger and larger, and there were more and more men, and more and more boats that dotted the Carmel and Monterey Bays. Two more fishing villages would sprout up: by 1868, besides Point Lobos (the original fishing village) there was the Pescadero fishing village west of where the famous Pebble Beach golf course is now located. In addition, there was the Point Alones fishing village where Cannery Row’s Monterey Aquarium is now situated on the north end, reaching all the way to the south end where Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station is now located.
For Mui Mui, the more men there were, the more to make the dancing dragons longer and longer for the Chinese New Year parade. And it also meant more little red envelopes — lysee – filled with shiny coins or crisp new paper money for good luck. Each year at New Year time, children and single adults were given lysee by married adults. Most of the children smiled with a glint in their eyes thinking about the candy they would buy with their good luck money!
Since the Chinese New Lunar Year holiday is the most celebrated holiday for the Chinese, all the villagers were preparing for the two-week celebration. Red lanterns and red good luck signs hung on doors, and the loud popping of the firecrackers would begin days before the New Year. Sure, the villagers wanted to scare away any evil spirits, but it was obvious that the men mostly just enjoyed setting off the firecrackers, mesmerized by the red paper exploding off the firecrackers as they popped and scattered in all directions. Mui Mui didn’t mind because she loved seeing the streets turn red, covered with the red pieces of paper from the firecrackers that had been set afire and exploded. And, wading through the piles of red paper had to be good luck and extra power against the evil spirits.
Mui Mui knew the evil spirits didn’t like the color red, and that was why the firecrackers were always red. But what about humans? What about evil humans? She needed to make sure that everyone in her family would wear something red to be safe. Soon they would be going to the celebration and she wanted as much good luck as possible, because the lo fon men, the Europeans from the big city of Monterey, would also be attending. She had heard that sometimes trouble was started by the young city boys. Although she was curious, she didn’t want to be in any danger.
Finally, with all their New Year preparations completed, Mui Mui and family walked together to the parade, each of them donning a long piece of red cloth: one tied around big brother Tuck Lee’s waist, little sister Sai Mui around her little pigtails, MaMa with one around her wrist same as BaBa. As for Mui Mui, she had tied one around her neck like a scarf. And it was the auspicious Year of the Dragon! “Luck, luck, luck,” Mui Mui chanted beneath her breath.
“Kan kan! Look! Look!” shouted little Sing Hing! And, she covered her ears to ward off the loud pops, all the while giggling with excitement. Long strings of firecrackers hung from long poles propped in the air with unceasing crackling in staccato bursts. The family had arrived at the main center of activity in town for the New Year parade, a dirt packed street framed by four corners. Already throngs of Chinese fishermen and their families, decorated with something red for good luck, cheered on the brightly decorated dragon’s long yellow and red cloth body as it snaked around and around. Bronze gongs and round red drums kept a steady rhythm, much like the hearts of the crowd beating with excitement. This celebration was anticipated all year long, and now it was here! Quock Bo and So May’s children could not stop jumping up and down!
Soon they blended in with the crowds, excitedly chattering and laughing in good will, as they surrounded the parade and the dragon on all sides. It was the Year of the Dragon — a symbol of wealth and wisdom, strength and power, and everyone was hoping that the Dragon would grant them those qualities for this entire lunar year! Everyone knew they and their neighbors needed those qualities to survive in life no matter where they lived.
In a different area, the lo fon, European peoples of Monterey and Pacific Grove were bunched together watching the various activities from afar. Quock Mui wondered if they too wanted the power of the dragon for themselves. Seemed to her they already had power, wealth — at least compared to the Chinese.
Now, big brother Tuck Lee, tall for his thirteen years, took the small hand of Sai Mui, youngest sister Sing Hing, swooped her onto his back and promised to be safe as he wandered through the crowd looking for friends.
Mui Mui watched her brother get swallowed up into the crowd, her little sister’s head bouncing up and down with each step her brother took, both of them getting smaller and smaller. Once out of sight, she turned her attention back to the dancing dragon. Pulling on her father’s shirt, she asked, “BaBa, in China, do women and girls get to be in the dragon dance?”
“Huh?! You think women want do such a thing?” Quock Bo looked at his daughter and laughed.
“Mui Mui, it would be too embarrassing for women – jumping around like that!” added MaMa.
“Not for me!” exclaimed Mui Mui. She looked around the crowd and added, “Maybe, the lo fon, the Europeans, would want to see women doing such a thing?”
“Noooo…See women do this? Mui Mui, you are crazy!” Quock Bo and So May laughed at the words spilling out of their eldest daughter. They both shook their heads as they glanced at each other, smiled and thought: Who splashed invisible ink on their American children? They looked Chinese, but they didn’t act Chinese — at least they didn’t act Chinese enough! How did they come to think like this?
“But, BaBa, MaMa,” Mui Mui continued, “look how all the lo fon come to see the parade. They laugh! They stop being mean to us.”
Mui Mui looked up at her father whose eyebrows now bundled together, then glanced at her mother who remained silent. With a confused sigh, she continued, “And, BaBa, on Saturday nights, is it true sometimes cowboys ride to our village, lasso our men, and cut off their queues?”
Quock Bo startled. So May turned her gaze to him hoping his response would satisfy their inquisitive daughter, and at the same time end this persistent inquiry.
With elbows akimbo, fists on his hips, instead Quock Bo shouted, “When did you hear this? Who told you?!”
Mui Mui quickly lowered her head. Had she heard something she was not supposed to repeat?
So May glared at her husband, then glanced down at her daughter and wrapped her arm around her shoulder as if to ward off the cowboys themselves, and BaBa’s anger.
By the late 1860s, European immigrants began to move into and dominate the politics and culture of Monterey. Soon, they began to set new rules and conditions for living in the area. Even Mui Mui had begun hearing strange words being tossed at the Chinese:
“The dregs of society!”
Mui Mui didn’t even know what those words meant. But when she saw their faces contort in hate, and when they’d spit on the Chinese, there was no question as to what they felt.
Quock Bo pulled his daughter close and warned, “Always be careful. Stay alert, Mui Mui. That’s why we burn incense to T’u Ti, the god who protects us from ghosts, beggars, bandits … and from dangerous strangers,” and Quock Bo took a long look at the crowd of lo fon across the road.
Mui Mui shivered. “But why BaBa, do the strangers come to our Chinese New Year celebration if they don’t like us?”
“Ay ya! It’s free! And they like to gamble what little money they have!” And Quock Bo waved his arm, leveled his open hand surveying back and forth all the many activities. “Look! Look how they love to watch the Chinese in the Ring Toss game. They make bets on who is going to win!”
As a mother, So May did not like the way their conversation was going. Enough, she thought. This is New Year’s, a time to celebrate, not worry with fear. Now that the parade was over, she quickly grabbed her daughter’s hand hoping to change the subject, pulling her and Quock Bo closer into the large crowd now eager for the Ring Toss game to begin.
The Ring Toss game indeed was quite a spectacle. Every year Chinese men prepared themselves to win the honored title of ‘champion’.
So May and family now peered through the crowd to find Tuck Lee. They needed to relieve him of Sing Hing so he could join in the game.
“There! Tuck Lee!!” cried out So May, worried for her youngest daughter riding on his back in this surging crowd that was getting more and more excited by the minute.
Suddenly, the crowd roared with approval as two elders armed with matches emerged from the crowd. It was time for the game to begin. The Ring Toss game involved a ring of thick braided rope set on top of a three-foot firecracker. The firecracker would be lit, and when the firecracker exploded, the ring would fly up into the air.
Young men chosen from each village stood nearby, these eager men whose task it was to grab the flying ring to win each round.
BOOM! The firecracker was lit — the ring flew towards the sky, and the men ran toward where they hoped the ring would land while a melee of multiple bodies did the same. Now the ring began its rapid fall back to earth landing somewhere on the road. The competition exploded as men dove onto the road, into the throbbing circle of flailing arms and legs of their competitors. Dust sprayed into the air as the men scrambled for the ring.
Little Sing Hing now on MaMa’s back, and Quock Mui now on BaBa’s shoulders bounced up and down shouting and shouting for Tuck Lee, their big brother to win: “Tuck Lee! Tuck Lee! Go Go Go!”
They watched the only objects decipherable on the dirt packed street — dozens of flying feet in the smoke and dust. Whoever grabbed the ring first and emerged from the chaos would earn one point as the crowd cheered. Then the judge would light another three-foot firecracker with a rope ring, and once again the men would dive after the ring. This would continue again and again several times until a winner with the most points would not only earn some money and good luck, but, most importantly, get to name the next Chief of his village.
Quock Bo, however, for the first time was not cheering his son on nor the other young men from their village. He was lost in his swirling thoughts and his conversation with his eldest daughter. He would have to warn Mui Mui about the strangers amidst them.
Quock Bo set his daughter Quock Mui down from his shoulders and immediately pulled her away from the crowd.
“You’ve seen how the lo fon grab our candy by the fist-full, and stuff them into their mouths. You no hear any thank you. No asking, just grab and stuff! Those lo fon are not the same as our lo fon friends. Do not get confused. What looks the same is not always the same.” And Quock Bo thought about his three children and what was to become of them in this rude country.
Now, as Mui Mui looked around, she wondered which lo fons were the good ones and which were the bad ones. This dilemma would still linger in her mind when, in the next few years, she was finally allowed to enter the city of Monterey without her parents. She would be older and strong enough. She would be the designated one from her family to sell fish in the city far from her village, her younger sister Sing Hing tagging along.
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