My family moved to the Monterey Bay region 45 years ago. We were drawn to the mist-swaddled crags at Point Lobos, which whispered of our ancestral homeland. Yet we felt ourselves alien people, among the first Chinese to have found a permanent nesting place in the celebrated Steinbeck landscape comprised of the Salinas Valley, Monterey Bay, Pacific Grove, and coastal spots—like Point Lobos—familiar to Steinbeck’s readers.
Arriving in Pacific Grove, Returning to China
When we attended the annual Feast of Lanterns Festival in Steinbeck’s Pacific Grove for the first time, I did not imagine that 65 years earlier squid boats lit at night were used to attract mollusks, a harvest from the sea no one wanted until the Chinese created a commercial market for the food, once plentiful in the Monterey Bay. After 1906, the year someone set fire to the Point Alones Chinatown—the location where the Monterey Bay Aquarium now stands—residents of Pacific Grove grew nostalgic for the lights, like fairy lanterns on the water, and so a magic tale was born to glimmer.
Residents of Pacific Grove grew nostalgic for the lights, like fairy lanterns on the water, and so a magic tale was born to glimmer.
I moved away from Chinese culture and history while growing up in the Monterey Bay area: being Chinese in no way helped me fit into the immediate world outside my new home. When I returned to California after witnessing the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, however, I began to understand the importance of stories—which, when burned, glow more brightly. It was 1989, I was 29, and 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 this book I learned about the early Chinese of the Salinas Valley.
Remembering the Earliest Chinese in the Salinas Valley
When they arrived in the 19th century, Chinese immigrants to the Salinas Valley signed five-year leases to work the land. In the first two years they cut trees, yanked out roots with knife-like spades, and wrestled out peat soil. They exterminated gophers and ground squirrels; they drained and dried the swampland. In the third year they planted the vegetable crops dictated by the landowner: large-root crops like potatoes to further break up the soil. Only in the fourth year of their lease were they allowed to recover their three-year investment before returning the land to the owner. The Chinese risked everything. The landowner was ahead of the game the minute the lopsided lease was signed. Salinas Valley land, worth $28 per acre in 1875, came to be valued at $100 an acre within two years. When C.D. Abbott and other big landowners were accused by anti-immigration agitators of being Chinaman-lovers, Abbott replied, “White men refused to work up to their knees in the water, slime and filth of the sloughs.”
When C.D. Abbott and other big landowners were accused by anti-immigration agitators of being Chinaman-lovers, Abbott replied, ‘White men refused to work up to their knees in the water, slime and filth of the sloughs.’
In a recent hike through the high Santa Lucia mountains above the Salinas Valley—an area where wheat was once dominant, followed by hops and then tobacco, before sugar beets succeeded the earlier crops as emperor–I could see the vast valley as it looks today, with its viridian and chartreuse patchworks of lettuce. It was easy to imagine what the Chinese saw when they un-kinked their aching backs and scanned the land as it appeared more than a century ago, flowing like a river of grass from the gentle Gabilan hills that Steinbeck loved much more than the ominous mountains to the west.
Imagine what the Chinese saw when they un-kinked their aching backs and scanned the land as it appeared more than a century ago.
The Chinese who farmed the valley knew that where willow grew, there would be fresh water, not salinas, the Spanish word for salt water that gave the Salinas Valley, river, and town their distinctive names. I could smell the immigrants’ desire for land and all the rights that landownership meant. They knew about the poverty of less promising terrain from the populous provinces of Guangdong, the part of China from which they came. This Salinas Valley and Monterey Bay peninsula—all this rich land celebrated by Steinbeck in his autobiographical novel East of Eden—could feed so many mouths! Most of the arable land at the time was concentrated in the hands of a few rancheros. In the eyes of the Chinese, more—much more—could be done to make the Salinas Valley what it eventually became, a source of vegetable and fruit crops for export on a huge scale. They saw this before anyone else.
In the eyes of the Chinese, more—much more—could be done to make the Salinas Valley what it eventually became, a source of vegetable and fruit crops for export on a huge scale.
Each time I drive to the valley from the coast today, crossing the highway bridge over the shallow Salinas River, the sky yawns amply and I recall the dramatic topography described by Steinbeck in East of Eden. It was rich land for which men hungered—land that they fought pitched battles to seize, settle, and hold. 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 always fairly, to the have-nots. I inhale the love of land like this from the stories passed down to me by my father about the House of Yang, eight generations in the telling, in the China of his youth, and his father’s, and his father’s father.
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 always fairly, to the have-nots.
California’s 1913 Alien Land Law targeted the Japanese but snared all Asian immigrants, barring them from becoming naturalized citizens who could own property. As a result, the Chinese who saw value where others saw trash and weed never gained control of the land they farmed in the Salinas Valley. According to legend, the Franciscan friars who first colonized the Monterey Bay had scattered mustard seeds to create a trail of gold connecting each mission they founded to the next in the chain that extended south from Monterey to San Diego and north to Sonoma. After the Spanish left, Chinese settlers cut the mustard weed for landowners in exchange for the seeds. One year the mustard crop failed in Europe, and the Chinese profited from their foresight.
Appreciating the Chinese Experience in Steinbeck’s Books
California’s Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—which forms part of Steinbeck’s character Lee’s story in East of Eden— specifically singled out the Chinese because, it was claimed, they disrupted the social order. The onerous law barred Chinese women from entering the United States, which meant Chinese men were unable to marry. Imagine the strain of two opposing forces: between the desire to go back to China to marry and return to raise a family, and the fact that the certificate required for re-entry excluded wives. As the tragic experience of Lee’s parents shows, the early Chinese in California would remain outsiders, looking in hungrily, often dying alone and forgotten on alien soil that they helped reclaim, cultivate, and make profitable by building railroads at slave wages.
As the tragic experience of Lee’s parents shows, the early Chinese in California would remain outsiders, often dying alone and forgotten on alien soil.
I first read Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row when I was 11, and reread it often as an adult. Steinbeck’s depiction of the mysterious, eternal outsider moves my heart each time I meet him in the pages of the book: the old Chinaman in Pacific Grove who with one flapping shoe walks down to Monterey Bay at dusk and fishes, always alone, in the night. Andy, a boy visiting from Salinas who is itching to be contrary, encounters the old man and mocks him in sing-song doggerel: “Ching-Chong-Chinaman sitting on a rail—’Long came a white man an’ chopped off his tail.” As the old man turns, the boy sees in those brown, alien eyes a landscape of spiritual desolation. It is the dying landscape from which the Chinese fled to California in the 19th and 20th centuries. In those two brown pools Andy encounters the ultimate despair of the excluded. My black and white gouache painting Ching-Chong Chinaman records this epiphany, captured by Steinbeck in the sparest of terms.
Plotting the Path of the Hakka Boat People to Point Lobos
Currently I am at work on In the Guava Garden, a graphic memoir about my Hakka mother, who lived under the Japanese colonial system in China from 1895 to 1945. What does the Hakka story have to do with Monterey Bay? In Chinese Gold I learned that a group of Tanka Chinese—part of the clannish Hakka people, who lived and died on boats— came to California, not through San Francisco or the mining camps of the Sierra Nevada, but as refugees directly to the Monterey Bay region, riding the black tide the Japanese knew as the kuroshio. After being shipwrecked at the mouth of the Carmel River, they settled 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 descendants, and the cottage still stands.
After being shipwrecked at the mouth of the Carmel River, they settled at Point Lobos, where they constructed a simple home known today as the Whaler’s Cottage.
The Chinese-language characters for Hakka mean “guest people.” In the third century, the Hakka lost their original homeland north of the Yellow River to invading nomads. Some managed to eke out a living anyway, farming the poorest of soil. Others were driven in desperation out to sea to found colonies in other lands. So the saga of one branch of landless Hakka people—to whom my mother belongs by an extenuated history of 1,400 years—came to California in 1851. It’s possible that Chinese refugees before the Hakka, before the Gold Rush, arrived by this same direct route.
Learning the Legacy of Monterey Bay’s Forgotten Ghosts
Monterey Bay’s written history includes little about these Chinese settlers, apart from vague names in the mountains or along the seashore, such as China Camp, Chinese Dam, Chinese Camp, and China Cove. They have become faceless ghosts through a complicity of mutual convenience: between newer Chinese residents anxious to avoid persecution and white settlers determined to cover up the murder, arson, and land theft that drove the Chinese from their settlements. So-called Chinatowns on beaches and in towns have been burned down, torn down, or simply forgotten. Steinbeck alludes to this tragedy in East of Eden, but much remains, repressed and half-hidden, for future historians who are interested in painting the whole picture.
So-called Chinatowns on beaches and in towns have been burned down, torn down, or simply forgotten. Steinbeck alludes to this tragedy in East of Eden.
Forty-five years ago my parents drove a rusted, borrowed Ford station wagon, loaded with clanging pots and pans and one canary in a cage, south from the city of San Francisco to the Monterey Bay region. We felt like raw strangers when we arrived because we were. Only when I returned to live in China for a period as an adult did I to consider that other Chinese preceded us because of their need to extend their muscle and exercise their talents. They couldn’t own land, but their labor and vision helped make the Salinas Valley and the coast of Monterey Bay prosper and grow. Their toil and tribulation also gave my family a sense of permanence, belonging, and inclusion that those who came before us never had. This is our home, our chosen homeland. It was theirs as well.
Adapted by the author from her recent “California Author Series” feature, commissioned by the Sacramento Bee. View her images of Monterey Bay, Point Lobos, and the Salinas Valley.