Honestly, I almost didn’t do this.
Living in Monterey County most of my life, Feast of Lanterns has always been a sore spot. I didn’t understand why there was an annual festival dedicated to giving local white high school girls a culturally appropriative version of Prom Queen’s court. I didn’t understand why the mostly white town, Pacific Grove, a city which once had an active KKK chapter, gathered together to hang Chinese style paper lanterns in the windows of businesses and from the porches of homes. Pacific Grove, the city best known for its ocean views, butterflies, and bedtime of 7pm.
I’ll be honest. I’m a Marina girl. I work part time in Monterey, Salinas, Seaside, and Carmel. I think every city in Monterey County has its perks. I have a lot of positive feelings for PG; my favorite store in the entire county, Imagine Art Supplies, is there. I’ve watched movies at the Lighthouse cinema since I was a small child. I’m still nostalgic for Scotch bakery’s whale cookies. Some of my best friends live there.
But I do have a big issue with Feast of Lanterns, and PG is not getting off easy for it.
In the past, I have simply boycotted the event. Beyond not attending, I would not spend any money within PG city limits during the festival. However, this year, my attendance was mandatory. I began leasing space & participating in the community of PG ArtWorks, a project from the Arts Council of Monterey County in June of this year. I learned that ArtWorks would be hosting the Feast of Lanterns court along with the July Third Friday ArtWalk - a monthly event to showcase our gallery space to the community. I knew I had to do something.
For 3 weeks I kept up my piece. From 1587 to the present day, I outlined a brief history of Asian-American presence and oppression, focusing on California.
In my timeline I talked about lynchings, displacement, unfair taxes, riots, hate crimes, internment, human zoos, labor rights violations, and many other examples of repressed history of oppression.
I also made sure to include an example of how Asian Americans attempted to use white proximity to gain privilege; in the struggle for voting rights two separate Asian activists sued to be considered Caucasian for full citizenship. Anti-Black racism in the Asian American community is important to acknowledge even when discussing oppression faced by Asian Americans!
However, I also included examples of Asian Americans and African Americans working together during the Civil Rights Movement.
Also included in my exhibition was a definition with examples of Yellowface.
In my research I discovered that the very same year the first Feast of Lanterns was held, the Asiatic Exclusion League was causing riots, assaulting Asian people, and destroying their businesses with their headquarters in San Francisco. The proximity of that violence to the community that proudly donned Yellow Face costumes is very telling to me.
The majority of the Royal Court actually did come and see my exhibition. Princess Ruby even signed my guest book and left positive words!
It is important to not give too many concessions based on ignorance, but I recognize that in PG this is an important local festival and activity. People LOVE Feast of Lanterns, which is part of why I was nervous to critique it in a public way.
However, it is very important to note that the adults and educators should really know better. Yellow Face is obviously wrong. History needs to be respected, and local schools could do a much better job at including Asian American history (on top of Black history in months other than February, Native American history, how California was Mexico until recently, etc.) into curriculum. It can be difficult to talk about violence, and there is an impulse to protect younger kids from learning about violence and oppression in an attempt to preserve innocence, but if we want to progress as a culture we need to face ugly facts.
For now I have decided to preserve but archive my exhibition. If I ever re-show it, I will amend a few things and add a full bibliography for any skeptics to peruse. I will happily show it again by appointment at my studio for anyone interested who missed the original installation, so do not be afraid to reach out!
I ended the display with a call to action, that I will share.