Home Art In America’s “First Suburban Chinatown,” Asian Americans Have Negotiated Cultural Representation

In America’s “First Suburban Chinatown,” Asian Americans Have Negotiated Cultural Representation

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The Japanese Garden at the Huntington Library (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a four-part series about artists and art movements in Los Angeles and it was made possible by a grant provided by the Sam Francis Foundation.

LOS ANGELES — In a time in which the United States is embroiled in the battle over monuments and what they say about American history, it is important for the Asian American community — which has so often been pitted against other BIPOC communities — to reckon with our own history and understand how our monuments also play a part in shaping our cultural identity. Having grown up in the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles, I now ask myself: which monuments and cultural landmarks represent the Asian American community, here?

Dubbed “the first suburban Chinatown,” the San Gabriel Valley today is home to the largest concentration of Asian Americans in the country. This influx is directly attributed to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which aimed to reunite families and attract skilled labor. Asian immigrants — who had previously been barred from entering the country during the earlier half of the 20th century through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924 — started to arrive in the millions, transforming the demographics of the San Gabriel Valley from 3% of the population in 1960 to 80% in 2000.

Before delving into the cultural landmarks specific to the Asian American community, it is important to acknowledge that the term “Asian American” is a problematic category to begin with, flattening North, South, Southeast, East, West, Central, and Indigenous Asian communities under one umbrella term. Within each community, there are economic differences, ethnic and racial divisions, and intergenerational dynamics at play — in addition to different historical, economic, and geopolitical factors that contributed to each wave of immigration — that effectively fracture any understanding of “Asian American” as a cohesive identity.

Because art history and architecture reproduce structures of power, it is no accident that they primarily reflect the majority Asian populations of Chinese and Japanese Americans in the San Gabriel Valley, while the area’s minority Asian populations, such as Korean, Filipinx, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and other Southeast Asian communities, are represented to a much lesser extent. Thus, the cultural landmarks of the area tell the story of how the different groups that constitute “the Asian American community” are engaged in the ongoing contestation around the visibility, mediation, and representation of culture and on what — or whose — terms.

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Japanese Garden at the Huntington

One of the earliest examples of Asian culture in the San Gabriel Valley is what is known today as the Japanese Garden at the Huntington Library, completed in 1912. Created by George Turner Marsh, the garden was in keeping with the vogue of Orientalism sweeping through Western society following the reopening of trade with Japan. Like many representations of Asia at the time, the garden was less of a symbol of Japan and more of a symbol of the West’s fantasy of the exotic Other. “Having a Japanese garden becomes a sign of being up-to-date, of being fashionable,” Kendall H. Brown, a professor of Asian Art History at CSU Long Beach, comments. The garden served to showcase the worldliness of its owners, while Japanese voices were primarily limited to the roles of construction and maintenance. Japanese immigrant Chiyozo Goto and his family, for example, were employed by Henry E. Huntington and Arabella Huntington as caretakers of the garden and were required to dress in traditional Japanese costume for visitors. As one Los Angeles Times article notes, “The presence of Japanese gave these gardens a diorama effect, which no doubt amused visitors.”

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Japanese Garden at the Huntington

The historic lack of status and agency granted to Asian Americans is epitomized by another, oft-forgotten monument in the San Gabriel Valley: the Santa Anita Racetrack, both the largest and longest-occupied “assembly center” for Japanese Americans in the US during World War II. Between March and October of 1942, approximately 20,000 Japanese Americans passed through the site, living in converted horse stalls and makeshift barracks before being relocated to more permanent concentration camps. In 1945, the racetrack resumed operations, later razing and paving over the former barracks and stables to make way for the Westfield Santa Anita shopping mall and adjacent parking lots. Today, little is left to mark this horrific period of American history save for a plaque at the ground’s entrance that contextualizes the racetrack’s role in World War II, but dedicates only one sentence to the internment of Japanese Americans. The way the event has been memorialized is a powerful statement in and of itself, mirroring the relative invisibility of Japanese American history, and immigrant history at large, in the US.

After 1965, American-born Japanese communities were outnumbered by Chinese immigrants, who have since become the majority Asian population living in the San Gabriel Valley. Because the 1965 Act enabled highly skilled professionals to immigrate to the US, many of the Asian immigrants arriving in the San Gabriel Valley were relatively prosperous in comparison to previous generations of immigrants. Tensions arose due to the significant cultural and, importantly, class differences between existing and new immigrant communities, as well as between white and non-white residents. As part of the backlash, “White and Latino residents ultimately pushed for pseudo-Spanish style buildings … in order to tamp down overt displays of Chinese material culture and symbolic power,” writes Pierette Hondagneu-Sotelo in the book, Paradise Transplanted: Migration and the Making of California Gardens. Municipalities sought to further restrict Chinese representation through extensive zoning regulations, as in the case of Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights. When plans for the building were announced in 1981, they were met with concern from local residents who cited fears of animal sacrifice and cult-like practices; it was only after six public hearings and over 100 meetings that the building permit was finally approved and the temple opened to the public in 1988.

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Liu Fang Yuan, or the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, at the Huntington Library

Eventually, in part thanks to their relative prosperity, the new Chinese immigrant community was also welcomed by other institutions, such as the aforementioned Huntington Library. In an effort to broaden its donor base, expand the cultural perspective of the museum, and connect to the changing demographics of the surrounding community, the Huntington embarked on the ambitious project of creating a new Chinese garden: Liu Fang Yuan, or the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, which opened in 2008. As Director of the Botanical Gardens Dr. James Folsom argued, “The botanical stores alone made it worth building a Chinese garden, but … [given] the growth of the Chinese community in California and the opening up of China — what you end up with is an almost unavoidable compulsion to build a Chinese garden.” In direct contrast to the Japanese garden, the Huntington involved the Chinese community to a far greater extent, signaling an important shift in both the status and perception of Asian Americans. It is telling that, instead of highlighting more recent Chinese or Chinese American history, the garden reinforces a classical image of Chinese culture, drawing from the gardens cultivated by the literati in Suzhou which flourished during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Indeed, the desire of Chinese Americans to concretize their societal status through an alignment with classical culture parallels the foundation of the estate itself and Henry E. Huntington’s own desire to display his wealth and taste through the reference of classical European aesthetics.

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Liu Fang Yuan, or the Garden of Flowing Fragrance, at the Huntington Library

Just as the Liu Fang Yuan garden exemplifies how newly established communities seek to concretize their social status through the display of taste, so, too, do the private residences surrounding the Huntington Library. Though not monuments per se, it is worth examining these so-called “McMansions” as they often illuminate conceptions of taste and respectability along class and racial lines. The affluent suburbs of San Marino and Arcadia, for example, are known for their opulent houses that epitomize “the Chinese mansionization phenomenon.” These houses often feature a pastiche of both Western and Eastern “classical” symbols, such as Greco-Roman statues and guardian lions, that cater to the perceived tastes of newly wealthy Chinese immigrants. On the one hand, the architectural style of these McMansions subverts Western notions of taste, creating its own vernacular, but on the other, it also upholds much of the same classist and colonialist hierarchies. That is, instead of calling into question the ideology underlying the prestige of Antebellum or Spanish style architecture, these new architectural styles often build on top of the aesthetics of the classical canon as a status symbol. In doing so, these McMansions visually manifest the Asian American “model minority” status — one which prizes its proximity to whiteness, oftentimes perpetuating the same systems of power and discrimination originally leveraged against them.

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The Alhambra Gateway
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The Teapot Fountain at Camellia Square

To be sure, this strategy of reappropriating Western symbols of power is not only limited to private residencies — it can be found in the public sphere of Chinese communities as well, such as in the majority Chinese cities of Alhambra and Temple City, which have adopted this approach as part of their urban development and beautification efforts. Two examples are the Alhambra Gateway, built in 2010, and the Teapot Fountain at Camellia Square, unveiled in 2016. The former is a copy of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris glorifying the military victories of Napoleon, based on the triumphal arches of ancient Rome, while the latter inserts a cultural symbol of East Asia — the teapot — into a Spanish-style strip mall in a perfect intersection of globalization, colonization, and capitalism. Despite the fact that Spanish-style architecture had been utilized as a symbolic boundary meant to exclude Chinese immigrants decades prior, these selfsame communities have nevertheless found ways to incorporate these symbols of power in order to reify their own. In a way, these forms of pastiche indicate an assimilation into the American Dream more than any flag or house with a white-picket fence, representing how dominant groups in the US have always adopted and reiterated the same visual cues in order to form an unbroken line of power.

These cultural landmarks not only reveal the history of how Asian Americans have had to negotiate their cultural representation, but also tell a larger story of the formation of a collective cultural identity. This is the paradox in grappling with Asian American identity — although the Asian American community encompasses many people who do not share the same history, identity, nor culture, they are nevertheless treated as one upon arrival in the United States and, slowly, become “Asian American.”


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