In 1985, more than a century after the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants in California, the City Council of Monterey Park considered the adoption of a law that would require all public signs to be in English.
Ironically, Asian Americans constituted a majority of the population, but a few irate citizens were apparently annoyed at the sight of Chinese characters on the signage that decorates the city streets.
The scene is contemplated in "The Lonely Queue: The Forgotten History of the Courageous Chinese Americans in Los Angeles" by Icy Smith (East West Discovery Press, $39.95, 204 pages), a bilingual book that celebrates the Chinese American community of Southern California in English and Chinese with the intimacy of a family album and the authority of a historical monograph.
"In rebuttal, one Chinese American in the audience stood up and pointed out that since many of the local street names used the Spanish language, and [there were] others with Italian, German and French, it would be as expensive as it would be ridiculous to implement such a demand."
The title of "The Lonely Queue" turns out to be an artful pun, conjuring up the long braid that was once worn in traditional Chinese communities and, at the same time, the long line of Chinese immigrants who filed into Southern California to work as gold miners and railroad laborers. Smith, whose Chinese name is Sui Bing Tang, draws on a wealth of historical photographs that seem to shimmer on the page as if in a dream--a gang of hard-pressed field workers stare out at us, a mission school full of earnest young students showing off their Chinese-language Bibles, a vegetable peddler bearing two heavy baskets on a long pole casts a weary smile at us.
But "The Lonely Queue" is not an exercise in nostalgia, and Smith never lets us forget the taint of racism that is the dark side of American history. Thus, for example, she shows us one of the first Chinese neighborhoods in Los Angeles: "Negro Alley," a pocket of poverty and despair hedged in by slaughterhouses and railroad yards. And she puts some of the old stereotypes into a sharp historical perspective, explaining that the Chinese laundry was the last resort of immigrants who were banned from other businesses and occupations: "One only needed soap, a scrub board, an iron and an ironing board."
On every page, we are invited to contemplate the contrast between the fantasy and the reality of the Chinese experience in California. Smith describes the 1938 construction of a tourist attraction in downtown L.A. called "China City": "It was pure Hollywood, complete with rickshaws and set decorations from the film 'The Good Earth' "--and contrasts a man dressed as a Chinese peasant for the benefit of the camera-toting tourists with the more authentic expressions of the Chinatown community, including a group of thoroughly modern young men suited up for a basketball game.
Perhaps the single most poignant image and the one most deeply layered with meaning is a photograph of two sturdy welders on an assembly line at a defense plant during World War II. One man is African American, the other is Chinese American, and they are both hard at work on an airplane wing. But the Chinese American, mindful of the racism of the era, felt obliged to put a hand-lettered sign on the back of his jacket: "Me Chinese Please--No Jap."
"The Lonely Queue" brings the Chinese American saga up to date, and Smith pauses to express her outrage at the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist who was accused of passing secrets to China. "Racism against Chinese," she warns, "has not disappeared."
Still, she ends on an upbeat note. For the 400,000 Chinese Americans who live and work in Southern California, the open expression of their cultural identity now "is not only accepted, but something celebrated." And the book closes, as it opened, with an observation about the place that once tried to ban Chinese-language signs.
"Some say the world's top Chinese restaurants are no longer in Asia," she writes, "but in places like Monterey Park."
For those under the impression that the world of jazz is defined by what you see in the Ken Burns documentary, there is more. "Songs of the Unsung: The Musical and Social Journey of Horace Tapscott" by Horace Tapscott (Duke University Press, $24.95, 260 pages) offers a glimpse into the life of a jazz musician who resolved not to abandon the place where he started out--the streets of South-Central.
When he died in 1999, Tapscott left behind a rich legacy as a jazz pianist, composer and band leader. But what makes his life story especially compelling is the way he blended art and activism--he organized the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Ark-estra, as he dubbed his ensemble, to play songs and dances that "get people's attention and brings people together." Later, the Ark-estra broadened into the so-called Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension, a collective that put on concerts, taught children how to play music and organized food banks.
"We weren't just an orchestra rehearsing for a gig and then leaving," Tapscott declares. "We were something that was going to be there all the time."
"Songs of the Unsung" began when Tapscott was interviewed by Steven Isoardi for the UCLA Oral History Program. Isoardi drew on the UCLA archives to create the landmark history of jazz in Los Angeles, "Central Avenue Sounds," and he was later recruited to work with Tapscott on the memoir that was published only after Tapscott's death. The book is told in exactly the tone that we would expect to hear when a legendary musician sits down and muses over his remarkable life.
"Before hearing a note of Horace's music, I'd heard stories of him from friends, more like whispered rumors of an underground genius in South-Central Los Angeles who, in the 1960s, defiantly turned his back on an exploitative, racist society and threw himself into the struggle to improve his community," writes Isoardi. "When I picked up a copy of an early solo record, 'Songs of the Unsung,' I was stunned by its originality and power."
The same words describe Tapscott, who comes across as one of those home-grown and wholly self-invented figures who can be spotted here and there across the American cultural landscape. Born in Texas and raised in California during World War II, he picked cotton and cut grapes in the fields and orchards outside Fresno, started playing and writing music while in junior high school in South-Central, and when he was admonished by a music teacher at Los Angeles City College for improvising on a performance of a song, he declared his independence once and for all.
"Wait a minute," said the instructor. "Why don't you play it like it's written?" "Well," replied Tapscott, "I don't hear it like that."
West Words looks at books related to California and the West. It runs every other Wednesday.