'Guided by Ghosts' Tells of Chinatowns Born of Racism, Then Lost to History

1 min
Early sketch of a self portrait for 'Guided by Ghosts' by Chinese-American artist Tessa Hulls.  (Photo: Courtesy of Tessa Hulls)

The last Chinatown of Santa Cruz disappeared after the great San Lorenzo River flood of 1955, known as the "Christmas Flood" because it hit on December 22 of that year. Despite the fact there were four Chinatowns in Santa Cruz, they all disappeared into history, destroyed by flood and fire, their inhabitants scattered to other places more welcoming.

An exhibition called Guided by Ghosts brings that story back to life on the walls of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Chinese-American artist Tessa Hulls weaves multiple strands of history together with photographs, newspaper clippings, and water colors. It looks like a graphic novel. (As it happens, Hulls, who's home base is in Seattle, has gone off the grid to finish a graphic novel focused on related material.)

At MAH, Hulls has put up a giant, wall-to-wall timeline with a color-coded key: maroon for “Tessa’s Story,” aqua green for the “Monterey Bay Region,” and yellow for “National/International,” starting with the first Spanish Galleon to cross the Pacific from the Philippines in 1565.

'Guided by Ghosts' by Chinese-American artist Tessa Hulls weaves multiple strands of history together into a graphic novel-style timeline, popping with photographs, newspaper clippings, and water colors.
'Guided by Ghosts' by Chinese-American artist Tessa Hulls weaves multiple strands of history together into a graphic novel-style timeline, popping with photographs, newspaper clippings, and water colors. (Photo: Courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History)

The timeline pops with quotes from people like George Ow, a kind of unofficial mayor for this community of ghosts. Hulls quotes him saying, "In Chinese folklore, if something is not settled during a lifetime, you have hungry ghosts, like angry spirits. By acknowledging these spirits, we're kind of like feeding them."

Ow, who grew up in that last Chinatown by the river, said the spirits would approve of Hulls joining the short list of those who've honored the history of Chinese-Americans in the Santa Cruz area. Ow's uncle, George Lee, published a seminal collection of photographs, Chinatown Dreams. Historian Sandy Lyden wrote Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region.

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Guided by Ghosts ends with a replica of the artist’s studio in Port Townsend, Washington. An empty desk and chair beckons visitors, and a deck of cards asks about our own family histories. It's a common motif at the Museum of Art & History, which often concludes its exhibitions with some kind of participatory element.

'Lost Chinatowns' a dance theatre work by UC Santa Cruz Assistant Professor Cynthia Ling Lee, draws from poetry, court transcripts, and racist newspaper editorials. 
'Lost Chinatowns' a dance theatre work by UC Santa Cruz Assistant Professor Cynthia Ling Lee, draws from poetry, court transcripts, and racist newspaper editorials. (Photo: Courtesy of Robbie Sweeny)

Hulls may not have grown up in Santa Cruz, but the story still feels like hers. The journey her grandmother took to flee China, and the journey her mother took to get to the United States, are of a piece with her timeline, literally, as well as metaphorically.

When UC Santa Cruz Theatre Arts Assistant Professor Cynthia Ling Lee arrived in the area three years ago, she was surprised to discover how little Chinese influence remains. Lee couldn't even find an Asian grocery store. "You have to drive all the way to San Jose. There's this whole history of racism that drove out all the Chinese people. So, evidently, that's why!" she said.

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Lee choreographed Lost Chinatowns, a dance piece she performed at the museum in conjunction with Guided by Ghosts. An ensemble version of the work has been performed in San Francisco as well. "While anti-Chinese racism now is not the same as it was in the early 1900s, we are in an era of, like, virulent, radicalized xenophobia, so it’s all super relevant."

It's a story Ow sees echoing through the centuries: "The labor is needed, but the people aren't necessarily welcomed. From the Native Americans, to the Chinese, to the Japanese, to the Filipinos, to the people from the Dustbowl, and Mexico, and the countries south of Mexico. It's the same old story. It's still going on," Ow said.

Today, Ow’s a real estate developer. Take a moment with that. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it wasn't until 1943 Chinese-Americans were allowed to own land in California. That makes Ow a living embodiment of the idea the personal is political.

Guided by Ghosts continues through June 23, 2019 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. For more information, click here.

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