Sometimes disparate events at one time, or across time, reveal patterns of a life or a tribe or a culture. Bones and spirits tell some of the stories of my tribe and culture that I want to preserve and share, and sometimes these stories find a broader audience than I could have imagined. Sometimes being a ghost whisperer is the beating heart of my life.
In my last column I wrote that the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York is in the midst of planning a major exhibition on the Chinese historical museums, societies, and organizations within the United States. The exhibit, tentatively called “Gathering: Collecting and Documenting Chinese American History,” will open in New York City in the fall of 2019. MOCA’s goal is to showcase the breadth, depth, and investment in organized documentation, artifacts and buildings representative of Chinese history in America. Hanford’s China Alley Preservation Society has been invited to be showcased in this exhibit.
As I mentioned in the previous column, MOCA has requested one historical object that is unique to our organization’s work and Hanford’s Chinese history. I needed to determine which particular artifact would best signify all that is precious in the history of the Alley, of our people, of immigration, of symbology. I was perplexed.
Many of you wrote and encouraged me to do what I said I would do — walk down the Alley, hoping that the spirit of my great-grandfather or another ancestor would guide me, some of you suggested the buildings might speak to me as well.
I took my walk and the spirits answered. With those answers numerous nits and bits of history and family lore surfaced, gifting me with many things to share with you in the near future. But here, before I segue into writing about the object we decided to loan to MOCA, I need to briefly mention two things.
First, ancestral worship, as I have discussed before, is an integral part of the Chinese belief system. It is rooted in the concept of reciprocity between the living and the deceased. For their part, the living sustain the spirits of their ancestors and protect their graves while the deceased can bring prosperity and good fortune to their living successors. A person’s good fortune is linked directly and proportionally to the happiness and well being of his or her ancestral spirits.
Second, the Chinese men, who in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, left their homeland to seek their fortunes in California hoped to eventually return home, bringing wealth back to their family. It was important to these men to die in their motherland and rest with their ancestors in a decent grave after a ritual funeral. If they died in California, often their bones were sent back to their ancestral villages in China for burial, passage usually paid for by family members or by regional associations.
Given these two basic realities, I am proud to announce we are loaning to MOCA an historical “bone book,” one of the few still in existence in California. Dated 1894, this book of the Chong Hou Tong is the written record of the bone repatriation to China.
This “bone book” has significant value not only to Hanford history but it is important to overseas Chinese around the world. It has very detailed descriptions of the deceased — what Chinese village they called home, how they came to Hanford and at what age, what they did for a living, and so on. Also included are any ceremonial funereal rites that may have occurred and what entity paid for the bone repatriation. Thus, the lives and the spirits of many of Hanford’s Chinese pioneers will become part of this exhibit.
The Tung Wah Hospital of Hong Kong, with a history dating back to 1870, was one of the charitable organizations that provided bone repatriation services. Recently the Tung Wah Hospital Museum has digitized all of the bone information they could access. In July 2015 members of this museum visited China Alley and borrowed four of our artifacts. They restored and preserved these items to museum archival quality. Our “bone book” was among these special pieces.
Also in the summer of 2015, China Alley was part of Molly O’Neill’s brain child event, LongHouse Food Revival, for which she was also the creative director. O’Neill, who passed away last month, was an accomplished chef, and the food columnist for the New York Times Magazine for over a decade. She also hosted the PBS series “Great Food,” and was the author of numerous cook books.
Often dubbed the “Woodstock of Food,” the LongHouse mission was designed to stretch the boundaries of how food stories are told and to connect generations of artists, writers, and others inspired by food. No two events were alike, but each had been an intimate gathering that was large in vision. Each year LongHouse focused on a single theme to create a multi-media “Pop-Up Food Magazine.” The 2015 theme, “Chop Stick Nation,” explored Chinese American food stories through a variety of mediums, including spoken work, film, and cooking.
Lucey Bowen, writer and artist, was dispatched to visit China Alley and to interview me. Shortly thereafter, O’Neill interviewed me. I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact that “the” Molly O’Neill was on the phone and that we had exchanged emails and phone numbers. Somehow during the interviews and conversations, I sensed she got me. This was confirmed when she sent me a copy of what she had written for the LongHouse Food Revival. “Arianne Wing talks to ghosts…At night, her footsteps echo along empty sidewalks in China Alley. She peers into dusty windows of abandoned gambling dens, herbal shops, eateries, and groceries. Sometimes her great-grandfather’s ghost stares back.”
Thank you, Molly O’Neill. And thank you, too, dear readers, for recognizing and appreciating my ghost walks along China Alley that carry me through my own years and the generations of my tribe. In honor of Ms. Molly O’Neill and for your pleasure, I am sharing one of her delightful recipes here. I swapped some of the herbs for what I have in the garden. The gnocchi may be served with a variety of sauces — brown butter, sautéed mushrooms, or a simple tomato sauce.