Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 18, 2013

A lost city remembered

Artist finds poetry in the fragments of San Jose's old Chinatown

by Rebecca Wallace

What's left of a community when its buildings burn to the ground? Crumbled brick and soil. Iridescent polygons of glass. Perhaps a sturdy, stubborn earthenware bowl that never got to come off the shelf for special occasions. Now it's a survivor.

For a while, in the late 1800s, San Jose had a flourishing Chinatown in the heart of its downtown. Market Street Chinatown, in the area of Market and South First streets, was said to be the second-largest Chinese community in America, after San Francisco's. Residents built shops, restaurants, temples and an opera house.

Then in 1887, the neighborhood was leveled by a fire, said to be arson. San Jose officials voted to build a city hall in the spot, marking the end of Market Street Chinatown.

Traces, though, remain. Those bricks and glass shards and battered bowls from a lost community still tell their stories, quietly and mysteriously, in exhibit cases and drawers at the Stanford Archaeology Center. Artist Rene Yung has curated the artifacts into a poignant installation called "City Beneath the City." The project, she says, explores "the materiality of absence."

To get to the exhibit, viewers go through the center's lobby, passing student displays of Peruvian ceramic vessels and Neolithic daggers. In the small room where Yung's project is on display, sunlight filters down from high windows, with lofty wooden beams giving the room a barn-like feeling.

The artifacts offer wisps of past lives. Among the combs, buttons and porcelain shards are tags with sentence fragments. Yung picked words from a Stanford researchers' report about Market Street Chinatown. Taken out of context, the phrases are abstract, intriguing: "grocers, barbers, two herb doctors, an astrologer, a butcher, a baker"; "thousands of years"; "partially adopted"; "barber stands, clothing shops and general merchandising stores."

"You really get immersed in these objects that were held and worn and touched by the people who lived in the space," Yung said, adding, "I see in the words a compressed poetry."

One of the tags reads "nuisance." It makes Yung think of the racism of the time, of the people who wanted Chinatown gone. "That word, 'nuisance,' encapsulates the reason that this thriving community became an architectural site," she said.

The departed community has been the subject of renewed interest in recent years. About a decade ago, Stanford's archeological center and anthropology department teamed up with History San Jose, Past Forward Inc., and the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project to study and catalog the artifacts, and make them accessible for teaching and research.

The whole collection fills more than 400 boxes. Before 1985, the artifacts were in the ground. Then construction workers building the Fairmont Hotel and the Silicon Valley Financial Center spotted them. The city hired a private archaeological firm to recover and box up the artifacts. The boxes were taken to a city warehouse, where they languished for 20 years until researchers took a new interest in them, according to a Stanford project report.

By the time the artifacts arrived at Stanford in 2002, much work was required to organize them and put them into historic context. Over time, researchers came to find something positive in this lost city, Stanford's Barbara Voss, principal investigator for the archaeology project, wrote in an exhibit statement.

"These objects — simultaneously fragile and durable — echo the struggles of Santa Clara County's early Chinese immigrants, who continued to rebuild their communities despite legal restrictions, racial discrimination, and direct violence," Voss wrote. "In reflecting on their persistence, we may feel hope in the midst of loss."

Art intersected with archaeology last year, when the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art took an interest in the Chinatown project. The group decided to have an installation with some of the artifacts as part of the ZERO1 biennial. Rene Yung seemed a natural fit as the artist.

Born in Hong Kong, Yung came to America in her teens. Her family settled in Palo Alto, and she graduated from Gunn High School and Stanford. With a background in both anthropology and art, she often explores cultural differences and Chinese-American history. Her work has included public-art sculptures, series of drawings, and a storytelling project about the Chinese immigrants who built the transcontinental railroad.

At the ICA, Yung created a much larger version of "City Beneath the City" than now stands at Stanford. She spread out pillars and cases of artifacts in a layout that mirrored traditional Chinese houses and cities, with its bilateral symmetry. Visitors entered the gallery through a portal between two pedestals: one containing shards of glass, one soil.

Under the pieces of the past, the gallery itself remained bright and contemporary. "ICA is a mile and a half from the former Market Street site. You would never guess," Yung said.

Though the Stanford exhibit is smaller, Yung was pleased to have the use of pull-out drawers beneath the glass cases, and used them for gently arranging more artifacts. In some places the aged objects rest on panels of soft, sky-blue felt. Pieces of shattered glass are iridescent as a butterfly wing. A remnant of shoe leather curls in on itself. Leather is not known for surviving the ages; perhaps this shoe was preserved in a trash pit, Yung said.

In one case, a heavily cracked bowl stands above a scatter of fragments from other bowls. It's just barely holding together, but it's together, and a knowledgeable visitor can still easily read the blue Chinese characters: double happiness.

What: "City Beneath the City," an art exhibition of artifacts from San Jose's lost Chinatown, designed by Rene Yung

Where: Stanford Archaeology Center, Building 500, 488 Escondido Mall

When: The exhibit runs through April 30, open Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Weekend and evening tours are available by request.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Go to http://marketstreet.stanford.edu or contact docent coordinator Meredith Reifschneider at mreifsch@stanford.edu.

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