Petitioning the Pacific Grove Feast of Lanterns Festival: An Interview with Kathy Biala
June 2, 2022
In January 2022, organizers in Coalition for Asian Justice began a petition to ask the Pacific Grove City Council to deny the request to revive the Feast of Lanterns Festival. The petition received over 500 signatures. In February, many activists and community members attended the Pacific Grove City Council zoom meeting and over 30 people voiced their opposition to the revival of the Feast of Lanterns Festival. The Pacific Grove City Council listened and decided to reject the proposal to revive the Lantern Festival. In what follows is an interview between Dr. Chrissy Yee Lau and one of the leaders of the petition, Kathy Biala.
CYL: Please introduce yourself to our readers. How long have you lived in Marina and what is your role in the community?
KB: My name is Kathy Biala, a third generation Japanese American whose extended family was interned in the WWII relocation camps. I grew up in Chicago where my father went to school on the GI Bill at the University of Chicago and eventually became a professor in Biochemistry there. My mother, a Kibei Nisei, taught in Chicago public schools for decades. I am a retired Master’s prepared nurse with a long career in healthcare spanning clinical, university teaching, executive management and business entrepreneurial CEO roles. I have been a resident of Marina since 2014 and served on the City of Marina Planning Commission for four years and was elected to the Marina City Council in 2020 and serve as the Mayor Pro Tem.
I became significantly involved in ending the last active sand mining plant on any US coast, the Cemex plant, here on Marina’s shores, and then became the co-founder of Citizens for Just Water which rallied Marina to fight against a powerful private for-profit company that threatened to steal Marina’s sole source of potable water in an environmentally unjust water grab. The CA Coastal Commission has twice supported Marina in the denial of permitting for this project but the threat is not over yet; I am now involved in that issue as an elected official.
I am married and have a blended family with three sons, 3 daughter-in-laws and 3 grandchildren with diversity highlighted in my family with a Mexican American daughter-in-law and two other daughter-in-laws hailing from Croatia and Taiwan.
CYL: You are one of the organizers of Asian Communities of Marina. Why did you organize this group and what are the goals of ACOM?
KB: Marina has a unique census population verified once again in the US Census 2020 statistics. Marina has roughly 2/3 the population of people of color with one third Latinx, one third white and one third mostly Asian, AAPI and mixed race, with a small percentage of African American population. Marina’s Asian population far exceeds both county and state demographics and this is due to the Fort Ord military history in which GIs with foreign brides from WWII, Korean War and Vietnam War were stationed in Marina with eventual settlement here. Two Filipino Americans and I started Asian Communities of Marina (ACOM) to inspire Asians to more fully participate in the social, cultural, and economic life of Marina and to foster leadership in our ethnic communities. Not all Asian groups interact among themselves and ACOM would promote networking and collaborative opportunities among the different Asian groups in Marina to create common benefits.
CYL: In the spring of 2022, you supported a petition against the revival of the Feast of Lanterns in Pacific Grove. What is the Feast of Lanterns? Why do some want to revive it? Why do you oppose it?
KB: The Feast of Lanterns is an annual festival held in its current form in Pacific Grove since 1958 but the origin of the Feast of Lanterns in 1906 is deeply troubling. The well settled Chinese Fishing Village at Point Alones, now the site of the Hopkins Marine Station, had some 500 Chinese residents. After decades of racial prejudice and active discrimination, the village was mysteriously burned to the ground in 1906 with PG residents cheering at the fire and looting the Chinese possessions in the ashes of the ruins. Beginning in 1958, the Feast of Lanterns event originally included a play in which the villain, also a caricatured Chinese man, was named simply “the Mandarin” and the audience booed this traditional character. Participants in the “Royal Court” would wear Chinese garb in yellowface portrayals (painted faces and taped slant eyes). There is a Queen Topaz contest, with white women dressed in Chinese costumes reflecting further cultural appropriation in the face of lack of acknowledgement of the tragic history of the immigrants. Gerry Low Sabado (direct descendent of the Point Alones immigrants) spent 10 years plus trying to revise the Festival to be more respectful and appropriate; despite some minor changes, upon her recent death, she felt despondent in the continued minimization and disrespect she received for her efforts.
CYL: What has been the response to the petition? Or how was this petition viewed by Pacific Grove City Council?
KB: The petition on Change.org developed by Coalition for Asian Justice (of which I am also a co-founder), and Pacific Grove activists, acquired 567 signatures and ends with: “While there have been efforts to adapt the Feast of Lanterns, its core—including the namesake lanterns—is based on racism and exclusion. The event cannot be disassociated from its dark history.”
Additionally, there has been support from so many regional sources: Asian groups like the Asian Cultural Experience (ACE) in Salinas, the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA), the Coalition for Asian Justice (CAJ), Asian Communities of Marina (ACOM), anti-racist groups like the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), Whites For Racial Equity (WRE), Latinos (LULAC wrote an incredible letter), President of NAACP and Mel Mason from the black communities, CSUMB faculty, people inside and outside PG, public officials like Monterey County Board of Supervisors Wendy Root Askew and Bruce Delgado, Mayor of Marina. These supporters who wrote letters to the PG City Council to end the Feast of Lanterns (FOL), know what this means for ALL people of color.
On Feb. 16, 2022, for an hour and 45 minutes, the Pacific Grove City Council heard public testimonies from individuals who requested that the FOL be permanently dismantled since the resistance to real change continues while the hurtful cultural appropriation does not “honor” the Chinese and other Asian Americans, but rather mocks and disrespects their history, traditions and the positive contributions made in our region by the Chinese. ACOM members, especially those residing in Marina, were there in large numbers to give testimonies as the issue affects ALL Asian Americans and indeed all people of color. These testimonies changed the hearts and minds of the Council. Even the PG mayor apologized for enabling this Festival by approving it year after year because he was unaware of the harm it caused to the Chinese and other Asian Americans.
Only two speakers at the PG City Council advocated for continuing the FOL with revisions made and stakeholders engaged in the process. The arguments to continue the FOL put forth by the FOL board were because the festival “provides a platform for the Pacific Grove youth to gain public speaking skills, develop leadership and confidence, to encourage community service and involvement, to award scholarships and organize entertaining community activities.”
Although immediately after the Feb. 16 City Council meeting, the FOL board permanently withdrew the event from any future permitting, and a brief apology was issued, the apology was felt to be wholly inadequate, absent of the requisite understanding for the fundamental basis for expressed concerns. It lacked the depth of comprehension of the irony of an “fun” event with gross cultural appropriation made through misrepresentation and mockery of the Chinese, while completely omitting the tragic and complete expulsion of the Chinese from Pacific Grove.
CYL: In the petition, organizers suggest rather than revive the Feast of Lanterns that folks go on the Walk of Remembrance. What is the walk and can you provide directions?
KB: The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the Chinese descendants of the Chinese Fishing Village, Pacific Grove residents, and the Coalition for Asian Justice (CAJ) members, has planned for an expanded "Walk of Remembrance" honoring the Chinese immigrants who lived at the Point Alones settlement prior to 1906. The Walk will occur on Saturday May 14, 2022 and will convene at the front of the Museum, with the Monterey Bay Lion Dance Team leading the way on the walk to the site of the original Chinese Village, which is now the Hopkins Marine Laboratory.
The Museum has arranged for a traveling special exhibit from the Chinese Historical Museum in San Francisco, which can be viewed from April 30-May 14; Russell Jeung, Ph.D., a direct descendent of the Chinese Village and co-founder of the “Stop Asian Hate” movement will speak on Saturday April 30 about the Point Alones Village. On Friday May 13, Sandy Lydon, renowned author of local histories of Asian Americans, including “Chinese Gold”, will speak about the history of the Chinese in Pacific Grove.
This event is a true honoring of the Chinese immigrants and their descendants and provides for the accurate historical account of the accomplishments, their challenges and the details of the tragedy that befell them. The procession of walkers will be provided with hand signs depicting the faces of the original settlers.
More details to follow in ads in the Monterey County Weekly. Free admission; rsvp requested.
CYL: What's next on this issue? Or what other issue do you hope to tackle next?
KB: The activists in Coalition for Asian Justice (CAJ) who worked on the FOL issue, will also offer to help the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion Task Force in drafting a set of criteria for approving or disapproving any application for special events in the City of Pacific Grove. This will ensure future events will be consistent with the inclusion objectives of the City.
ACOM is “finding its wings” now in understanding that their voices count and that we can facilitate needed changes in our community. Further, we have found strength in numbers, and that regional parties also will “stand in solidarity” against issues of racism and cultural disrespect wherever it may exist. This has been a tremendous learning moment for all who participated! ACOM has been involved in so many other activities of import e.g. creating an appendix for the Marina Downtown Specific Plan that highlights subtle Asian architectural designs, participating in the County Redistricting Map process, helping to develop a city sponsored Multicultural Festival, and plans for an Asian Garden in Marina to name a few. Many of our initiatives have taught us to be involved, be visible and to speak out. This has been a major challenge to Asian people, in general, whose cultural norms often are deterrents to such activities. ACOM is changing that for so many of us.