China Moon restaurant in Los Alamos. Photo by Zhen Huang
By ZHEN HUANG
May is Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month.
While celebrating the AANHPI Heritage Month of 2021, we observed a Lunar Eclipse of the Flower Moon. As a Chinese American, while observing the Lunar Eclipse, I thought of the “China Moon”, a Chinese restaurant in Los Alamos, that was “Eclipsed” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the proclamation on the AANHPI Heritage Month of 2021, President Biden stated:
“Present-day inequities faced by AANHPI communities are rooted in our Nation’s history of exclusion, discrimination, racism, and xenophobia against Asian Americans. Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders have endured a long history of injustice — including the Page Act of 1875, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,… “. President Biden further stated: “My Administration is committed to a whole-of-government effort to advance equity, root out racial injustices in our Federal institutions,…”
President Biden’s proclamation has raised a series of century-old questions. Why had the racial discrimination Acts including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, been passed in Federal institutions of America, a Nation founded upon equity and justice? Why had the Chinese miners, farmers, and railroad workers been punished as scapegoats in politician’s vote-fighting games over a century ago? Why had the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 not gotten rooted out, but grown deeper and deeper and overshadowed upon Chinese Americans for over a century and still lingering around in present-day? These century-old questions have profound implications for the present-day issues and require our fundamental pondering.
Looking at the Los Alamos China Moon Eclipse and the adverse impact of COVID-19 anti-Chinese sentiments on Chinese restaurants, I have thought about how the earlier Chinese immigrant workers had endured and struggled with the inequities and injustices over a century ago. I have thought about the fascinating Lunar Eclipse Folklore and the legendary Eclipse Politics that had shaped the political landscapes in ancient China Empires over thousands of years ago.
The COVID-19 Eclipse of ‘China Moon’
Restaurants are among the hardest hit under the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Chinese restaurants have suffered the worst hardest hit because of the adverse impact of the anti-Chinese sentiments that have been rampant since the onset of the pandemic. According to a Womply Research survey conducted in April 2020, within one month of the pandemic lockdown, about 60 percent of the Chinese restaurants nationwide were closed, much larger than the second largest close rate of 30 percent for the category of Indian restaurants and Sandwich/Burgers/Tacos/Deli shops.
The reopening of business was also extremely difficult for Chinese restaurants because of the anti-Chinese sentiments. A review by the American Restaurant Association indicates that more than 60 percent of the qualified Chinese restaurant owners did not even seek the COVID-19 emergency funds for small business reopen, because they were overwhelmed and frustrated in dealing with the anti-Chinese violence and harassment. In some metropolitan areas, Chinese restaurants suffered widespread property damages. One of the restaurants in Manhattan’s ChinaTown of New York City got its windows smashed and repaired then smashed again several times. Even in Los Alamos, a small town ranked among the top-ten most friendly communities, a Chinese restaurant was damaged in a break-in burglary which occurred two weeks after President Trump declared a national emergency concerning the pandemic (link).
Despite the adverse impact of anti-Chinese sentiments, Chinese restaurants had most quickly responded to the Nation’s reopening. According to a Womply Research study done in June 2020, Chinese restaurants achieved the highest reopening rate and recovered to the national average operation level after having suffered from the worst hardest hit under the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The Los Alamos China Moon restaurant was closed at the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic. It reopened in June 2020 and renamed to Red Dragon Bowl.
The reopening of Chinese restaurants has demonstrated characteristic endurance and resilience of Chinese Americans in coping with difficult situations under racial discrimination and injustice environments.
Looking back at the history of Chinese restaurants, it is interesting to note that the boom of Chinese restaurants in the early 19th century was ironically a by-product of the Chinese Exclusion Act. At the time, the Chinese miners, farmers, and railroad workers, in order to make a living, were forced to make a change from low wage jobs barred by the racial discrimination Acts to self-employed startup businesses. Restaurants became the top pick of startup business, owing to the aftermath of the Page Act of 1875 that literally barred Chinese women from coming to America. Those ingenious no-wife’s Chinese laborers had to learn cooking to feed themselves in order to save money to send back to their families in China, thus they had developed adequate cooking skills prepared for opening a restaurant business.
Over a century has passed, the present-day Chinese restaurant owners had to make changes in order to reopen their established business just like their 19th century ancestors who started up business under the adverse impact of anti-Chinese sentiments. The reopening of China Moon as Red Dragon Bowl is beyond an indicator for change of the restaurant’s owners. The China Moon restaurant has changed its owners several times over the years but never changed its name. Needless to say, “China” is a word most sensitive to anti-Chinese sentiments. By removing “China” from a restaurant name while replacing it with synonymous words, actually the restaurant had made a silent appeal and clear statement that Chinese Americans do not accept being played as scapegoats in the COVID-19 politics games and will fight for equity and justice.
The Lunar Eclipse Folklore and the Eclipse Politics in Ancient China
For Chinese Americans, Chinese restaurants are not just places that serve Chinese foods, they are special Chinese Culture shelters where we seek soul sustenance to cherish our cultural heritages. The names of Chinese restaurants represent the characteristic identities of Chinese Culture and Cultural Heritage. As shown in the Chinese restaurant name Mosaic derived from Yelp data from about 50,000 Chinese restaurants around the United States, “China”, “Moon”, “Red”, “Dragon”, and “Bowl” are all among the top 100 Chinese culture characteristic IDs of restaurant names. To name a Chinese restaurant is like putting together puzzles with optional pieces for different aspects of Chinese Culture. Replacing China Moon with Red Dragon Bowl is one that has its legendary implications in Chinese Culture regarding the Lunar Eclipse Folklore and the Eclipse Politics in the ancient China Empires over thousands of years ago.
According to Chinese folklore, a celestial Dragon, also called Heavenly Dog, was devouring the Moon in the event of a Lunar eclipse. In Chinese culture, the celestial Dragon represents a Heavenly mighty power governing the Earth. Unfortunately, there were too many Earthly human beings-played dragons, namely, the ancient China Emperors. Oftentimes the Emperor-played dragons were more interested in fighting each other to win over the dominant power to control the world than performing their due roles to serve the people.
Ancient China had the most advanced astronomy. Chinese scientists invented the lunisolar calendar and kept an unbroken set of astronomical observations longer than any other civilization. Solar and lunar eclipse records in the form of characters on oxen shoulder blades were dated back as early as 3,200 years ago. Chinese astronomer Zhang Heng 张衡, one of the greatest scientists in ancient China, had developed full knowledge about the science behind lunar eclipse in the Han Dynasty more than 1,500 years ago. Chinese astronomers were able to predict the occurrence of Lunar eclipses as accurately as in a quarter of an hour in the Song Dynasty, and within one-minute of accuracy in the Ming Dynasty.
Despite the advanced astronomy in ancient China, scientific knowledge about eclipses had been a privilege of the Empire’s elites but kept as a superstitious mystery for the general folks.
In order to consolidate its dominant Dragon powers, the ancient China Emperors used its privileges of predicting the mysterious eclipses to brainwash general folks. The general folks were made to believe that the Emperor’s ruling power was authorized by the Heavenly God and that occurrences of eclipses were evil omens of impending destruction to the Empire from attacks of enemies and that general folks were obligated to defend the Empire to avoid Heavenly punishment.
Over thousands of years in the history of ancient China, occurrences of Lunar eclipses had been a fascinating nationwide folk ceremony. Ancient Chinese folks believed that loud noises would frighten the mysterious Dragon enemies away so that bad things would not happen to them. On the day of a Lunar eclipse, the brass gongs in temples were first struck to announce the start of eclipse, then crowds gathered outside striking pots, pans, and bowls up to the moon, women were told to stay home striking their brass mirrors reflecting moon light, children were asked to set off firecrackers shooting towards the moon… By all means, the ancient Chinese folks tried to make noises as loud as possible while the mysterious Dragon enemies were devouring the Moon. Auguste Francois, a French consul general in the Qing Dynasty, described one Lunar eclipse event he experienced in the Yun Nan Province. In his historical documentary notes he wrote that he was woken up at midnight by the noises so large that he thought a war was breaking out.
On the other hand, occurrences of Lunar eclipses were a particular time when fierce political power struggles between the dominant power and its rivals often escalated inside the Empire’s regime. The Emperors took eclipses as a Heavenly call for clearing out the Empire’s Palace to remove the Emperor’s power threats. The rivals often took eclipses as a symbol of the extinguishing of the dominant political power. One of the legendary “Eclipse Politics” stories was the Imperial Secretary Li against the Prime Minister Yuan impeachment case that happened in the Tang Dynasty. It was the occurrence of a Lunar eclipse that had helped Secretary Li to successfully convince the Emperor Tang Dai Zong who initially was reluctant to remove Yuan and his party gangs, finally made the decision to get the Prime Minister Yuan impeached.
The Century-long Shadows of the Chinese Exclusion Act
Through the Los Alamos China Moon Eclipse, we can also see the century-long shadows of the Chinese Exclusion Act over Chinese Americans.
Over a century ago, the earlier Chinese immigrant workers had made great contributions to the transcontinental railroad but ended up being punished as political scapegoats. At the time, as many as 12,000 Chinese immigrant workers, accounting for 80% of the total railroad workforce, took on the most difficult jobs building the part of the transcontinental railroad in extremely harsh working conditions of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Chinese railroad workers contributed not only their hardworking labors to quickly advance the mileage of the railroad, but also their wisdom to help overcome civil engineering challenges. As Leland Stanford, president of Central Pacific Railroad Company, former California governor and founder of Stanford University, wrote in a letter to President Andrew Johnson, “without them, it would be impossible to complete the western portion of this great national enterprise, within the time required by the Acts of Congress.” The Chinese railroad workers should have been rewarded for their extraordinary performance. However, they had suffered racial discrimination and injustice, obtained much lower wages than white American railroad workers.
In June of 1867, some 5,000 Chinese railroad workers went on their first strike demanding the same wages as the white American workers, reduced work hours and improved working conditions. During the eight days of strike, the Railroad Company management shut off their food supplies, when some of the starving Chinese workers returned to work, the management sent armed forces to threaten the rest of them still on strike that they would be fined and fired if not returning to work. At the beginning, the Railroad management was so surprised by the strike since Chinese workers had been always considered too docile to fight for their rights. At the end, the Railroad management was amazed since there had never been a strike of this large size that had ended so peacefully with none of the demands being met. As one of the Railroad management Charles Crocker expressed about this Chinese railroad workers strike, “If there had been that number of whites in a strike, there would have been murder and drunkenness and disorder. But with the Chinese it was just like Sunday. These men stayed in their camps. They would come out and walk around, but not a word was said; nothing was done. No violence was perpetuated along the whole line.”
The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was funded by the Federal government through subsidies from the Railroad bonds under the Pacific Railroad Acts. Note that the government subsidies were paid to the Railroad Company at an amount per mile rate based on the completed mileage of the railroad and the level of difficulties to overcome in completing the construction. It was because of the hardworking Chinese immigrant workers who had done the most difficult construction works in the harsh environments that made it possible to get the subsidies paid by completing the mileages to meet the timelines set by the Pacific Railroad Acts. The Chinese immigrant workers were entitled to their shares from the paid government subsidies based on their great contributions. However, it was found that some of the Railroad entrepreneurs obtained huge illegal profits from the government railroad subsidies.
The white railroad workers blamed that they could not get higher wages because Chinese workers accepted much lower wages. In fact, it was because of the racial discrimination against Chinese immigrant workers and the corruption of the profit-greedy Railroad entrepreneurs that had been eating off wages of both Chinese immigrant workers and white American workers.
Both the equal-wage demands of Chinese immigrant workers’ strike and the cause of the white American workers’ blame-Chinese sentiments should have been addressed in the scope of America’s fundamental values of equity and justice. However, the wage problem had become part of the vote-fighting games the power-addicted politicians played. Note that it was the politicians who desperately desired votes from white American workers that vigorously pushed passes of a series of the Federal Laws against Chinese immigrant workers, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Unfortunately, Chinese immigrant workers had become scapegoats being punished in the politicians game playing.
It is noted that passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act did get some rejections from some legislative members. However, such rejections were either based on compliance with the US-China treaty in which both countries agreed on freedom of immigration, or on considerations that the Chinese immigrant workers were healthy adults not taking up educational and health care resources. The inconvenient truth is that no one of the law makers ever concerned about equity and justice the Chinese immigrant workers were entitled. Furthermore, the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 by the Magnuson Act of 1943 was a decision almost wholly grounded in the exigencies of World War II, just because China had become an ally of the United States, but not a correction because the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a racial discrimination and injustice Act.
John F. Kennedy’s administration had made significant immigration reform, leading to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act signed into law, thus removed the racial discrimination and injustice against Chinese immigrant in all the earlier Federal Acts. However, the century-long shadows of the Chinese Exclusion Act are still lingering around in present-day. It raises a peculiar question about the injustices against Chinese Americans. What exactly needs to be rooted out in our “Federal Institutions” in order to remove such a racial injustice shadow falling on generations of Chinese Americans?
Observing the Los Alamos China Moon Eclipse and Beyond
History may not repeat itself in its original format. However, looking into history may help us understand the present-day issues and find solutions.
From the perspective of Chinese American History, we may trace the background scenes of the Los Alamos China Moon Eclipse in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic, to the century-long shadows of the anti-Chinese racial discrimination Acts that have been devouring the America’s fundamental values of equity and justice. We may find the endurance and resilience that Chinese Americans have demonstrated in reopening Chinese restaurants under the worst hardest hit of COVID-19 pandemic, in the ancestors of Chinese restaurants when they started up the business in the early 19th century in coping with difficult situations under anti-Chinese sentiments.
From the perspective of Chinese Culture Heritage, we may remotely hear the noises the ancient Chinese folks made via striking pots, pans, and bowls at the ceremony of Lunar eclipse in attempting to ward off bad lucks they were made to believe the Empire’s enemies brought to them, in the anti-Chinese hate violence and blame-China verbal harassment that have been rampant since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic. We may vividly witness the fierce political power struggles within the ancient China Empire’s regime at the occurrence of Lunar eclipse when there were full understandings about the science of eclipse, in the vote-fighting games played in the Federal Institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic when America is in possession of the most advanced science and technology in the world to defeat the enemy, the COVID-19 viruses.
It is clear that in the episode of the Los Alamos China Moon Eclipse, the Dragon that has been devouring the Moon is not phenomenologically the COVID-19 anti-Chinese sentiments but intrinsically the century-old America’s political landscapes where power-addicted politicians are dominant. The present-day issues of inequity and injustice against Chinese Americans are deeply rooted in the Political Landscapes of Federal Institutions. Furthermore, the shadows of inequity and injustice not only fall on Chinese Americans, but one way or the other, on all Americans who at the time belong to vulnerable underprivileged groups with respect to the mighty powers of “Federal Institutions”. Two decades ago, we have seen how the “Federal institutions” were busily playing finger-pointing games in response to the Cerro Grande Fire and its aftermath while Los Alamos suffered losses as raging wildfires destroyed National Forests and burned down residential properties and research facilities (link).
Not long ago, we have seen how the “Federal institutions” blindly closed the medical facility serving the Acoma Pueblo Native Americans in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic while Native Americans were in urgent needs of top-prioritized health care services given their highest COVID-19 infection and mortality rates (link).
John F. Kennedy had an inspirational saying about power and poetry: “When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
In ancient Chinese poetry, Moon is the most frequently used word that represents dreams in search of the basic human truth towards a society of harmony in a world full of wars of overpowered and poeticless Dragons. Moon and Dragon, Poetry and Power, how can we achieve coherence of the two? I have thought about the legendary story associated with “Three Pools Mirroring the Moon” (三潭印月), a top landscape attraction of my hometown, the City of Hangzhou in China.
“Three Pools Mirroring the Moon” is composed of three hollow rock towers built upon an artificial island that was piled up using mud deposits from the bottom of West Lake. Each tower has five round holes. At night when candles light up inside the towers, the lights beaming through the round holes make a total of fifteen “mirroring moons” over the Lake. The three towers were originally constructed for monitoring the status of mud deposits on the bottom of the West Lake.
It was part of the West Lake Dredging Project that Su DongPo (苏东坡), a well-known ancient Chinese Poet, launched when he took on the duty as the Governor of the City of Hangzhou in Song Dynasty. Before his term, the West Lake was full of invasive weeds as a result of the thick accumulation of mud deposits that had not been dredged for many years.
With regard to the COVID-19 anti-Chinese sentiment, President Biden signed the 117th Congress COVID-19 Hate Crime Act. The Act calls for “establishing online hate crime reporting processes, collecting data disaggregated by protected characteristic (e.g., race or national origin), and expanding education campaigns”, and “implement the National Incident-Based Reporting System and to conduct law enforcement activities or crime reduction programs to prevent, address, or respond to hate crimes.”
The COVID-19 Hate Crime Act is basically a call for implementing “mud deposit monitors”, ie. “Reporting System” and “reporting processes”. For America’s political landscapes with centuries-old accumulations of mud deposits of inequity and injustice, “monitors” alone are apparently not enough to keep the “invasive weeds”, the COVID-19 anti-Chinese sentiments from growing. For Los Alamos China Moon, and many of the “mirroring moons” in America, not to be eclipsed, America is in dire need of a Political Landscape Dredging Project to clear out the mud deposit accumulations that contained contagious viruses infecting America’s political landscapes and shaping the American society.
In the end, Moon and Dragon, Poetry and Power, coherence of the two can only be achieved over a Political Landscape of Equity and Justice.
Acknowledgement: Thanks the Los Alamos China Moon/Red Dragon Bowl restaurant for the inspirations you have brought to me on Chinese American History, Chinese Cultural Heritage, and beyond.