As an Asian American, it was hard walking through the Huntington Library’s centennial celebratory exhibition, “Nineteen Nineteen.” The curators made an effort for diversity, citing the limitations of the Henry and Arabella Huntington’s interests, they were able to add books referencing African American soldiers returning from World War I and even included them in the large selfie conscious graphic on the dividers for the exhibits. The shadow of Asia is present through appropriations and art adaptations, but those might slip by unnoticed if you’re not adept at art and legal history.
The year 1919 catches the Asian American community in the midst of being targeted as an undesirable aliens. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the Immigration Act of 1917 had targeted the Asia-Pacific areas. The immigration Act of 1924 would later completely exclude immigrations from Asia. The Japanese had already been voluntarily limited by the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement which the 1924 act violated.
Despite these acts, there was a Japanese presence in the San Gabriel Valley. According to Andre Kobayashi Deckrow’s “A Community Erased: Japanese Americans in El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley” for KCET (29 Sept. 2014), were plentiful enough to establish the Japanese Farmer’s Association of the San Gabriel Valley in 1913. In 1923, the San Gabriel Japanese Community Center was established. By 1936, there would be 500 first-generation immigrants (Issei) and 1,000 second-generation (Nisei) in the San Gabriel Valley.
The Japanese were not viewed as enemy aliens despite all the anti-Asian federal and state legislation. During World War I (1914-1918), Japan was one of the principal allied powers along with the UK, France, Russia, Italy and the US. Hawaii, though not yet a state (1959), had an all-Japanese regiment, Company D, during World War I.
While the exhibit states, that 200,000 black soldiers served overseas and the survivors came home to a “Red Summer,” but from my research the majority of the incidents took place in the South (Alabama, Arkansas Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, or on the East Coast (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York) with the exception of one in Bisbee, Arizona and one in Chicago, Illinois. In the exhibit, they are represented by Delilah L. Beasley’s 1919 book, “The Negro Trail Blazers of California,” and William Allison Sweeney’s (1851-1921) 1919 book, “History of the American Negro in the Great War.” Yet according to Ken Burns’ “The West” and “Lynching in the West: 1850-1935,” lynching in California mainly targeted Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans (with the majority targeting Latinos).
Anti-Asian legislation, however, was led by the West Coast and some Asians fell under both Asian and black racist legislation (e.g. Asian Indians). If ethnic Asian veterans got a raw deal during World War II, their treatment after World War I was worse. Korean En Sk Song served in the US Army and petitioned for naturalization in California in 1919, but was refused as was fellow Korean Easurk Emsen Charr who had been drafted. Japanese national Ichizo Sato applied for naturalization in Hawaii and was granted citizenship in 1919, but when he moved to California and registered to vote, he was denied on the grounds of race. Hidematsu Toyota, who served as part of the naval force (US Coast Guard) received an honorable discharge, but would not receive citizenship (Hidemitsu Toyota v. US, 1925). UC Berkeley-educated Bhagat Singh Thind (US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923), also filed for citizenship but SCOTUS ruled he was not white enough to become a naturalized citizen. These men had been promised citizenship for their military service under a 1918 act of Congress to provide citizenship to Filipinos and “any alien, or any Porto Rican not a citizen of the United States.”
Yet according to “Echoes of Freedom: South Asian Pioneers in California, 1899-1965,” the Thind decision resulted in “many Indians who were already naturalized had their citizenship rescinded.” The Japanese-born activist, Tokutaro Slocum was raised by a white American family and fought during World War I (82nd Division, 328th Infantry) had the support of JACL and the American Legion when he sought federal legislation to provide citizenship for Asian veterans. The Nye-Lea Act would later grant citizenship to 500 World War I vets from “barred zones” in 1935 and Slocum received the pen then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt used to sign it. FDR would later sign EO 9055 and Slocum and his family would end up interned in Manzanar.
The California-born recipient of a Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart and France’s Croix de Guerre for valor during World War I, Color Sergeant Sing Lau Kee marched down Fifth Ave. in Manhattan in 1919 and was described as the military parade’s “star exotic” by the New York Times and a “chink” by the Los Angeles Evening Herald. In his home state of California he was honored with a parade downtown San Jose as the most highly decorated soldier from that city, but he had a hard time finding a job. Before he died he would serve time for helping Chinese skirt racist immigration laws. This year, the New York Times published his obituary as part of its “overlooked” series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths were “unreported” by the Times (Kee died in 1967).
The exhibit includes the first edition of the Traité de Paix as well as T.S. Lawrence’s autograph book with a photo of the man known as Lawrence of Arabia. Yet doesn’t discuss how the official end of World War I would be marked by the failure of democracy when the US overruled the majority of its allies and excluded the Japan-sponsored Racial Equality Proposal in the Treaty of Versailles when it was signed on 28 June 1919. Eleven votes were made for, with the British Empire, the US, Portugal and Romania declining to register a response and Belgium absent. The treaty gave German territory in China to Japan, leading to a protest (May 4th Movement) and paved the way to World War II.
While politically Japan and other Asian countries were not given equal status and their nationals restricted under racist federal and state laws, their arts were treated with more respect. Before 1919, the Huntington estate acquired the Japanese House which had been “created in Japan and shipped to Pasadena in 1904 for a commercial garden” according to the Huntington Library website and “today the structure is considered one of the best examples of early twentieth-century Japanese architecture in the United States.”
Further evidence of the Huntingtons’ and society’s interest in Asia is found in the exhibit that displays a rare Edward Weston photo of Ruth St. Denis in her peacock costume. Peacocks are native to India and Sri Lanka and her “The Peacock” dance is based on an Indian legend of a woman who was so excessively vain that she turned into a peacock. St. Denis also performed “Danse Javanese.” In a different era, what she was doing might be called cultural appropriation.
While St. Denis was celebrated for her Pacific-Asian inspired dances, Thind was fighting for naturalization which was first granted in Oregon and then rescinded. Almost a decade after his SCOTUS case, Thind was granted citizenship in New York (1936). He died in Los Angeles (1967).
Other evidence of an interest in Japanese culture can be seen in the book covers and illustrations in the exhibit. The tipped-in illustrations of “Cinderella” by English illustrator Arthur Rackman and “Tanglewood Tales” by the French illustrator Edmund Dulac are examples of Art Nouveau, a movement that began in France and was highly inspired by the Japanese woodblock prints. Japanese art influenced Impressionism (1860-1880s), Art Nouveau (1890-1910), Art Deco (1910-1939) and Post-Impressionism (1886-1905). Greene and Greene used Japanese aesthetics for their Arts and Crafts masterpiece: the Gamble House (1908-9).
John Singer Sargent and Joseph Pennell, two artists featured in the exhibit, were also known to have been influenced by Japanese prints. Another artist included, British David Bomberg called one of his abstract paintings “Ju-Jitsu” (c. 1913), a form of Japanese self-defense practiced by his brother. Bomberg certainly had an awareness of Japan at some point and the UK had been one of Japan’s closest allies.
The Japanese influence, Japonism, was preceded by Chinoiserie which first appeared in Europe in the 17th century. One of the notable examples of Chinoiserie is in the Versailles Palace. The Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Art Collection is comprised of 18th-century French tapestries, porcelain and furniture. It would be surprising if Chinese influences were not represented there.
In 2019, San Marino is 47.7 percent Asian; one third of San Marino is ethnic Chinese. Pasadena is 16 percent Asian and 11 percent African American. Arcadia, where feral peacocks roam, is 59 percent Asian. The San Gabriel Valley is predominately Asian and Latino. Certainly, the Jazz Age which introduced African American musicians and music into white society had started in 1918, but that isn’t something really touched on by the exhibit. Demographics should be one consideration when approaching discussions on diversity.
In 1919, California was one of the leading voices in anti-Asian legislation even as California, American and European high society and artists and architects were interested, inspired and influenced by Asian and Pacific cultures. With examples of Japanism and other Asian influences included in the exhibit, it is surprising and disappointing that this aspect of diversity wasn’t explored in “Nineteen Nineteen.”