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Chinatown: Once and Again

Aug. 30, 2010

The Republic Café was once a bustling restaurant in Chinatown, a gathering place for the Chinese, Japanese and Filipino communities of Salinas. Now, decades after it closed, it's being reborn.

In 2012, the abandoned site on Soledad Street is scheduled to reopen as the Salinas Chinatown Cultural Center and Museum. It will chronicle, preserve and spread the stories of those who lived and worked in the neighborhood through exhibitions, oral histories, artifacts and cultural events.

On Oct. 15, CSU Monterey Bay will host a symposium, Chinatown: Once and Again, intended to raise awareness of the museum and the rich history found on Soledad Street and inspire people to get involved.

The symposium was envisioned by and organized by CSUMB's Department of Visual and Public Art. The daylong event will bring together nationally known scholars, community members, students and museum professionals to share their ideas, expertise and vision for the museum.

Dr. Jack Tchen, a historian, cultural activist and co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America, will be the keynote speaker. Professor Tchen founded the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute at New York University.

His teaching and research interests include cross-cultural and community studies; Asians in the Americas; and race, colonialism, and museums. He has written several books, including Genthe's Photographs of San Francisco's Old Chinatown, which won an American Book Award. He works on a range of exhibits, films, radio, and other public humanities projects.

A panel moderated by CSUMB's Dr. Amalia Mesa-Bains will examine success stories in the field. Panelists include Sue Lee of San Francisco's Chinese Historical Society; Karin Higa, curator at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles; and Rene Yung, a San Francisco-based community artist.

Community members Wellington Lee, Wally Ahtye and Larry Hirahara – all of whom have strong ties to Chinatown – will give a presentation on the area's history, followed by an update on the project that will cover the building, the collections and related topics.

"Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined this," said Lee, who grew up in Chinatown. "I'm very excited about it."

Ahtye, whose parents owned the Republic Café, said it was the hub of Chinatown. It operated from 1942 to 1988.

"The café was a nice place to congregate with all the different ethnic groups," Ahtye said. "Everyone used it as a gathering place for celebrations, Chinese New Year, marriages and births.

"The Japanese, Chinese and Filipino communities all gathered there. It was a nice community."

Ahtye's family lived above the restaurant. He remembers the Peking duck being the most popular dish on the menu. "And the community liked our ground pork with salted fish."

Hirahara, co-chair of the Salinas Downtown Community Board and a member of the Salinas Buddhist Temple, is excited that the cultural center and museum will highlight the contributions of Asian American immigrants.

"We want to preserve the history of this historic area. Our common theme is the Japanese, Chinese and Filipino laborers," he told the Nichi Bei newspaper.

Work has already started to renovate the building. The "Chop Suey" sign has been repaired and was unveiled at a celebration last October.

"The sign was the initial step in renovating the café as a museum. We wanted to have something for people to see," said Lee, who is working on a book about Chinatown.

Earlier this year, an exhibition on the Chinese community in the area ran for 12 weeks at the National Steinbeck Center. It offered a sneak preview of what will be on display at the museum when it opens.

"Once we finish the shows" – meaning the Chinese show and two more to follow, focusing on the Japanese and Filipino communities – "we will box the exhibits up. And once the museum opens, it will have ready-made exhibits," said Steinbeck Center curator Deborah Silguero.

CSUMB students are playing a key role in the creation of the museum. Humanities and museum studies students are gathering oral histories and historical artifacts. Some of those students will make a presentation at the symposium.

The museum is the cornerstone of the Chinatown Renewal Project, a cooperative effort among CSUMB, the Salinas Redevelopment Agency and the Salinas Downtown Community Board to revitalize the 12-block neighborhood.

The symposium will start at 9 a.m. with a welcome by CSUMB President Dianne Harrison in the University Center on Sixth Avenue.

The event is free, but registration is required. To register, call (831) 582-4337 or e-mail Driving directions and a map of campus can be downloaded at

Anyone who would like to learn about Chinatown before attending the symposium is invited to register for a class through CSUMB's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Two class meetings will be taught by Mr. Lee, who grew up in Chinatown, including a tour of the area. The class culminates with the symposium.

To learn more about OLLI, or to register for the class, call (831) 582-5500, or visit