The town of Marysville, CA, north of Sacramento, hosts a parade each year honoring the Bok Kai Temple and the Chinese-American descendants of people who came to the town in the 1880s. Seminar-goers from the Temples and Museums Conference got to watch the parade down the main street, a spectacle that included their beloved and extremely long Chinese dragon (I counted at least 35 pairs of legs propping him up), martial arts clubs, high school bands, the de rigueur politicians in vintage cars, lads popping fire crackers along the street, and fire trucks old and new.
The day after the town celebrated “Bomb Day.” The event begins with a procession through town. Participants carry plaques with the names of various Buddhist deities. Thousands of firecrackers explode, turning the street a bright pink with their detritus. Eighteen handmade bombs stuffed with gunpowder are set off near the temple. A ring atop each cylinder bomb blasts into the air while young men below scurry to catch it and learn the lucky number it bears.
This was the 136th year of the Bok Kai Festival. Bok Kai is a protective god. The temple bears his name and is one of oldest Taoist temples in the country. The celebration happens in the second month of each Chinese New Year.
Friends of Marysville (California) Bok Kai Temple spearheaded a “Temples and Museums: Managing and Interpreting Historic Cultural Assets,” conference March 12 and 13. The Chinese American Museum of Chicago put on the event. I attended as a member of the Brannan Island-Isleton Historical Society board and learned that we in Isleton are lucky to have a tong building (Chinese gathering place and temple) that is under restoration. The Bing Kong Tong will have its many artifacts replaced and be ready for public viewing by about April of 2017.
But I learned that many towns’ and cities’ Chinese temples have gone under the wrecking ball, usually to make way for freeways and other roads. Their artifacts have been carried off as well.
Presenters shared their difficulties in preserving Chinese temples and their original contents. They were from Singapore, Victoria, Idaho, New Hampshire, Oregon, and other parts of the United States, along with a number of places in California.
Marysville organizers said their town has a long history of Chinese integration into the community and that they have been valued community members. Chinese descendants and non-Chinese members of town attested to that and urged participants to see the Bok Kai Temple in town. The temple was built in 1865, destroyed by fire the next year and rebuilt. Renovated in 1880, the temple saw 1,500 Chinese and other citizens at its grand opening. It is the oldest continually operating temple in Northern California.
Bok Kai was known as Ruler of the North. He vanquished the Demon King and is known for his ability to bring order out of chaos. He also is considered a water god, providing protection from both flood and drought.
We then adjourned to the Chinese temple in the town of Oroville where the restorer’s daughter gave us a tour of their extensive museum and still-active temple. The temple was built in 1863 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Conference organizers said that they want to keep the momentum of preservation going and will pass the baton to San Jose and Isleton to host the next two seminars.
I packed my four layers of clothing and new sub-zero rated snow boots—all from the San Francisco REI sale—and headed to Alaska. I have been to Alaska four times now, but this was the first in winter. I was told that to volunteer for the Iditarod I would need to bring a base layer, a second insulating layer, a third extra-insulating layer and a fourth wind- protection layer. Then there were indoor boots and buffs and hand warmers and toe warmers and a skinny layer of socks and heavy socks and hats and inner gloves and outer gloves and…Yep, it fit in my big yellow suitcase. Barely.
I met my friend Susan in Seattle. It had been her idea to volunteer for the “Last Great Race on Earth” as a 60th birthday venture. And she included me in the plan. I’ll be forever grateful.
The first morning at the Lakefront Hotel, headquarters for the Iditarod, I awoke to yelping noises below my window. I looked down on top of what I was to learn was a musher’s truck, with double decker crates on the long bed to house the sled dogs. A woman in a pink cap was systematically lifting dogs from each crate opening and hooking him or her to rings on the base of the truck. Sixteen of them to be precise. They were glad to be out of their sleeping quarters, and awaited food—large slabs of chicken for each.
Down in the parking lot, we met Sandra, the pink cap woman, who was happy to introduce her dogs and let us pet them. She is from Norway and is the longtime significant other of Norwegian dog sled racer Tore Albregtsen. Right off the bat, we had someone to cheer for.
The girl dogs were kept on one side of the truck, the boys on the other. All equally loveable, but Sandra said the females were the smart ones and the males had the muscles. No comment. (One of their top females did not compete because she was in heat, which is a whole other complication at the race.)
The couple was readying for the ceremonial opening of the Iditarod in two days and the real start the next. That night they attended a banquet and drew Bib #52, meaning they would be 52nd to begin the race, out of 85 teams. Teams are released every two minutes. The mandatory rests along the almost 1,000-mile course are two eight-hour and one 24-hour. Mushers who begin the race early will have a longer layover at a checkpoint to compensate for their starting position. The timing is precise and strict at the 20 checkpoints along the route. Teams can rest and eat at checkpoints but mushers often elect to just pull off the course to sleep and see to their dogs’ comfort.
Susan and I worked in the phone room for our first volunteer job, answering questions from anyone in the world who needed information about the race, from the order of the mushers to past races and stats. Some callers were children who were getting ready to follow the race from their classrooms. Some were older people who didn’t have computers and couldn’t get on Iditarod.com.
The next day we were given arm bands from Iditarod security, and we opened and closed roadways in downtown Anchorage so people could cross in between mushers. All 85 teams paraded for Alaskans and visitors, and honored their sponsors by letting them ride their sleds. The dogs were so excited they were jumping straight up and down in their harnesses. And yelping. And howling. It’s a hullabaloo. But these pups, who love to run, only had 3 miles to complete that day. Because Anchorage had very little snow, the city brought snow from Fairbanks by train to dump on the streets.
The real deal was Sunday, March 6, about 80 miles north of Anchorage. The official start (referred to as the restart) was at 1 p.m. on frozen Willow Lake. Families brought backpacks with food and drink and leaned on the orange crowd-control fencing, while the more macho drove snowmobiles around the lake in dizzying patterns.
All 85 mushers and enthusiastic, if panting, dogs took off without a hitch. The pups were eager for the sun to go down because the day was unseasonably warm at 40 degrees and that is hot weather for a husky type pooch. The sun was getting low as they headed through the woods and across Long Lake bound for Nome, and we took down fences from our security post.
Back in the Anchorage phone room we kept track of the race for callers and recorded fans’ musher-gram messages that would be delivered to checkpoints. Our largest duty was ahead: Dog Drop.
In front of the hotel, vets and dog handlers attached dogs who had been dropped from the race to fence posts. The dogs are flown by floatplane from the checkpoint where the mushers drop them off. There are various reasons a musher sends a dog back to home base. Dogs develop sore shoulders or paws. Some overheat because the weather in the daytime is too warm these days. (Mushers prefer to run at night anyway). Dogs who sustain a serious injury are flown to Anchorage Airport where they are taken to a clinic immediately.
The vets we helped looked over each dog carefully, took their temperatures, diagnosed their problems, made sure there was no blood in their urine or stools and handed them over to us. We bedded them down in the straw they are accustomed to, and gave them food and water. We put blankets over them and got to love them up. Oh yeah, and pick up poop.
The air was filled with the cry: “Dogs Coming” and a floatplane would crunch to a stop on the icy lake. Inside the plane you could see perked ears, bobbing heads and wagging tails of the dogs coming in. Once they settled down, however, they seemed pretty despondent to be away from their fellows and musher. As though they had failed somehow. We got to sit with them and reassure them they had done well and were good dogs. That wasn’t hard. They are all good dogs!
If their handlers don’t arrive in trucks to pick them up by 8 p.m., the dogs are taken to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, the women’s prison in town. Women at the facility who have been on best behavior and trained to handle the dogs take them under their wings until they are retrieved.
This year, veteran mushers whooshed into Nome in first and second places, both from the same family. Just as I was cozying up at home with The First Great Race, the book that I had bought at headquarters from author Dan Seavey, his grandson was streaking from Safety Checkpoint to Nome with seven dogs in his team. Dallas Seavey arrived 45 minutes before his father, Mitch. It took him 8 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes to get to Nome.
Grandfather Dan ran in the Iditarod its first year in 1973 and won third place. He completed four other races. Mitch Seavey has run teams in 13 of the last Iditarods except one, and placed first in 2004 and 2013. His son, Dallas, 27, has won the last three consecutive Iditarods and a fourth in 2012.
Aliy Zirkel came into Nome about six and a half hours behind the Seaveys, placing third. Aliy had been in first and second places and was giving the guys a run for their money but was attacked by a snowmachiner between Galena and Nulato checkpoints, about 560 miles from Anchorage. Since the mushers do not carry radios, she was unable to alert anyone that she had fended off an attacker until she got to Nulato and the same man came at veteran musher Jeff King who was next behind her. The snowmachine killed his lead dog, Nash. King had to pick up the dead dog and two more who were severely wounded and carry them in the sled with him to the checkpoint. King managed to come in ninth in the race, but both mushers were handicapped, both physically and emotionally.
Alaskans, so proud of their race, are crying foul. The drunk man has been apprehended and said he was in a blackout state but Alaska people, both Native and non-Native, feel sorrow that the race was tainted by this crime. It is certainly not in the spirit of the race, which honors the 1925 serum run—dubbed the Great Race of Mercy. When a diphtheria epidemic threatened remote Nome, 20 mushers and about 150 dogs blasted to Nome in five and a half days carrying antitoxin.
Here at home, it’s spring. But I am dreaming of next March. I have the bug. No, I am not moving to Alaska to become a musher, although 2016 Iditarod musher Jim Lanier is 75. But just to be around those joyful, energized dogs and their musher owners is revivifying. And it’s great to feel that you are contributing to a splendid event.
Next year I’m trying for a volunteer position with communications at a checkpoint. I’ve heard I’m signing up for sleep deprivation, frigid outhouses and no running water. But what the heck? Then on to Nome. Gotta see those doggies in.
Here is a gallery / slide show of some photos I took during our adventure:
Guilin was the beginning of our Li River experience. Chinese travelers packed our plane from Shanghai to this small city of about 1 million in Southeast China. I had read that Chinese people were traveling as tourists in their own country in increasing number. This was nice to see. Everyone seemed in a good mood.
My companion was impressed with how quickly Chinese air travelers exited the plane. No futzing around. Deplaning was their mission and they got ‘er done. Jan, who has been traveling around lately on U.S. conveyances, marveled at the mass efficiency we witnessed on Air China.
As we both did the driving in crowded cities—and pretty much everywhere is a crowded city. Our car drivers, experts in their field, seemed to manipulate the traffic rather than fall prey to it. Every moment called for attention in the extreme and was spent in what amounted to a contest of wills: cutting in front of, or dodging, all manner of vehicles: from bicycle trailers piled high with produce and three-wheeled trucks carting construction materials, to umbrella’d scooters loaded with whole families. Add to the mix multitudes of necessarily wary pedestrians.
Guilin’s traffic was less tense most of the time, except coming back from a cave walk and tea farm tour when we hit rush hour. (At the tea farm, we were able to try the regional variety made from sweet osmanthus.) Our hotel was surely the finest. Pagoda style, it sat in the center of Seven Star Park. Guests could only approach by staff-driven eight-person carts, luggage and all. They carried you through lush vegetation and grass clearings where people did Tai Chi, children raced around post-picnic, and tired parents relaxed.
Our second-story room looked out on a central pagoda and a couple of koi ponds. I say koi ponds because the fish dominated, particularly next to the bridge leading to the breakfast room. Children were given little bags of dried food to feed the begging fish, probably to discourage the kids from dropping miscellaneous breakfast items into the pond and to keep the koi on their regular diet. I had a favorite yellow giant but it was impossible to single out any one in the gush of bodies.
A light rain fell both mornings we were there but obligingly lifted as we left the dock on our Li River boat ride. That was fortunate because I didn’t want to miss one peak of the karst mountain ranges along our four-hour ride. We are talking bucket list, here, so I planted myself on deck with binoculars and camera. My friend and Australian tablemates were more comfortable downstairs and the views were good as well, but I somehow wanted to be in the outdoors. It made the mountains more immediate and real. Because one’s first impression of the scenery is, “This is not real.”
You must have to get up earlier than we did or stay out later to see the famed Li River fishermen with their cormorant pets, whom they have taught to catch fish and “hand” them over. But that was a small matter compared to seeing the endless, crazy, pointy mountains lining both sides of the river. I suppose one of the things that makes them remarkable is that they rise from the flat plains. The mountains’ limestone shapes are what one tourist outfit calls “fantastical.” I think that’s about the best adjective I’ve heard. I think I only took a little over 100 photos.
It’s the first evening of summer, the end of a long, fairly hot day, but the community garden is a welcoming spot. Families, couples and single folks are strolling in for the third in a series of cooking classes at the tables in back of Oak Park Sol Community Garden on Broadway.
Tyler Wescott, a certified Food Literacy Center “genius,” is dividing up what can only described as beautiful fresh produce among the three tables. On the back, his T-shirt says: “Ask me anything.” So I do. Tonight the recipes adults and children will be learning to make are white bean hummus—with squash, cucumbers and purple carrots cut up to dip into it—and SunButter yogurt parfait with seasonal berries on top. SunButter is a brand made from sunflower oil, cane syrup and salt, to satisfy the “unsaturated rather than saturated fat argument,” Tyler says. A major thrust of the organization is to encourage children to eat more fruits and vegetables. And to prove to them that those things can taste outstanding. Tyler will be the instructor this evening for this all-volunteer endeavor. His second in command is Tara Martinez who is not yet through the academy but is savvy enough to lend a hand with teaching the creation of parfaits. Tara is working at Whole Foods in Davis but about to transition to a job in Sutter General’s café. Formerly she interacted with an Obama-supported program that introduced a fruit-of-the-day to schoolchildren. At recess, she would hand out, and teach kids how to eat, everything from oranges to papayas. “The kids didn’t know what half the stuff was,” Tara says. “It made me sad.” She discovered that the Food Literacy Center, which just happened to be next door to the restaurant where she was a cook, was hosting a volunteer orientation. She signed up. “I love everything to do with cooking,” she says. She soon added her name to the volunteer list, which is about a hundred strong now. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of good people who intensions are all the same.”
Pat (no last name given) has lived in the neighborhood 33 years and is sitting on a bench waiting for the cooking to begin. She’s glad that children are being given a chance to become familiar with vegetables. “They wash, cut, stir, mix vegetables they normally wouldn’t try,” she says. The last session she attended they shredded beets, carrots and onions and topped the slaw with vinaigrette they fashioned themselves. “They would never have tried any of that before,” she says. She likes to see the teens participating too. “It’s fun to watch them enjoy the results of their cooking. Particularly the veggie wraps they had us make one time.” She has picked up tips too. Last session she learned to cut a green onion and deposit the part in water that you are not using in your dish. “It keeps growing and pretty soon you have your own chives.”
Oak Park Sol Community Garden
Baby Gage Jones supervises from his Dad’s head while his family makes hummus from fresh produce.
Kids from the Oak Park neighborhood wait for food genius Tyler to blend their hummus.
Oak Park Sol Community Garden’s worm box.
Kids’ herb garden. Don’t pick yet, please!
You’re never too young to make and enjoy hummus.
Farmers with plots donate some of the produce for the classes although most of it comes from other natural food resources. Today the donor is Heavy Dirt in Davis. Honey used in recipes is local, with the thought that people with allergies to various regional plants will find relief. A crowd of all ages has gathered. There is room for about 10 people per table. Tyler introduces what they will be making today and points to a mouth-watering array on each table. Zucchinis mingle with purple basil. Yellow nectarines, plums and apricots call out to be eaten. Tyler talks about the white cannellini beans that people can find canned if they do not want to cook them themselves and describes them as a fun alternative in hummus.
People gather around the tables and begin. Mike Jones, holding baby Gage, looks on while his wife Gina and their other son dig in to help with hummus. The family lives a couple of blocks away across from McClatchy Park and heard about the events at the farmers’ market. Gina is a vegan, Mike says, so these vegetable-oriented foods really appeal to her. While he likes vegan cooking, he says he still likes his meat and dairy. It is the second time for Max and his mother Rochelle. “He is getting more adventurous,” she says with a laugh. “He tried a yellow zucchini and he liked the Asian lettuce wraps and stone fruit salad last time. It is really helping his eating habits with this exposure.” Heather is there with her two sons Elliot and Martin. Her younger son likes to “mix a bunch of foods together,” she says. “He’ll easily mix sweet and sour.” They have been to a few classes at the College Heights Library. Heather looks down at her son after he has sampled the parfait. “Is it amazing?” she asks. “OK, high five.”
Meanwhile, Randy Stannard is nearby showing people the worm box that Sacramento State Environmental Studies Program has made for the garden. Randy is president of the board at Oak Park Sol and works for Soil Born Farms. Soil Born promotes programs that encourage young people and adults to learn how to produce healthful foods, and it mentors future farmers. The focus also is on teaching people to cook what they and others grow, and transforming urban spaces into community gardens. In general, they focus on green space development, Randy says. “Transitioning vacant lots or any unused spaces—like funny empty corners on a block. We can turn these into productive spaces. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a community garden. Some spaces may be suitable for some sort of housing development. Or maybe a little park instead of dead grass and weeds.” A major focus in the garden is to spread the concept and practice of urban gardening throughout this low-income neighborhood. Individual family plots are 15×10 feet, but all the gardeners take care of other areas of the garden. Within the community space is a kids’ garden, a wheel-chair accessible garden, a shade garden and native bee habitat—to mention a few. A greenhouse on the premises supports native plant growth. The 11,600- foot perimeter is planted with native California shrubs and wildflowers to attract butterflies and native bees. Besides the cooking classes, anyone can come to free composting and gardening classes. Randy and other food activists worked to see an ordinance passed by the City of Sacramento that promotes urban agriculture and is giving access to land for farmers. People with homes of an acre or more can support farmers. The ordinance took effect in April with the “purpose to support production and sale of locally grown foods, build community, increase public health and well being” and provide economic opportunities in areas that have been vacant or underutilized. These types of actions must be a neighborhood-led process, he stresses. “This community garden was started by the residents, spearheaded by Cara Jennifer Solis. Earl Withycombe inherited the land a few years ago. His family had owned the land since the 40s. The house associated with the land had burned down and he wanted to make it into something meaningful.” Randy says that in 2011, dumpsters started removing debris from the area. “It was full of trash and drug paraphernalia. Now people are gardening here year-round.”
My printer asked me, “How grand was your grand opening?” (for F and Main Gallery at 36 Main Street in Isleton, CA). Well, it’s hard to be modest because last Saturday’s event really was pretty grand. The photos and paintings all looked great: art work from Greg Crawford, Keith Palmer, James Motlow and me. About 200 people came through the doors in the three-hour period.
The two tables were groaning with food from the local two groceries and four restaurants. Hahn Winery’s reds and whites were featured. Lots of locals appearing and some not so locals drove from Napa, Oakland, Sacramento and San Francisco. A good opportunity to meet art lovers and members of the community, and see them mix.
Rogelio’s restaurant next door brought in a Chinese vase with large white lilies. Friends from Sacramento and Kansas City teamed up to buy an enormous ikebana arrangement of orchids and ginger. My gratitude to all for such a tremendous kick-off. I feel welcomed—and successful already.
Gallery of Artists Work:
Delta Daze, Acrylic on Canvas by Sally Ooms
Gum Shan, stylized images of the Delta by Greg Crawford
Locke Slough, Photo print by James Motlow
Untitled, Photo by Keith Palmer
Greg Crawford created stunning mixed media pieces on paper that reflected the California Delta “as settled and reshaped by humans. I explored the motifs of mountain, river, levee, labor and fields to examine this archetype,” says Greg. He titled his six-piece work Gum Shan, the Chinese expression for Gold Mountain, in honor of the Chinese laborers who reclaimed the Delta.
Keith Palmer is drawn by patterns that, through his camera lens, abstract everyday images. In his series “Ribbons of Energy,” he invites us to see the commonplace in unexpected ways.
James Motlow, who co-authored the book on the Chinese town of Locke, Bitter Melon, provided black and white photos from that book and newer color prints of the slough area in back of the town.
My acrylic paintings also were a combination of new and old. Many represented my recent time in the Delta, others similar landscapes I’ve traveled through.
F and Main Gallery will be open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 4 the first weekend in April through the last weekend in October and at Christmastime. Besides art shows, planned are storytelling events, music nights, community benefits, poetry slams and children’s art fairs.
Please drop by and see the new space and find out what’s happening.
Photos from the opening May 16, 2015: (Click any image to see a slideshow.)
Below is an article I wrote that will be included in an upcoming book called Remembering Locke 1915-2015.
Locke, California, artist Ning Hao was born and raised in Shanghai, the son of two Chinese doctors practicing Western-style medicine. Ning says that until 1949, his family owned and lived in a huge house—taking up a whole block—but then “we were liberated by the Communist Chinese Party” and favor went to those who had supported that party.
Even though his father donated their house and hospital to the government, his parents were discriminated against because they formerly had owned their own practices and had been in “business.” They were assigned to work in various sections of the city that the government determined: his mother in what had been the French District during Japanese occupation, his father the Chinese section.
Ning, born in 1957, remembers doing a lot of drawing from the time he was six. He has found inspiration for his art in various places. First were the pets he dearly loved. Unfortunately, he arrived home one evening from school during Spring Festival and all his pets were gone. He found out later that they had “gone” to dinner plates for the festival. “In China at that time you were not allowed to love anything that closely. It was traumatic for me. But compassion for animals—the word pet ceased to exist—was considered too remote. Animals became just food. You were supposed to love humans like that: your mother, father, sisters and brothers.
Ning’s brother, five years older, went to best local government school. Only one child per family was allowed that privilege so Ning was sent to a private school. Private schools had the opposite connotation from American ones. “It was not high quality. Sometimes we didn’t have enough pencils or paper.”
He describes the web of political parties and classes that existed in his formative years. His father was a leader in the Democratic Party, but Ning says the meetings were already fixed by the government before they occurred. “Even though there were nine political parties, Mao made sure that none of them was against him. It was a system designed to protect his power and save face internationally,” Ning says.
He also grew up in a time of austerity for women. “I never saw an earring, necklace, lipstick, false eyelash. Chinese women were only supposed to love red, the color of the Chinese revolution, never pink. All these (accouterments) were considered a sexual disease.
“If you had pimples on your face as a young person, it means you were mentally poisoned. You were to stay home and self-criticize. The community did not want to see you. Like if you were gay, you couldn’t survive.
“Two thousands years ago, they had already dismissed homosexuality,” Ning says. “So our race was seen as ‘healthy.’ It is really about old minds, even worse than Communist thinking, showing it had been a prejudiced society all along.”
Ning says that as a young person attracted to art, he was looking for a way to survive. “Because of my background of educated people with money, I was already seen as the rotten part of society. Neighbors did not trust us.”
His father was considered to be in the intelligentsia class, “like teachers or anyone with a brain to use for his own way to think. We couldn’t escape. For me it was a prison. My family was continually investigated. They broke into our house and sealed off antiques, the piano, gold, money into one room. “
Ning recalls the day that President Nixon visited his school. Curtains were drawn on all the school windows so that the important visitor would not see anyone peeking at him, and he would think all was being run properly. “As a young person of 16 or 17, I was very confused. The U.S. was called a dismissive name, the Paper Tiger, but when Mao was so polite to Nixon and we couldn’t even look at him, I thought he must be a god from the West coming to us. I couldn’t say this out loud, of course.”
Ning saw examples of what he didn’t want to have happen to him. His friend’s father who had been a scholar was forced to become a carpenter. “He used to be high ranking in geometry. Suddenly he could only use his knowledge to make furniture,” Ning says. “My friend was one year older and always doing paintings. I tried copies of the things—Communist Party designs—but he always said I was doing it wrong. He is the one who taught me color, how to mix it right.”
When Ning came to the U.S., he lost track of his friend. Later he heard that he stopped painting. He had been studying art, but there was no future in it. “He was locked outside society. He couldn’t marry. I could never find him. I lost my best friend.”
Getting to United States was no simple matter. There were lots of hurdles, major ones within his own family. It was partly because Ning had a “famous fight” as a freshman in high school with an adult over the issue of knowledge and whom it benefited. Ning pointed out that the riches stayed with the government. His father told him not to speak out any more because he was always politically incorrect. “They can put us all in jail and I could be executed,” his father told him.
Since they lived in a tiny house now and Ning was the youngest of four, he slept in the same room with his parents. Many times at night he heard their arguments over his fate. His father took the position that this son would not fit into Chinese society. His mother may have agreed but was reluctant to have her youngest removed from her.
Ning met a “blond haired, blue eyed, skinny, American-looking” neighbor who had documents allowing him to leave China. He was just divorced, had no kids and said he was going to the U.S. to look for his own race and wife.” Ning’s father said, “Don’t talk to him. He doesn’t like China.” Ning said, “I don’t either.”
There was one more “secret midnight conversation” about Little Bear (Ning’s nickname). His mother relented and a student nurse his father had employed in the 1950s became Ning’s sponsor.
He had an aunt who worked in San Francisco. He was allowed to bring a mere $37.50 with him from China so he was dependent upon his relatives. His aunt and uncle sent him to another uncle’s house in Philadelphia. He was a painter, supposedly a well-known artist from China, but he was upset with Ning. “You use too much paint,” he told Ning. “Put it on too thick. You’re an idiot artist like Van Gogh.”
He told Ning, “Go outside and make money.” Ning did hit the streets and painted people’s images for money. One day he made $100 and was proud. His Philadelphia uncle was mad at him, though. He said he forgot to turn the gas off and he ate all the food in the fridge. He never could please his uncle, it seems. He came back to San Francisco.
There he stayed at a hotel on Broadway, the Big Al. “My room was above a porno shop. It was the only place I could find for $150 a month. Eight by six with one sink. No mirror. A bed. I had one suitcase. That is how I started my independent life.”
In China he had been studying at a Shanghai artists’ school in graphic design but had not completed a major. He went to the San Francisco Academy of Art and took all manner of art classes for his liberal arts degree. Meanwhile, he charged $2 per drawing at the wharf, doing likenesses of the tourists. Because he had no license and was getting more popular than many of the regulars who did portraits, someone called the police on him. He was very nervous because this would be a major infraction in China, cheating the government, but the San Francisco police told him to go home and not come back. “But there I had already earned $400.”
After his graduation, he applied to the Academy to be a teaching assistant and work toward his master of fine arts. He received a scholarship for eight semesters and taught with Thomas Mache, the director of the sculpture department.
He finished his MFA in two years but only had a work permit for one year. He wondered how he would get a green card. His advisor introduced him to City College of San Francisco where he took his portfolio, the same one he later carried to New York City. There he met future wife. I took her to Chinatown, which she loved, particularly when it closed down at night. You could hear the Chinese voices and violins. We had a very nice dinner.”
When his future wife found that he lived in a dumpy place, she said she would help him move. He moved to Chinatown, a fourth floor place on Clay and Stockton. “But I spoke Mandarin. They spoke Cantonese. I had moved to another foreign land,” he laughs. He soon married and moved to his wife’s apartment.
Ning got a traffic ticket and had to go to driving school. As luck would have it, the first night he met a woman who was a French teacher in San Mateo and had lived in Paris for two years. She made connections for him so he could take his portfolio to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because he had copied the masters so well, the museum thought he had stolen Cezannes and Matisses from them.
When he said they were his, they told him he was a very good copier, in that case. No galleries in New York wanted to work with even very good copies of masters, Ning relates. One said, very simply, “Where is the you?”
At the Gallerie Rienzo, they asked what painting Ning had done in this country. He showed them a few pictures he had of Golden Gate Park “and they said ‘sold!’ That is how I got my first paintings in a gallery in New York. But I thought I had better find a local gallery in San Francisco.” He was able to sell three watercolors to the Maxwell Galleries, each for $1,500. “I was moving up in price,” he says, “even though the paintings didn’t even have frames on them.” He also retouched some paintings he had done on Broadway and sold them for $3,000 and $5,000. He has much gratitude toward Maxwell Galleries who jumpstarted his formal painting career.
Ning joined competitions and won best of show at the Santa Rosa show. He was invited to have a show at the Concord Community Center with two other Chinese painters. He also showed at Fairfield and Walnut Creek. It was in Walnut Creek that he was told there was a place called Locke in the Delta. “When I came to Locke, I came to the River Road Gallery and saw Connie King (the woman who helped preserve Locke after many other Chinese died.) I asked her if she sold any other than Locke artists. She told me, ‘This is a membership. You also have to sit here.’
“When I told her I was from the Bay Area, she said there was a house for sale here. My wife had always wanted a house. We bought one that Ping Lee (the unofficial mayor of Locke) had owned. My wife loved Ping Lee’s garden. We asked him if he would please take a loan. We had no history of owning a house, only of renting. Our housecleaning money would never buy a house.”
Ning has fond memories of Ping who let them pay him for nine years. “He was a very kind and honest businessman,” he says. “Later Connie introduced me to this studio.” He looks around at the Locke Main Street gallery he has created in the old Happy Café and dance hall. It is chock a block full of his strong, colorful and skillful paintings of the Delta and California scenes, the animals he so admires—both wild and tame—and a variety of other themes.
He says most of his clients are from San Francisco, New York and Europe, people who are familiar with him since his Maxwell Galleries days. He sells more locally as well, in Walnut Grove, Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Fairfield and Concord. He has paintings in a gallery in Tiburon.
He knows Danny Glover, who has visited him in Locke. Ning was once part of a gallery that Glover owned in San Francisco. Eddie Murphy came to use Ning’s Locke building in a movie and Ning earned $700 a day just for the setting.
The artist works on his “sculpture paintings” avidly every day. “I call them that because they have a high posture, lots of paint, lots of mixing which I combine in every stroke. Every stroke is like a carving. Some I do smooth like the Renaissance painters but I fully understand the difference between the two- and three-dimensional.”
Ning, who has taught art history for a number of years, has ambitions to rewrite an artist catalogue. He sees this as a way to dissolve the problems of prejudice and racism he thinks has affected the world’s art. “We all live under the same blue sky. We need to stop all this nonsense of denying different people and their environments. We are brainwashed in our backgrounds to judge others. My solution is to respect the others: the people who we are not familiar with.
“Locke is a good place for a painter,” he says, “even if you don’t receive a big value selling your paintings like you do in the city. It’s a good place to live, where the Chinese transition has been to a beautiful land. California has beautiful light. A symphony of color. The bottom line is how we see color.”
I’m excited to invite you to the opening reception of my new gallery and home of Home Free Publishing beautiful downtown Isleton, California. Save the date and join us for an evening of art, music, food and fun. Everyone welcome!
Grand Opening Reception of the F and Main Gallery
Featuring works by these Artists:
Painter, Gregory Crawford
Painter, Sally Ooms
Photographer, James Motlow
Photographer, Keith Palmer
36 Main Street, Isleton, CA
(on the corner of F St.)
Saturday May 16, 2015
5PM – 8PM
Hors d’oeuvres from local purveyors Local wine and other beverages Live music
A beautiful venue at the Sacramento County Public Library in downtown Sacramento April 12. The Authors’ Fair was a great success for all. I had a booth next to the California Writers’ Club. I’m a member and was proud to be placed next to them. Sold some books but, best of all, met so many other authors and readers. Thanks to the library for this first event!
That means by human beings. Human beings whom we rarely think about as we decide what to eat every day.
For me, this comes on the heels of having seen the movie Food Chains which now is airing in 50 cities in the country as well as being available to watch in iTunes for .99 cents. This is an important documentary about farmworkers in Florida who take on the supermarket industry. It is about their attempt to lead fellow farmworkers, who are suffering subhuman working and living conditions, out of poverty.
Maybe it’s a good opportunity for us this week to read a bit about what farmworkers are enduring and think about our sources of food. It doesn’t stop with the farmer. Someone has to pick it. The producers of Food Chains have done a great job with their website and social awareness campaigns. Check out their Take Action page to get involved.