In Huntington Library’s “Nineteen Nineteen” exhibition, shadows of Asian influences are present through appropriations and art adaptations, but Asian contributions to American life 100 years ago are generally overlooked.
That is somewhat remarkable, considering Japan was one of the principal allied powers during World War I. Though not yet a state, Hawaii had an all-Japanese military regiment. The Japanese were not viewed as enemy aliens at that time, despite existing federal and state anti-Asian legislation.
In the San Gabriel Valley, Japanese people were plentiful enough to establish the Japanese Farmers Association of the San Gabriel Valley in 1913, and in 1923 the San Gabriel Japanese Community Center was established.
Some Asian veterans fought in WWI expecting citizenship, but these promises were not kept. In 1919, En Sk Song petitioned for naturalization in California, as did fellow Korean Easurk Emsen Charr, who had been drafted. Japanese national Ichizo Sato applied for American citizenship in Hawaii, and got it in 1919. But when he moved to California and registered to vote he was denied on the grounds of race.
Hidematsu Toyota (Hidemitsu Toyota v. US, 1925) and UC Berkeley-educated Bhagat Singh Thind (US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923) took their cases of racial discrimination to the Supreme Court. Yet, according to “Echoes of Freedom: South Asian Pioneers in California, 1899-1965,” the Thind decision resulted in Indians who were already naturalized having their citizenship rescinded and their land ownership put in legal limbo.
Japanese-born Tokutaro Slocum lobbied for the Nye-Lea Act, which granted citizenship to 500 World War I vets in 1935. Slocum received the pen that then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt used to sign the act, but FDR also signed Executive Order 9066, which sent Slocum to the Japanese detention facility at Manzanar.
In 1919, Sing Lau Kee, the California-born recipient of a Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart and France’s Croix de Guerre for valor marched in the Manhattan victory parade and was also honored with a parade in San Jose as the most highly decorated soldier from that city. This year, The New York Times published his obituary as part of its “overlooked” series on remarkable people whose deaths were “unreported” by the Times.
The Asian aspects of 1919 are unreported in this exhibit, although items displayed are connected to Asia. The exhibit includes the first edition of the Traité de Paix as well as T.S. Lawrence’s autograph book, yet doesn’t discuss the failure of democracy when the US overruled the Japan-sponsored Racial Equality Proposal.
While Asian countries were not given equal status and their nationals were restricted under racist federal and state laws, their arts were treated with more respect. The Huntington estate acquired the Japanese House prior to 1919 and installed the Japanese Garden. And Greene and Greene used Japanese aesthetics for their Arts and Crafts masterpiece, Gamble House (1908).
The exhibit displays a rare Edward Weston photo of Ruth St. Denis in her peacock costume. St. Denis’ “The Peacock” dance is based upon an Indian legend of a woman whose vanity transformed her into a peacock. She also performed “Danse Javanese.” In a different era, what she was doing might be called cultural appropriation.
The tipped-in illustrations of “Cinderella” by English artist Arthur Rackman and “Tanglewood Tales” by the French illustrator Edmund Dulac are examples of Art Nouveau, a movement that began in France and was inspired by Japanese woodblock prints. John Singer Sargent and Joseph Pennell, two artists featured in the exhibit, were also known to have been influenced by Japanese art.
The Japanese influence, or Japonism, was preceded by Chinoiserie which first appeared in Europe in the 17th century, so one wonders if the Arabella D. Huntington Memorial Art Collection, which is comprised of 18th-century French tapestries, porcelain and furniture, doesn’t have evidence of the Chinese influence on European arts.
In 2019, San Marino is 47.7 percent Asian; Pasadena is 16 percent Asian. Arcadia is 59 percent Asian. The San Gabriel Valley is predominately Asian and Latino. Demographics should be one consideration when approaching discussions on diversity, especially at an institution as prestigious as the Huntington.