Features & Columns

City Beneath the City at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art

A new show at SJICA brings to life the buried and forgotten history of San Jose's Chinatown
REMAINS OF THE PAST: Onlookers circa 1887 view the demolition of Chinatown in San Jose. Image Courtesy of History San Jose

Endless cycles of creation and destruction continue to characterize the city of San Jose, even today. But thanks to a new show at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, " City Beneath the City," artifacts excavated from the destruction of the old Market Street Chinatown are now on display for all to see.

In the gallery, there's even a ghostly-white chair one sits in, solely to contemplate the wreckage of what was probably the first instance in a long history of San Jose systematically destroying the exotic within itself. One can view tiny fragments of shattered pottery, opium pipes, dirt remnants, discarded bottles, fish vertebrae and more.

For those unfamiliar with the story, in the late 19th century a thriving Chinatown existed right where the Fairmont Hotel now sits. A conciliatory plaque graces the outside of the building, but it only scratches the surface.

At the height of its existence, the Market Street Chinatown was the largest Chinese community anywhere in the United States outside of San Francisco. The neighborhood thrived both economically and culturally from the 1860s until an arsonist torched the area in 1887.

One hundred years later, as RDA-funded bulldozers upended the dirt in order to prepare for the Fairmont, archeologists unearthed what was left from a century earlier and discovered one of the most important excavation sites of overseas Chinese materials in the United States at the time.

Unfortunately, the scientists were not allowed to perform a complete excavation, since San Jose's quest to have a reputable hotel was more important, but the archeologists were indeed able to salvage what they could. Which turned out to be more than 4,000 objects.

Today, History San Jos– oversees the collection of artifacts, but Stanford students in Barbara Voss' anthropology classes have pored through the materials for years, cataloging them in order to make them accessible to the public.

Artist Rene Yung, herself an immigrant who made the same journey to America a century after the fire, has now assembled 60 of the artifacts to present "City Beneath the City." As I've said before, beneath the native lies the exotic.

Oddly enough, that's precisely the impression one gets at this show. The space-time continuum–shattering juxtaposition of contemporary vs. past, of native vs. exotic, emerges from the exhibit. In a normal scenario, a contemporary gallery exhibits that which is contemporary, meaning work that represents the current "now." In this case, however, stories from the past are viewed through a contemporary lens.

That lens is the theme of the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial, Seeking Silicon Valley, and "City Beneath the City" is presented in conjunction with the biennial. Since most of us understand by now that Silicon Valley is more a state of mind, an idea, a network, than one geographical place with a nonsensical "capital," the biennial theme encourages artists to contemplate and search for what Silicon Valley means to them.

"City Beneath the City" does exactly that. It searches for what used to be here more than 100 years ago, drawing attention to the multilayered history of this region. It is not an exhibit of mere objects but a framing of the stories left behind by those objects. In other words, "City Beneath the City" is not an exhibit of representation as one would normally see in a gallery; rather, it is an exploration of absence. Each object has a relationship with the unknown, the forgotten and the ignored.

"And it is that unknown that I hope will speak to visitors of what they know," writes Yung. "Of inhabiting place and time, of sharing in community, of seeking to survive and thrive. This installation continues my interest in tracing forgotten histories embedded in present spaces. The gaps, the silences, the unknown, are an integral part of the weave and patterning of the work."

In the show, display pedestals feature keywords like "destroy," "resurface" and "nuisance." Those words could describe any era of San Jose history, but they work perfectly for this exhibit. For example, the pedestal marked "remains" features a bag of fish vertebrae. They resemble children's toys, almost like mini-Legos. As I finish writing this column, sitting in the San Jose Fairmont lounge, my appreciation of creation and destruction is greatly enhanced. I have discovered the exotic beneath the native.

City Beneath the City

Runs through Sept. 16

San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art