Sounds of Steinbeck’s Chinatown

Film: The Sounds of Steinbeck’s Chinatown

Film Credits for “The Sounds of Steinbeck’s Chinatown”

John Steinbeck was born near Chinatown in Salinas, California, a place where people of all races and nationalities gathered. He played there as a boy, even more so as a man, and its people inspired some of his best characters.

I made a film, wrote two books, and composed the music and sound for three Exhibitions at The National Steinbeck Center about the people who lived in or were touched by this place, inspired by stories as ancient as the spice trade, and as new as the great-grandchildren now being born to its elders. People of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Mexican and mixed ancestry have been coming to the Monterey-Salinas area since the 1500s. “The Sounds of Steinbeck’s Chinatown” is about the woven history of cultures in Chinatown mixing the sounds of everyday life, memories and dreams to create a rich fabric that reflects the best of America.

Coming to California on the Spanish galleons, the first persons with Chinese and Japanese blood who stayed in California were likely Filipinos of mixed heritage.

What did they hear on those lumbering, crowded spice-scented ships slowly sailing in an uncharted sea? Did they dream of the music of their forefathers from instruments like the nose flute, or the shakuhachi?

Two hundred years later, when Father Serra established the Carmel Mission, his Filipino assistant Narciso at his side, what did Narciso hear?

It turns out we know exactly what it sounded like – Father Serra recorded all of the music and sound details of that day in letters to his friends.

And another 150 years later, what would you hear walking down the street in Steinbeck’s Chinatown? A time before World War II when Steinbeck was hanging out with Doc Ricketts on Cannery Row, and desperate families were working their way through a cruel economic depression then entering its sixth and seventh and eighth years. Hitler was rising in the east, Japan in the west, with increasing belligerency. Waves of immigrants to the United States were fleeing even more desperate circumstances than a Depression-era United States. At the same time, an epic drought drove 250,000 families from Oklahoma and neighboring states to California.

During these times, racial discrimination wasn’t optional, it was legally required. People of mixed race could not marry. Blacks, Hispanics and Jews couldn’t buy land in many of the communities around the Monterey Peninsula.  What did that sound like?

The center of gravity of these stories is the Chinatown of Steinbeck’s time; the mid-1930’s, 40’s, 50’s, when Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Cannery Row.

I like to think about walking down the streets of Chinatown, listening. Hearing bars, clubs, restaurants, soldiers, gambling – and the families, the kids playing, Mom cooking, maybe Dad’s practicing a traditional instrument, and maybe the kids are listening to the radio that played country music in the morning and swing at night. Then I wonder, what are the sounds of their dreams? What are the sounds of their memories?

Great writers come to this place and stay awhile: John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jeffrey Deaver, and many others. They looked and they listened and it inspired their writing.

Some sounds are timeless: weather, water, birds, steps on gravel.

Some sounds are time-stamped: milk pails, typewriters, an old tractor, a steam locomotive.

Some sounds are just of a place. In the case of Chinatown, the loudest sound was the train. The second loudest sound was the Bonsho—the giant bell in front of the Salinas Buddhist Temple. Music was constantly playing to entertain the endless stream of visitors to the area. Buzzers in the booths of the Republic Café to summon the waitresses could be heard amid the lull of big sounds.

There are sounds all people share: babies, lullabies, children’s choirs, kids playing, families cooking, eating together, or cleaning up. Cars, trucks, buses—everyday life.

And then there are the sounds we hear in our dreams or imagination. The Filipino working the lettuce fields around Salinas thinking about his family still struggling, maybe remembering the lullaby his grandmother sang him, or the songs the family sang together when he was a child. The Chinese shopkeeper dreaming of his wife in China he was prohibited from bringing to America. Maybe he’s thinking of a Chinese love song, or maybe an American one he’d like to sing her. Maybe she’s dreaming of him, and the song in her heart. The Japanese, interned in the prisons of southwest Arizona, dreaming of the times with friends in Salinas, when jazz and country music played through a radio the size of a cabinet.

Leonardo da Vinci said,

“The good painter has to paint two principal things, that is to say man, man and the intention of a man’s mind.”

The music of our dreams is also part of the sound of Chinatown, and a big part of the compositions in the Exhibitions.

I wasn’t planning on making a film, but when asked to give a talk at the International Steinbeck Festival about my sound montages. I made a film instead about my journey through the Sounds of Steinbeck’s Chinatown and the making of America.


Products produced and performed
Sound montage for the Chinese American Exhibition (Steinbeck’s Chinatown) with simple sound log.2011:
Sound montage for the Japanese American Exhibition (Steinbeck’s Japantown in Chinatown), with:
–                Simple sound log; and
–                Annotated sound log (50 page booklet)2012:
Sound montage for the Filipino American Exhibition (Steinbeck and Sounds of the Filipino American Experience), with:
–                Annotated sound log (358 page book)A film for the International Steinbeck Festival: The Sounds of Steinbeck’s Chinatown (39 minutes)