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
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
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
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.
Sound montage for the Japanese American Exhibition (Steinbeck’s Japantown in Chinatown), with:
- Simple sound log; and
- Annotated sound log (50 page booklet)
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)
Some of these item were produced for the National Steinbeck Center and some of the content is copyright restricted to limited educational purposes. Please contact me if you would like copies and we'll see what can be worked out. I am considering making versions without the restricted material included, but have not yet begun such a project.