The Sound of 100 Chinese Grocery Stores

The following essay, which was originally presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, in June 2019, is a sketch, or series of dovetailing sketches, based on feelings and thoughts I had after visiting an exhibition (GROPING in the DARK) that was showing at the time. (1) The essay was presented in the present-tense, which I am going to switch to now. It is also based on a dream. I am going to start at the end of the essay, by reading the final sentence, which is a question: What is the sound of 100 Chinese grocery stores that no longer exist? 

Here is a longer version of that sentence: What is the sound of 100 Chinese grocery stores that once existed but no longer exist? 

Here is an even longer version of that sentence: What is the sound of 100 Chinese grocery stores that once existed in downtown Tucson, but, because of urban renewal (white entitlement, anxiety and rage, their effects and aftereffects), were displaced and/or destroyed, and therefore no longer exist?

And finally, here is a possible revision of that sentence: Decades after their death by urban renewal, the 100 Chinese grocery stores that used to populate downtown Tucson are waiting for someone, anyone, to visit them.

I had a dream recently that there were two Spiral Jetties. By dream I mean I was asleep. By Spiral Jetties I mean Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, located in the Great Salt Lake. In the dream, a group of middle-aged white women and I were visiting Spiral Jetty. When we arrived, we discovered there was not one Spiral Jetty but two. The Spiral Jetties were side-by-side, composed of the same mud, salt, and rocks, in the same configuration, so it was impossible to tell the original from the imitation. We stood on the shore and stared at the two Spiral Jetties, wondering which one to walk down.

If the middle-aged women and I had been of a different character, we might have felt rewarded, that we—faithful yet economical consumers of art—were getting two Spiral Jetties for the price of one. Instead, we were indignant. The sight of two Spiral Jetties, and our inability to distinguish between them, degraded the significance of the one we had been imagining, and made it impossible to see either the original, the imitation, or anything, really, beyond our own indignation.

Why was I so indignant? No, that is not the question I want to ask. The question I want to ask is, why did I have a dream about Spiral Jetty in the first place? I have never been there, I have never wanted to go, nor do I ever think about Robert Smithson or his work, so how did Spiral Jetty make its way into my subconscious?

Let me re-enter the dream. The sun was bright. The lake was white. The surrounding landscape looked like a construction site: dug up, destroyed, which it was in 1970, the year it was built. It required construction crews, loaders, tractors, dump trucks. And it was built twice. Smithson was dissatisfied with the original, so he ordered it to be made again. In other words, there really are two Spiral Jetties, one a revision of the other, the first, or its failure, buried inside the second. 

I am sharing this dream because this reading is taking place in an art space, so I thought I would share a recent dream about art. But I also believe that dreams can, when re-inhabited, act as allegories or illustrations of the problems in our thinking.

The exhibition, GROPING in the DARK, is accompanied by a card. Included on the card is the following text: WHEREAS the neighborhood of this Museum was produced through a program of urban renewal, displacing and destroying previous human & non-human assemblies. There is much to say about what this says, but what I want to say, for now, is that I am frustrated that the card does not name the perpetrators of this displacement and destruction (white settlers) and more importantly, does not name the neighborhood’s previous human assemblies that were displaced and destroyed—the Mexican, Black, Jewish, Lebanese, Syrian, Japanese, and Chinese families and communities—as if, by being forced to remain nameless, they were being taken for granted as ghosts.

 Spiral Jetty, or, as I refer to it (following my dream), Spiral Jetties, are located 15 miles southwest of where the country’s first transcontinental railroad was completed. This proximity was one of the reasons Smithson chose the site. On May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines were joined in Promontory, Utah. A ceremonial golden spike was driven into the tracks by Leland Stanford, businessman and founder of Stanford University. A photograph was taken to commemorate the moment. It shows approximately 100 men posing with two trains. All the men are white. Absent from the photo are any of the African American and Native American men who worked on the railroad. Also absent are any of the 15,000 men who made up 90% of the Central Pacific workforce: Chinese immigrants.

 Here is a crude abridgment of what followed. Eleven years after the golden spike photograph was taken, 1,300 Chinese railroad workers arrived in Tucson. They settled primarily on Meyer, Main, Pennington, Congress, and Alameda Streets. Two years later, in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning the immigration of Chinese men to the United States, was passed. (The Page Act, banning the immigration of Chinese women, was passed five years earlier.) Eighteen years later, in 1900, the Chinese were banned from working on the railroad. That same year, the first Chinese- owned/operated grocery stores in Tucson opened. By the 1940s, there were approximately 100 Chinese grocery stores in Tucson.

 In his essay, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” published in the December 1967 issue of Artforum, Robert Smithson introduces the idea of ruins in reverse, which he defines as all the new construction that would eventually be built. This is the opposite, he writes, of the “romantic ruin” because the buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise as ruins before they are built. In the essay, Smithson takes a bus from Manhattan to Passaic and visits what he calls the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory-traces of an abandoned set of futures: construction sites, concrete abutments, a parking lot. He inventories a landscape defined by its waste, or its being wasted, a landscape programmatically alienated from itself by way of an explicit production of waste, which is reliant upon the displacement and destruction of people and communities, and their replacement with what amounts to an assimilated imitation. Waste, in a place like Passaic, New Jersey circa 1967, is not a byproduct. It is the product.

As it is in Tucson. Ruins in reverse might be useful in describing the perpetual interment and disinterment of downtown Tucson, a process that seems to satisfy a set of simple truths: the more the landscape is developed, the less landscape remains; therefore the more tenuous, artificial, and stressed the relationship between the landscape and its occupants becomes. The landscape is transformed into a wound and development becomes the scar tissue of the wound: layers and layers of scar tissue, undressed, unhealed, and made continuously to bear the weight, the exposure and shock, of each successive wound, each successive layer of scar tissue.

I live east of here, on 4th Avenue. I walk these streets every day. I walk through the ruins in reverse: the construction sites and pits and empty lots that betray the shadow reality of development as the cruel art of speculation, which holds once-living land hostage in a vacuum of abandonment, and away from the people and communities from whose lives the city continues to divest.

A student at City High, downtown, where I used to be a substitute teacher, told me about how her father was digging a hole in their yard to plant a tree when his shovel hit something hard—a human skull. This was in the Presidio. The skull, it turned out, belonged to someone who had been buried sometime between 1862 and 1875, in a graveyard, the largest section of which was dug up to make way for the Pima County Public Service Center, on Stone, just south of Toole.

I said the skull belonged to someone, but what does that mean? To whom or what, after we die, do our skulls belong?

I want to pause here to invite everyone to feel their skull. To touch, through your face, through your skin, through your cartilage and muscle, your skull, and really feel it, as your skull.

We each produce, in our lives, innumerable graves. “A grave is anywhere we leave an unrepeatable part of ourselves,” I wrote in The Grave on the Wall. “A part that was arrested or has broken away.” But a grave must be identified. And it must affirm that, yes, someone or something—a life, or lives, or part of a life—was arrested or has broken away, and was buried here, although the grave might not be forthcoming about who or what, or who did the burying, and its affirmation might be untranslatable. But the grave will become energized with the potential of becoming a ritual grave, which is where the living go to visit the dead. It bears the power and responsibility of emanating and animating history into a limitless future. And yet the grave exists, and only ever exists, in the present; therefore it must be tended and maintained and renewed and honored in the present.

If a ruin in reverse is a ruin that rises before it is built, could it also be said that a ghost precedes the death of the person or thing that releases it? That development, for example—the layers of scar tissue—is the incarnation of the ways, or the fact, that we are not haunted by, so much as we haunt, in order to pacify and subdue, the past?

ABC Market, Eagle Market, Economy Market, Five Points Market, Liberty Market, Lucky’s Market, OK Market, Miracle Market, Sunny Corner Grocery, Sunnyside Grocery, Sunshine Grocery, Time Market, Church Street Grocery (just north of here) at 257 Church, Chin TY (right here) at 194 Convent, Sing Yee at 23 Convent, Wing Tom at 350 Convent, Lee Wah at 520 Convent, Pay’n Save at 37 Meyer, Chung Hing Company at 100 Meyer, Del Monte Market at 116 Meyer, Fon Yuen Tong at 125 Meyer, Lee Tan at 137 Meyer, Washington Market at 213 Meyer, Star Mercantile at 220 Meyer, Suey Yuen at 251 Meyer, Lim Yuen at 347 Meyer, Lee Henry at 406 Meyer, Gee Hung at 486 Meyer…spaces that were flooded, each morning, with desert light, into which people—families and friends and strangers—entered, were greeted, browsed, had credit, conversations, fed and refreshed themselves. And yet, how can we move beyond remembrance—the often well-meaning corpsification of the past—and towards realization, the extension and evolution and re-enfranchisement of the past into the present, towards making space for the past in our experience and understanding of where we live?

Where are the 100 Chinese grocery stores now? Can we visit them? How can we visit them? In what form would we find them? In what form must we find ourselves first? What is the sound of 100 Chinese grocery stores that no longer exist?


1. GROPING in the DARK, MOCA Tucson, June 30, 2019-September 27, 2019

i. GROPING in the DARK, MOCA Tucson, June 30, 2019-September 27, 2019. The exhibition was described as addressing “human land use and the effects of the modification of Earthly matter upon interdependent ecologies of mind, society, and environment.”

Brandon Shimoda

Brandon Shimoda is the author of several books of poetry and prose, most recently The Grave on the Wall (City Lights, 2019), which received the PEN Open Book Award, and Hydra Medusa (Nightboat Books, 2023). His next book, on the memory of Japanese American incarceration, will be published by City Lights in 2024.

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