Landmark Salinas Cafe to Reopen as Asian Cultural Center

HISTORIC LANDMARK — The cafe was once a gathering place for Japanese, Chinese and Filipino community members. Photo by Erin Yasuda Soto

SALINAS, Calif. — The Republic Cafe in Salinas was once a bustling restaurant in Chinatown, which served as a central gathering place, for the city’s Japanese, Chinese and Filipino communities. Now, two decades later, federal funds will help to transform it into an Asian American museum and cultural center.

By 2012, the abandoned Soledad Street site is slated to become the Asian Cultural Center and Museum. The impetus is a three-year, $600,000 grant which California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) received in November from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

This is the third $600,000 grant that CSUMB has received from HUD. The university received its first grant in 2005, which was designed to bring the community together.

The HUD grant is the third that the university has received since 2005 as part of the Chinatown Renewal Project, a cooperative effort between CSUMB, the Salinas Redevelopment Agency and the Salinas Downtown Community Board, which is designed to revitalize the 12-block neighborhood that has become a haven for the homeless, drug dealers and prostitutes.

According to the city of Salinas’ “Chinatown Renewal Project Plan,” the goal of the project is to “unite the neighborhood, preserve its cultural heritage, improve community services and eliminate the blight caused by years of neglect.”

Seth Pollack, director of CSUMB’s Service Learning Institute, said, “The grant was designed for the community to meet and develop a master plan for the revitalization of Chinatown in Salinas. It started a hard conversation.”

As part of the grant, a large garden was created where the community could come together.

“The garden was a symbol that change was possible,” Pollack said, adding that the Chinese American community added a pagoda and the Japanese American community created a meditation garden.

“The second grant looked deeper into the different aspects such as organizing homeless services and maintaining cultural richness. We developed some plans in each of these areas,” Pollack said.

CSUMB received the grant as part of HUD’s Hispanics-Serving Institutions Assisting Communities program, which is designed to help universities nationwide to revitalize low-income neighborhoods close to campuses.

The cultural center and museum will focus on preserving the culture and traditions of the Japanese, Chinese and Filipino communities through oral family histories, historical documents and cultural artifacts. Work will begin with renovations on the cafe’s first floor, which will contain 1,200 square feet of exhibit space.

The cultural center and museum will include a special focus on the contributions of Asian American immigrants to the Salinas Valley’s agricultural industry.

“We want to revive and tell the story of the immigrants who created the economy we have today and to celebrate their rich culture and energy, especially in the agricultural industry,” Pollack said.

“Salinas is known as the ‘salad bowl of the world.’ It started through immigrant labor. The Chinese did the initial backbreaking work, followed by the Japanese and Filipinos. Our whole agricultural history is the labor of these communities.”

The grant will also cover asbestos removal and roof repairs.

Wellington Lee, a historian who grew up in Chinatown, said, “Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined this. I’m very excited about it. It will tell the stories of the culture and history of the Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos who populated Salinas’ Chinatown since it was established in 1893.”

CSUMB students will play a key role in the creation of the museum. Humanities and museum studies students are gathering oral histories and historical artifacts.

Wally Ahtye, whose parents owned the Republic Cafe, said the cafe was the hub of Chinatown. “The cafe was a nice place to congregate with all the different ethnic groups.” Ahtye added that “everyone used it as a gathering place for celebrations, Chinese New Year’s, marriages and births. The Japanese, Chinese and Filipino communities all gathered there. It was a nice, little community.”

Ahtye, whose family lived above the restaurant, said that the eatery was known for its delicious Chinese food.

“The Peking duck was the most popular. And the community liked our ground pork with salted fish,” said Ahtye, who added that the restaurant operated from 1942 to 1988.

“It’s a nice place for a cultural center and museum. It’s one of the last landmarks on Soledad Street,” he said.

Larry Hirahara, co-chair of the Salinas Downtown Community Board and a member of the Salinas Buddhist Temple, is excited that the cultural center and museum will highlight the contributions of Asian American immigrants.

“We want to preserve the history of this historic area. Our common theme is the Japanese, Chinese and Filipino laborers,” he said, adding that the Japanese immigrants created an enclave on Lake Street.

Progress on the cafe has already started, including repairs on the old cafe’s “Chop Suey” sign, which was unveiled at a grand opening celebration in October.

Lee, who is working on a book about Chinatown, said, “The sign was the initial step in renovating the cafe as a museum. We wanted to have something for people to see.”

Deborah Silguero, a curator at the Steinbeck Museum, added that an exhibition on Chinatown’s history will begin a 12-week run in April and will offer a sneak preview of the cultural center and museum.

“Once we finish the shows, we will box the exhibits up. And once they open the museum, they will have ready-made exhibits,” she said. “It’s going to be wonderful.”

Lee said that he’s contributed a number of personal items to the exhibit, including immigration papers, business licenses and Chinese clothing and coins.

Gerald Cheang, a member of the Salinas Downtown Community Board, said that the cultural center and museum will be an excellent format to showcase the history of Chinatown and Asian culture on the Central Coast.

“We are very excited about trying to bring back the flavor and history of the neighborhood to not only the Salinas and Monterey County residents, but, hopefully, inspire future visitors to Salinas and the Steinbeck Museum to visit this historic part of the Asian culture on the Central Coast,” he said.

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