by Suzanne Fischer
“Facing West from California’s shores, / Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound, / I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land of migrations, look afar, / Look off the shore of my Western Sea—the circle almost circled…”
Walt Whitman’s searching verses on the Pacific gaze were made concrete at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. The words, inscribed on a piece of monumental didactic sculpture, the Arch of the Setting Sun, in the spectacular Court of the Universe, in the fantastic sudden city, proclaimed that San Francisco, and America, had risen, and was rising.
“Pacific” was the key term in the exposition’s name. The fair presented a vision of an increasingly unified Pacific region under the control of American economic and political power.
“We may see in [Whitman’s] lines,” wrote a guide to the fair’s inscriptions, “the poet speaking as the personification and representative of the Aryan race—the race which, having its origin in Asia, has, by virtue of the spirit of conquest, the desire to be forever ‘seeking what is yet unfound,’ finally reached the Western edge of the American continent, whence ‘facing West from California’s shores,’ Aryan civilization looks ‘toward the house of maternity, the land of migrations’ from which it originally sprung.” “The circle almost circled” was the new frontier of American conquest. Of course, San Francisco’s Pacific connections didn’t begin in 1915. California had been part of a coherent Pacific region for hundreds of years, as a place that facilitated exchanges between indigenous people of the coasts and Pacific Islanders, a launching point for trade with Asia, a link in the global chain of whaling and sealing, and, increasingly throughout the nineteenth century, a magnet for migrants from the Pacific Islands and Asia.
For fair organizers, “Pacific” mostly meant Asian. (The conceptual erasing of the Pacific Islands in the rush to get to Asia has been described by historian Bruce Cumings as “rimspeak.”) They saw China and Japan as critically important to America’s prosperous Pacific future—and to the success of the fair. Because the fair was mostly locally funded, organizers personally invested in its success. They campaigned against California’s anti-Japanese Alien Land Law, worried that it would stop Japan and China from participating in the fair. Although the law passed in 1913, both countries still participated in the fair in great numbers. Japan and China not only created official pavilions encouraging trade, but also encouraged merchants to exhibit their wares in the main palaces. San Francisco’s Chinese American communities enthusiastically joined in the festivities; the fair was such a heterogeneous, multivalent, expansive space that despite its imperial tone, they found room to celebrate their cultures and argue for inclusion as equals in the grand narrative of global destiny.
Suzanne Fischer is Associate Curator of Contemporary History and Trends at the Oakland Museum of California. Read her complete essay online at Boom, and visit Pacific Worlds at the Oakland Museum of California.