One hazy, late afternoon in September, Gabe Newman ’18 found himself on the waterfront in the Old Town neighborhood of Tacoma, taking photo after photo of a mythical Chinese princess.
She’d led a parade of local children with red paper lanterns to a small bridge overlooking the Sound to close out the Tacoma Moon Festival, an annual event presented by the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation and about two dozen community partners to mark the end of summer, usher in fall, and celebrate diversity in Tacoma.
The Moon Princess, portrayed this year by Jane Marie Gunn ’18, always appears near the end of the festival to share her tale; one of bravery and sacrifice, of magic elixirs and immortality, of cleverness and betrayal, of love and remembrance. When the tale is done, she flies away, back to the moon until next year.
For dozens of local children, it’s a magical experience. “Every kid under the age of 10 or so badly wanted to take a photo with the Moon Princess,” Gabe says. “And when she was taken away by bicycle carriage, many of the kids really seemed as though they wanted to chase after her.”
Gabe, who is double majoring in international political economy and Chinese, and Jane Marie, who is double majoring in Chinese and science, technology, and society, were two of about 20 students to volunteer at the Moon Festival this year. Under the guidance of Professor Lo Sun “Lotus” Perry, who established Puget Sound’s Chinese language program in the late 1980s and is an active member of the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation board, students like Gabe and Jane Marie have worked the festival since its inception in 2012.
“Students in Chinese language and culture courses routinely seek opportunities outside of the classroom to practice the language they have been studying,” Lotus says, “as well as to experience the culture and customs they are learning.”
At the festival students meet and work alongside volunteers of Chinese descent, students and teachers in other Chinese classes, international students, community leaders, and local residents. They serve as crafts and activities leaders and as festival docents, tour guides who lead visitors not only through the Chinese Reconciliation Park, which serves as the festival’s setting, but through the difficult history of the Chinese community in Tacoma.
On the morning of Nov. 3, 1885, a large group of Tacoma citizens marched through the city’s streets, stopping at homes and businesses to give Chinese residents and workers notice: Gather your things and get out. That afternoon more than 200 men, women, and children were marched to the Lakeview train station in south Tacoma, and within a few days, the city’s entire Chinese community was gone. Though the leaders of the expulsion were arrested, they were never prosecuted, and what became known as “The Tacoma Method” has remained a dark mark on the City of Destiny.
In the 1990s the city began taking steps to acknowledge and heal the “moral wound” left by these actions. The Chinese Reconciliation Project Citizens Committee was formed, later becoming the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation, and a resolution to build what would become the Chinese Reconciliation Park was approved.
“I’m still learning what it means for many people to be from Tacoma,” says Gabe, “but my impression of the city based on my experience at the Moon Festival is that many people are curious about the city’s past, dedicated to learning, and looking for ways to be involved.”
Zoe Fuqua ’20 agrees and finds that helping to educate people about the events of the past and their continued relevance makes being part of the festival rewarding. “The greatest part about the docent program,” she says, “is it opens up a conversation in the community.”
A transfer student from Kentucky, with a double major in theatre arts and Chinese, Zoe was a docent at the festival last year and returned this year as a student coordinator. “There were many festivalgoers who had not yet considered why the face of Tacoma is overwhelmingly white,” she says, “and learning about the park’s history not only enlightens them of this past, but also makes us question how we can move forward and improve our community.”
“Participating in the Moon Festival and as a docent in the park really makes the things that are taught in class that much more relevant,” says Gabe. “Experiential learning opportunities like this are another chance to immerse in the culture, the language, and the thinking as best we can while still in the U.S. Being able to volunteer alongside other members of the community leaves me hopeful and yearning to learn and experience more.”
For Jane Marie the festival was both a fun and familiar way to share her interest in the Chinese culture with others. She grew up performing Chinese folk dance as a member of San Francisco’s Flying Angels Chinese Dance Company from the age of 5. “I really enjoy the whole cultural aspect of the Tacoma Moon Festival,” she says, “and being able to share my knowledge about it.”
Another benefit for students is being able to join in the festivities themselves, enjoying the musical, dance, and theatrical performances that take place under the Fuzhou Ting—the park’s ornate Chinese pavilion—as well as the delicious “mooncakes” and sense of community that are both in ample supply at the event.
“It is such a good time,” Zoe says, “and I think we all leave better for it—maybe because we got to practice our public speaking skills, or because we learned or considered things we hadn’t before, or maybe simply because we got to meet new people and enrich each other’s experience.”
Or, at least if you’re a kid in Tacoma, maybe because you got your picture taken with the Moon Princess.