Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Mysterious Gin Chow

The had me at the Taj.
To back up a bit: Scouring through the many local papers and broadsheets looking for cultural stimulation (it's too easy to shift to neutral here and just coast), I saw a thumbnail of an Impressionist painting that was just my type, so in reading the paragraph found out that a one-of-a-kind exhibition had just opened at the S.B. Historical Society Museum, of 30 works by one Colin Campbell Cooper (Triple C! -- good Google ID). I like late American Impressionism mucho, and the golden glow of the Taj Mahal, painted early in the 20th century, drew me in to make the journey to a quiet neighborhood in the city where the museum houses its treasures.
The sweet grandma at the desk said this exhibition will not travel and will not be duplicated since almost all of the works came from private owners. Labels near the paintings indicated many had not been exhibited for 90 to 100 years. Standing close and far back, the Taj portrait did not disappoint at all; it is good to see what it looked like to an artist who "saw beauty everywhere" and recorded its luminosity before its landscape became stripped down and tourist trampled. Reading on, I found out why the newspaper picture grabbed me: Mr. Cooper was schooled at the Philadelphia School of Art at the turn of the century under Thomas Eakins, like all my other favorites such as N.C. Wyeth.
Before settling in Santa Barbara in 1920, Cooper portrayed, besides India, Italy, Nantucket, and his most popular series, New York skyscrapers. Here he captured scenes lost to the 1925 earthquake, time or demolition, but set in place a vision and style pursued by dozens of South Coast artists today.
The permanent exhibition hall follows local history and culture in a chronological scheme, from Chumash natives to Dr. Sansum, pioneer in diabetes treatment. The Spanish and Western saddles and the Mexican charro costume were delightful to see in actuality instead of pictures. Portraits of worthies whose names are now given to streets accompany cases of their luxury possessions. The other ethnic groups each have their turn: Italians, crazy Americans, Japanese and Chinese. Oddly, no Chinatown or Japantown remains, like in other cities. Gin Chow, an immigrant from the Chinese Empire, found some success like so many others due to the produce of his land, but would not merit a place but for his prophetic talents. His weather predictions were considered better than the government's weather service, and were broadcast locally on radio and even in print on the east coast. Three startling predictions formed his legend: that of the disastrous 1923 Yokohama earthquake, the local 1925 earthquake, and his own death (1933) one year in advance. Well, I had to check this out, knowing full well that if you have 30 exhibit labels to write, you will hit the easiest sources and spend more time on editing than research. Despite being enshrined in the permanent exhibition, it seems the only verifiable source for the earthquake augury was Mr. Chow's own published 1932 almanac, which he wrote to help save his farm from bankruptcy (you can't blame him too much for fictionalizing -- it was desperate times for farmers and most everyone else). A story like this, repeated over time, is often accepted as true since it is, indeed, a good story. I'd tend to believe his foreseeing his own demise because that has happened to uncounted people.
After my visit to the museum, it seemed that except for the American gold rush invasion and a few nasty banditos who ranged around after Mexico's authority was overthrown in 1846, the people of the Central Coast were a diligent and well-behaved bunch who loved their culture(s) and their nurturing land. And if a few rascals like Gin Chow showed up from time to time, well, it just adds to the color.

(just remembered: they have the oldest known C.F. Martin guitar on display. I remember reading on the Martin or a fan site that a couple purchased it while on honeymoon in New York City, and that's exactly what the label said. This is for you, Art!)


  1. Perhaps the next note in history will be the Triple G in California.

  2. I'm thinking an iconic movie as the legacy: how about "High Suburban Drifter"? or "For a Few Lattes More" ?