Campus News

Chiang Honored for Dissertation

Story posted August 07, 2003

Connie Chiang, visiting assistant professor of history and environmental studies, was recently awarded the 2003 W. Turrentine Jackson Award from the American Historical Association-Pacific Coast Branch for her doctoral dissertation on the society and environment of Monterey, California.

The award is given for the best dissertation in Western North American history. Chiang was nominated by the chair of the department of history at the University of Washington, where she earned her doctorate. Chiang was just finishing up her stint as the scholar in residence at the Coastal Studies Center when she got the news.

"It's very flattering, and it's a great honor. It's obviously a huge surprise to me," she said. "It's so nice to be acknowledged but it's also very humbling too."

Her dissertation, "Shaping the Shoreline: Environment, Society, and Culture in Monterey, California," uses Monterey as a case study to explore the social and environmental history of the American coastline. She traces the city's evolution from a tourist area, through the rise of the fishing and canning industries, to the decline of those industries and a late-20th-century re-emergence of tourism, now rooted in both the fishing and literary heritage of the area.

Chiang grew interested in studying the coastline during her graduate studies while reviewing scholarship on the history of the American West.

"There weren't a lot of studies about the coastline and human interaction in this particular landscape," she said. "So that was a gap I thought I could fill."

She began surveying literature on coastal areas, and Monterey soon rose to the top as a logical choice. The city has a population of only 35,000 to 40,000, so it lent itself better to study than a larger city would have. But it also has a rich history, including long periods of immigration that left it with a diverse population. The fishing industry played an extremely important role in the development and character of Monterey, and many of the immigrant communities were involved in the industry.

Though Chiang is an environmental historian, she was interested in the societal aspects of Monterey's history as well. Environmental historians are aware that human actions affect the environment, Chiang said, but many have historically been more concerned with the environment itself, rather than the experiences of those who affect it. Some have seen the humans involved as homogenous. Chiang wanted to follow the path of historians who have recently paid closer attention to human interaction with the environment.

"First and foremost I really wanted to find a place where I could look at the issues of social history and environmental history in tandem," she said. "What I wanted to get at was... how Monterey residents' particular social backgrounds...affected the ways they interacted with the natural world, and how dynamic changes in nature shaped social divisions and hierarchies."

Chiang looked specifically at the fishing and tourism industries in the Monterey area from the late 1800s to the mid-1980s.

She knew, early on, that the fishing industry played a part in social divisions in Monterey, but she didn't know the precise nature of its role until she got further into her research. She found that there was early competition among ethnic groups for the best fishing spots, then later inter-group tensions, caused in part by the Sicilians' dominance in the fishing industry at its height. There were also class and racial conflicts caused by tensions between the fishing and tourist industries.

One anecdote Chiang likes to relate is how the odor from squid, harvested largely by the Chinese community, conflicted with the picturesque vacation wealthy tourists sought and created tensions between the groups.

"Ultimately, what I discovered was very much this reciprocal relationship between environmental change and social change," she said.

The Hotel Del Monte opened in the late 1800s and attracted wealthy patrons who were seeking an elite vacation spot. Fishing was a part of the Monterey economy, but it wasn't big business at the time, and the industry was primarily made up of family fisherman. Tourism dominated. But by the 1910s and 1920s canneries had sprung up along the waterfront, and fishing and canning were becoming major economic players. By World War II, there was an enormous fishing industry in Monterey, and the Hotel Del Monte and the tourism industry were in decline.

"Monterey was known as the sardine capital of the world, not the tourism capital of the world," Chiang said.

When the sardine industry collapsed in the 1940s, city planners were left wondering what Monterey would do without its major industry. They began exploring ways to remake the city, including efforts to capitalize on the literary heritage of Monterey, which was portrayed in John Steinbeck's novel, "Cannery Row."

Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as new development projects moved Monterey back towards a tourist economy, there were disagreements between those who wished to maintain the flavor of Monterey's fishing years and others who sought to pave the way for more tourism.

Something of a melding of visions came with the construction of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Housed in a former cannery, the aquarium opened in 1984 and is now the most popular tourist attraction in Monterey.

"To say things have come full circle is obviously way too simplistic," Chiang said. Still, according to Chiang, the aquarium marked a real turning point. It was part of the new tourist economy, but it was linked to Monterey's marine heritage.

"It's a place that really plays off of its fishing heritage for tourists, and it also plays off of environmental awareness and concerns for the health of the marine environment. The Monterey Bay Aquarium tries to foster a greater appreciation of ocean and coastal ecosystems and educate visitors about places and organisms that may be threatened or in decline."

Recently Chiang has been looking at more recent trends in Monterey. She's revising her dissertation to be published as a book, and the new information will serve as a kind of epilogue.

Since the late 1980s, Chiang said, there has been a renewed interest in the social and environmental history of Cannery Row. In the 1990s the city of Monterey preserved a number of fishing shacks and devoted each one to demonstrating the lifestyle of a different ethnic group.

The ethnic and social history of the area has now become a part of the public identity of Cannery Row and Monterey.

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