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Robert W. Bone is a writer, author, editor and photographer. Since 1957, he has lived in a half dozen different countries and traveled to nearly 100. (All content is copyrighted.)
(A segment or chapter from the forthcoming memoir: Fire Bone!)
© 2013, 2014 by Robert W. Bone
Most of my childhood was spent in the small city of Pekin, Illinois, which included the first two years at Pekin Community High School. Had my parents not moved me away, I would have been graduated with all my Pekin friends in the class of 1950.
Right off the bat, I can assure you that no one in our town meant any disrespect to the Chinese or any Orientals. Pekin was about as WASP a town as they come. It was hard to believe that anyone in town had ever seen anyone of the Asian persuasion in Pekin, let alone harbor any animosity toward them.
I also never saw any blacks in Pekin, except perhaps for one old gentleman named Jim who lived in a shack down by the river. I was not even aware of Jews or Catholics, although there must have been some walking among us. Incredibly, I don’t believe I was ever told that there were such folks. I guess I naïvely believed we were a homogeneous society.
Pekin already had played an honorable role in the defense of human rights. Back in 1841, none other than the young lawyer Abraham Lincoln had successfully argued a case in Pekin freeing a woman known as “Black Nance” who had been kept as a slave.
Local historians were fond of saying that she was the very first slave that Lincoln freed.
The chosen sports team name had to do with the way the town got its name in the first place. Many years before my time, back when the town was founded, the wife of an early settler named it. She was of the opinion that the Chinese capital of Peking (often then spelled Pekín, and now known as Beijing) was our town’s antipode. That is, if one could bore a hole from Pekin straight through the center of earth he would come up for air again somewhere in the neighborhood of the Forbidden City.
(Nota bene: No city in the mainland United States has an antipode other than a point somewhere in the Indian Ocean.)
Pekin was proudly named in honor of that supposed geographical anomaly. Moreover, there were various places around town which were architecturally inspired by this local tradition.
Our first-run movie house, the Pekin Theater, next to the town square, was handsomely decorated inside and out as an elaborate Chinese temple.
Further, the polished floor of the high school basketball court was painted with a beautiful Chinese dragon, a motif which was also repeated on posters, stationery, and other items related to the high school.
I always felt there was an apparent egalitarian spirit to the school by the 1940s, as evidenced in the opening lines of its fight song:
Dear old Pekin High School, we’re all the same;
Winning or losing, we’re always game.
Furthermore, the engraved-in-stone “Girls Entrance” and “Boys Entrance” signs were largely ignored by our iconoclastic student body.
Now some remember that before the beginning of a basketball game, a boy cheerleader and a girl cheerleader would go to the center of the floor and bow respectfully to the cheerleaders of the opposing team. Wearing costumes topped off with coolie hats, the pair of Pekin representatives were known as “Chink and Chinklet.”
At football games, there was a mascot who did some kind of a costumed Chinese dance on the sidelines. Among his duties, too, was to strike some kind of a Oriental brass gong when a touchdown was scored.
George Beres, a writer who was in the class just behind mine, also wrote of a cheer with a somewhat Chinese flavor. It was designed to spur on the football team when it was behind or the game was dragging a bit:
“Ahh, phooey; chop suey. Come on Pekin, hop to-ey!”
Stories began to be carried by the Associated Press about how a small city on the Illinois River was being challenged by some determined folks who insisted that by using the name Chinks, the school and the town itself, intentionally or not, were perpetuating a tradition which insulted a large and well-respected minority of the American population.
Some Pekinites expressed resentment that other sports teams continued to adopt another ethnic group, Native Americans, as Indians, Braves, Redskins, etc., and still managed to keep those names in modern times. In fact, they pointed out that most in that particular minority had generally expressed pride in the names.
Although there is evidence that one community college on reservation land in Arizona did change its name to the Scottsdale Fighting Artichokes.
I recently told this story to my good friend and fellow writer, Bob Hollis. He grew up near San Francisco, where the population has long been keenly sensitive to this kind of thing. He expressed horror at the thought of “Chinks” being vocally cheered on to victory by an otherwise polite society.
“That’s really beyond the pale!” said Bob.
It was apparently a big fight for a few years among students, school officials and the city fathers. Some believed that political correctness had simply gotten out of hand and was being carried to ridiculous extremes. I was certainly glad I was not there to witness the emotional bloodshed.
But in the end, sense and sensibility won out in Pekin when the high school administration finally declared an end to it all in about 1980. Eschewing the usual animal and bird names, Pekin High chose the relatively hum-drum but more politically correct “Pekin Dragons,” and that name has remained to this day.
The temple-like Pekin Theater was torn down a few years later. But considering the new name, at least the high school did not have to immediately remove the Chinese dragon artwork from the floor of the basket ball court. I don’t know for sure since thankfully, I wasn’t there for the metamorphosis.
Decades later I attended the Class of 1950 reunion in 2000. The Pekin Times ran a photo and story about me and my guidebooks, etc. noting this would have been my class had I remained in Pekin long enough to have been graduated there.
As part of that reunion, we loyal alumni did go to a football game. There Jerry Hodgson, Roger Heim, and some others of my erstwhile classmates, wore faded “Pekin Chinks” shirts and similar outdated regalia while in the stands.
Some in genuine good humor shouted cheers such as “Yay Chinks,” no doubt confusing many others who after that considerable length of time had absolutely no knowledge of the good old days at Dear Old Pekin High School.