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Two fishing boats near a shoreline at dusk.

Photo by Diego Javier Luis

  • A Forgotten Asian History of Oregon in No-No Boy’s “1603”

    Why write a history book when you can write a song? This simple refrain has been the guiding principle of Julian Saporiti’s musical compositions as No-No Boy, from his debut record, 1942, to his latest release for Smithsonian Folkways, Empire Electric. As his longtime friend and collaborator, for me, no song better encapsulates Julian’s impulse to write history as music than the final track of Empire Electric, “1603.”

    To the hum of electronic synthesizers and the melodic rush of ocean waves, Julian brings to life the Oregonian coast and sings an enchanting lesson in its history.

    So often, Oregon finds itself at the center of the United States’s founding mythology: think of the violent legacies of Manifest Destiny, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the Oregon Trail. Stories that fall outside of this narrative remain largely unknown or unacknowledged, like the Athabascan, Chinook, Umpqua, and many other Native histories of the region, which span thousands of years. Also buried in the shifting sands of forgotten histories is what happened in 1603.

    Julian takes us to that once forgotten moment that Asian sailors spotted Cape Sebastian hundreds of years before Asian American histories typically begin. These sailors long predated the first Anglo-American settlers to the West Coast and even the founding of Jamestown.

    For me, this revelation began during the scorching summer of 2021 in Seville, Spain. I was finishing the research for my book, The First Asians in the Americas: A Transpacific History, at the General Archive of the Indies, which holds the colonial records left by the Spanish Empire. While flipping through thousands of pages of treasury accounts for the port of Acapulco, Mexico, I came across a curious entry: the payroll for Sebastián Vizcaíno’s 1602–1603 expedition up the West Coast.

    Buried in line after line of names and salaries were payments made to several Asian sailors. They had Hispanic names—having been baptized, they were required to lose their birth names—but alongside those names were Asian ethnic descriptors. I learned about a man named Antón Tomás, a diver from Malabar, India, and Francisco Miguel, a Japanese sailor, among several others. They had landed first at Acapulco as free sailors of the famed Manila galleons—Spanish ships that connected the Philippines to Mexico from 1565 to 1815. During this period, thousands of Asians, both free and enslaved, arrived in the Americas on these ships.

    Jittery with excitement, I rushed through Seville’s blazing, cobbled streets to my apartment and shared my discovery with Julian. We had met as first-year PhD students at Brown University in 2016 and bonded over our shared hometown of Nashville and mixed Asian origins (Vietnamese in his case and Chinese in mine). Over the years, we have taken trips all over the United States in search of Asian American histories, from interviewing survivors of Japanese American incarceration during WWII to visiting the sites of Chinese laundromats in Kalispell, Montana, which operated during the early twentieth century.

    Along a curving coastline, a large boulder protrudes from the beach.
    Photo by Diego Javier Luis

    As we began putting together the pieces of this story, we quickly realized that no one had written about the Asian sailors in Vizcaíno’s expedition. Their destination had been Cape Mendocino in Northern California. However, a storm blew Vizcaíno’s flagship, the San Diego, and the other vessel in the fleet, the Tres Reyes, some 150 miles north. On the verge of death by starvation and cold, the crew of the San Diego turned back at Cape Sebastian. Meanwhile, the Tres Reyes drifted a few dozen miles further north to the mouth of the Rogue River and spotted Cape Blanco. There, its crew reported seeing large numbers of Native people (likely Tututni Athabaskans) watching them from the shore and the river. Then, the Spanish vessel turned south for the long journey back to Mexico.

    Julian’s astonishment exceeded my own. This was, after all, the first documented presence of Asian people off the coast of Oregon. He has made Portland his adoptive home, and he had never imagined that “people who look like us”—as he put it—had visited the coast of what would become Oregon more than four centuries ago.

    Julian already had the early stirrings of a song, but he needed to see the cape to compose it. He does not write like historians do, like I do, sequestered in the deepest chambers of baroque archives and libraries. He writes with a field recorder in one hand and a guitar in the other. He writes with his eyes open, in concert with his environment. For him, visiting a “place you’ve read about can be like time travel.” We decided to visit Cape Sebastian the following summer.

    In 2022, we made the six-hour drive from Julian’s home to Cape Sebastian, just thirty miles north of the Californian border. With his now-wife and creative partner, Emilia Halvorsen, at his side, Julian began assembling the first notes of “1603” in full view of the forested cape and its turbulent waters that our Asian protagonists had spied all those years ago.

    A flat sandy beach along the ocean in the foreground, and evergreen tree-covered hill in the background.
    Photo by Diego Javier Luis

    Standing before the splendid cape, we tried to imagine it as it had looked on January 20, 1603: covered in snow (now an extremely rare occurrence). The wind lifted the sand off the beach and swept it into my camera lens and Julian’s guitar.

    The crew of the Tres Reyes believed that what we today call the Rogue River was the mythical Strait of Anián: the entrance to the Northwest Passage and gateway to Asia. Our experience was nothing so grandiose. We stayed in a little bungalow where the river meets the sea and watched fishing trawlers and dredgers drift up and down the waterway in the evenings.

    We soon realized that our search was for a lost world. Only the land itself has remembered its past. Julian began to craft a song that spots the Spanish and Asian ghosts hovering off Oregon’s shores and forces us to hold their gaze.

    “Looking out from my spot on the beach at the sea, I almost felt like I could see the ship in the distance, feel their bravery, smell their sickness, grip my hand on the soaked and salted ropes,” Julian reflects. “As I sang on the beach and as I finished composing the tune back in Portland, I stood next to Antón Tomás, the Indian diver. I held his memory.”

    As we walked Meyers Beach, just south of Cape Sebastian, I wondered, if those first Asians could speak to us now, what would they say?

    A man plays acoustic guitar, sitting on a rock on an oceanside beach.
    Photo by Diego Javier Luis

    Julian’s “1603” suggests an answer. It tells the story of the Vizcaíno voyage from the hypothetical and complicated perspective of one Asian sailor who becomes a devout Catholic convert. The song lyrics “lamp oil froze” and “not even six could stand” remain faithful to the surviving diaries of the Vizcaíno voyage and others like it, yet its use of field recording at the beach and a lilting melody—like the rocking of a ship—conjures a reality beyond what the archives can tell us. Like “Boat People” from his 1942 album, Julian transforms sea travel into a psychological journey from an Asian home to a distant, unknown land beyond the horizon.

    If “Boat People” was about stirring up feelings of empathy in listeners (“If you see somebody’s cold, you give them a coat”), “1603” departs from that tack. The “Only for you / I feel brand new” refrain references the baptism of the Asian sailors. Julian fills the voyage itself with the imagery of Catholic renewal, and like so, baptism becomes a metaphor for migration, whereby long-distance travel represents the start of a new life.

    The sincerity of that baptism and its overtones of colonial violence (“Claim this coast, oh holy ghost”) continue a long-term theme in Julian’s oeuvre: the lived realities of colonialism and migration are complicated. For example, the start of Julian’s hit song “Imperial Twist,” off the 1975 album, begins with this line from a Vietnamese refugee living in Paris: “I was pro-Communist and extremely pro-American because I really love rock ’n’ roll.” It is the foregrounding of these seemingly paradoxical stories that is at the heart of No-No Boy songwriting.

    The psychological worlds of people who have survived long-distance migrations cannot be anticipated or packaged into convenient narratives we can tell ourselves about who we are. No-No Boy forces us to sit with the immediacy of real human histories of the “people who look like us” but whose lived realities and internal selves might differ considerably from our own. Julian begins with names off of a payroll—“Antón Tomás, Antonio Bengala, Francisco Miguel, Cristoual Catoya, Agustín Longalo, Lucas Cate”—with a question about their lives beyond the page, and sings an unlikely but true tale of a floating world at the limits of hunger, reason, and will, and the fantastical, snowy cape that appeared off the starboard bow one day.

    In the interchange between artistic creation and archival history, Julian has gifted us a unique artifact in “1603.” The long dead come back for five minutes and thirty-one seconds, and the details of their lives delight our ears more than any collection of historical records, however rich, ever could.

    Antón Tomás, Antonio Bengala, Francisco Miguel,
    Cristoual Catoya, Agustín Longalo, Lucas Cate

    Sailed as far from Malabar
    As any soul has known
    Peaks of snow, a jagged coast
    Great giants made of stone

    Two months through the Visayas
    Then three beyond the blue
    At California’s crest turned south
    The mouth of hell we drew
    Only for you
    Only for you

    Left the bay, the 5th of May
    North to San Bernabe
    Beneath a tent the sacrament
    The feast was held on Sunday

    Indios y Indio
    A gift of tiger’s skin
    The Latin Mass, our foreign past
    Forgive us for this sin
    Only for you
    Only for you

    I feel brand new!
    Only for you!

    San Diego, Tres Reyes,
    Y Santo Tomas
    Santa Barbara learned her name
    Grumetes learned the stocks

    The autumn course, our bearings north
    The winter not forgotten
    Luzon wood built cannon proof
    But like us quick to rotten

    Tomas turned back with the ill
    Diego kept the cross
    The New Year’s Day beyond Drake’s Bay
    The frigata was lost

    North we climbed, morale declined
    Not even six could stand
    But through the storm, from legend torn
    The Strait of Anián
    Only for you

    I feel brand new!
    Only for you!

    The floating ghost, the bouldered coast
    Too weakened to make land
    The wind so rose, the lamp oil froze
    We never touched the sand

    Oh I believe, oh, I believe!
    The father and the son!
    Claim this coast, oh holy ghost
    Who spoke through prophets’ tongues
    Only for you

    I feel brand new!
    Only for you!

    Diego Javier Luis is an assistant professor in the Tufts University History Department. He studies the colonial histories of Latin America and the Pacific World, race-making, and Afro-Asian diasporic convergences. His first book, The First Asians in the Americas: A Transpacific History, is out with Harvard University Press.

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