California Sketches: Chinese history, tradition preserved in Taoist temple

09/29/2013 12:00 AM

08/23/2014 8:39 PM

A mural of Chinese village scenes and calligraphy painted in 1880 adorns the entrance to the Bok Kai Temple in Marysville. Through tall red doors, I step over a raised frame that keeps evil spirits out and good spirits in. The altar hall is ornately decorated in reds, golds and layers of textures and patterns. Tapestries adorn red walls and carved wooden screens hang from the ceiling, along with 12 elaborate lamps, none alike.

On the far wall, an altar is filled with sculptures representing Taoist deities, including Bok Eye, the God of Water to whom the temple, Bok Kai, is dedicated. On a table, worshippers have left offerings for honored ancestors. Today, piles of oranges and grapefruit, and on other days, tributes to burn symbolically, to please ancestors. In bronze urns, remnants of incense sticks stand upright in sand, like tiny sentries.

This sacred site is both artifact and active culture. Constructed as a bathhouse in 1857, the building was converted to a temple in 1880. That the temple was dedicated to the god of water – who controls floods, rains and irrigation – was auspicious. Speculation has it that Bok Eye saved Marysville, at the confluence of the Feather and Yuba rivers, from flooding in 1955.

Chinese pioneers brought Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy, to America along with their strong sense of community, skills, rituals, cuisine and art. Bok Kai Temple serves as connective tissue, both local and global, between continents and generations, living and dead, and cultures, past and future. People come from all over the world to celebrate this repository of cultural memory, from the temple and nearby museum to traditional festivals.

Gordon Tom, 72, my guide, is one of a few last descendents of the original Cantonese settlers in the area. He grew up a block away and has been leading tours of the temple for 42 years. Gordon’s grandfather came to America as a young boy in 1851. From the gold fields, he settled in Chinatown, where many of the buildings remain today. After World War II, the Chinese population thrived, but now the young people have left. Gordon and his cousins are dedicated to capturing the Chinese experience in Northern California before the stories are lost.

The structure of the temple perseveres, architecturally and culturally. While the broader community has helped with restoration, Bok Kai Temple and its artifacts are in constant need of repair and preservation. Unlike other towns, Marysville respected the Chinese and didn’t try to “burn them out,” following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Of the 30 California Gold Rush temples, Bok Kai is one of the oldest in America still owned and used by Chinese. In 1975, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the silent temple, an unexpected gong startles me. Gordon grins. He has struck a large brass bell to wake up the gods for those who come to worship and celebrate.

Bok Kai Temple is a living link to history, and to the dynamic economic and cultural relationships between China and America. For tourists from China, where many temples were wiped away during the Cultural Revolution, the Bok Kai Temple bears witness to their history, lost there but preserved in California.

This commentary was modified from the original to correct Marysville's location at the confluence of the Feather and Yuba rivers.

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