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Well-preserved Chinese temple in Oroville recalls Gold Rush era

Oroville’s Liet Sheng Kong, “Temple of Many Gods,” is the best-preserved of the three remaining Chinese temples from the Gold Rush era. It features three deities on an altar from China. They are, from left, Hua T’o, the Daoist god of medicine; Kang Kong, a Confucian folk hero; and Tien Hau, the Buddhist holy mother of heaven, goddess of the sea and guardian of travelers.
Oroville’s Liet Sheng Kong, “Temple of Many Gods,” is the best-preserved of the three remaining Chinese temples from the Gold Rush era. It features three deities on an altar from China. They are, from left, Hua T’o, the Daoist god of medicine; Kang Kong, a Confucian folk hero; and Tien Hau, the Buddhist holy mother of heaven, goddess of the sea and guardian of travelers. rbenton@sacbee.com

Here along the banks of the Feather River, you can step back in time by entering Liet Sheng Kong, “Temple of Many Gods,” a red-brick sanctuary where the spirits of Oroville’s original Chinese pioneers live on. Here, thousands of Daoist, Confucian and Buddhist prospectors from China worshipped side by side for health, happiness, wealth and gold.

After John Bidwell discovered gold on the Middle Fork of the Feather on July 4, 1848 – five-plus months after James Marshall fished a nugget out of the American River at Coloma – thousands of Chinese argonauts landed in San Francisco and took stagecoaches, wagons, barges and steamers upriver to Oroville, then known as Ophir City, named after a biblical port famous for gold.

Today their descendants, along with new waves of immigrants, continue to light incense and pray to the three deities whose carved wooden statues rest on an altar from China. On the left sits Hua T’o, the Daoist god of medicine, credited with the discovery of acupuncture about 450 B.C. In the middle is Kang Kong (aka Kuan Yu), a Confucian folk hero revered as a god of literature, war, fair play and business acumen. And on the right you find Tien Hau, the Buddhist holy mother of heaven, goddess of the sea and guardian of travelers.

“I remember coming here as a child, putting out incense and helping prepare huge meals of poached chicken, roast duck and roast pork, white rice and chicken soup for the ancestors,” said Oroville Vice Mayor Thil Chan-Wilcox, 69, whose family’s genealogy chart on the wall in the adjoining Chan Room goes back to 500 A.D. “Then, we’d eat it. I’m the 28th generation of Chans.”

Rumor has it the temple – one of the best-preserved pieces of Chinese Gold Rush culture and the oldest of the three temples left standing in North America, the others being in Marysville and Weaverville – can trace its roots to the 19th century Qing Dynasty, when a member of the royal court from the Chan clan had an illicit affair with one of the emperor’s concubines. “The story goes that when he learned of the affair, Emperor DaoGung was going to execute all the Chans, Chuns, Chings, Changs and Chungs – all different names for the same clan, depending upon how immigration officers interpreted it when they arrived here,” Chan-Wilcox said.

“There were four brothers, and the three who were innocent told the emperor, ‘This is the one who did the bad deed, let us go,’” Wilcox said. So the emperor banished them from the court in Beijing. The one brother was executed, and the other three changed their names, acknowledged each other only when they met, and resettled in the countryside around Toi San county in Canton province, “where a lot of Chinese in the Western United States, including Sacramento, came from.”

An offspring of one of the surviving brothers, Chan-Wilcox’s great-grandfather Chun Kong Yuo, left Toi San for “Gold Mountain” (California) and passed through Oroville on his way to Truckee. “After the Chinese were burned out of Truckee,” he returned to Oroville and became a successful herbalogist, who also traded in gold, Chan-Wilcox said.

After two wooden temples burned down, Chun Kong Yuo and several others built a sturdy structure in 1863 with red brick from the nearby town of Palermo. They ordered the altar from Shanghai and hired a priest from China to live in what is now the gift shop. The emperor donated a second heavily enameled teak altar with carvings depicting his day – cooks, musicians, scholars – and appointed Chun Kong Yuo to collect taxes from the Chinese immigrants and send them back to China.

Chan-Wilcox points out artifacts that were key to worship at the temple: a two-ton bronze urn from China in which incense, temple money and fortunes were burned at the front entrance of the temple. “If you picked up a good fortune stick, you’d burn it in the urn so it would go up to the ancestor spirits,” she said. “If you got a bad one, you’d bury it so the gods wouldn’t find it.”

Soon after her great-grandfather arrived, Oroville’s Chinatown swelled with about 3,500 Chinese miners, laborers, cooks, cleaners, merchants, doctors, gamblers, opium smokers, entertainers and trollops, who turned it into one of the state’s busiest Chinatowns.

“The people who came here were mainly sailors on the big Chinese junks that went out into the Pacific, and that’s when they heard about the Gold Rush,” said Janice Clay, the temple museum’s lead docent. “They’d land in San Francisco, where a trading firm called the Six Companies would hire them and pay their way to Oroville as indentured servants,” Clay said. “Some even walked here from San Francisco.”

The Chinese weren’t allowed to own land, “so they either worked for other people, leased it or owned land on the sly,” Clay said. Many went through the tailings left by white miners, extracting bags of gold dust. “For about 30 years, the Chinese weren’t allowed to bring their families here, so the idea was to come, make their fortunes and go home,” Clay explained as she and Chan-Wilcox toured the temple, now the centerpiece of the 10-room complex.

“The temple was open 24 hours a day to people of any religion, and they would ring the gong that’s still inside the front door to let people know when the priest was here,” Chan-Wilcox said. More than 30 large prayer boards in various colors line the temple walls and hang from the ceiling, either asking the gods for a favor or thanking them for making their dreams come true.

One ornate board created by Wei Kong Chi in 1884 says he came as a minor before 1880, left his wife and daughters in China, made his fortune and brought them over. “When they got here, they were praying for a son,” Clay explained. “When they had one, they put up this prayer board with the time of his birth, 1:35 a.m., declaring ‘Happiness, wealth and good tidings.’”

Also alongside the main altar are two papier mâché Buddha Lion heads used in Chinese New Year’s parades and believed to be the oldest in the country, and two large bamboo lanterns covered with silk mesh.

In 1874, local Chinese built the adjoining Chan worship room in honor of Soong dynasty Gen. Chan Low Kwan, the “Viscount of Purification” and the original ancestor of all Chan or Chin families from Toi San (also known as Toy Sun). Among the photos in the room of early Oroville is one of Chan-Wilcox’s uncle Wing Giang Chan standing on the levee built to keep out floods. Another is of the Chinese Theatre, which burned down around 1900. There is also a curtained bridal sedan chair used in parades.

Ink stains mark the table where business was transacted, arguments settled, taxes collected and justice dispensed in the Council Room, which was added in 1868. Here, illiterate Chinese could hire someone to write letters back to China, and Chinese leaders “would discipline the Chinese who needed to be disciplined for stealing or cheating, so Oroville authorities didn’t have to be involved,” Chan-Wilcox said.

Above the Council Room sits the Wong Fut Tong with a round door signifying the circle of life and three statues of Buddha.

In 1968, the museum opened the Tapestry Hall, where among the collection of embroidered tapestries, parade parasols and other objects, you also can see donkey-skin “Shadow Puppets.” Most of the Chinese here in the 1860s were illiterate, so they relied on huge tapestries, which served as billboards for performing troupes and “like newsreels” about China, Clay said.

“My family had stored these tapestries for decades,” said Chan-Wilcox.

In 2008, the Chin (Chan) Shew Ting Family Trust dedicated the museum’s Fong Lee (“big profits”) Room, a replica of Chun Kong Yuo’s original shop and assay office, which burned down in 1880. His herb cabinet, safe and cash register remain.

Visitors get a peek into the lives of members of the greater Chinese community with a replica of a Chinese miner’s wooden hut; “golden lilies,” tiny shoes for a lady whose feet were bound in the custom of the day; articles of clothing, including wedding gowns from the 1860s, and artifacts donated by two Chinese missionaries.

To meditate on it all, visitors can make their way to the central courtyard and “tranquility garden” and sit next to a koi pond with running water or gaze at a giant bamboo forest grown from original cuttings brought by the original Chinese immigrants. (Bamboo is “one of the strongest male symbols. You can’t kill it; it keeps coming back,” Chan-Wilcox said.)

The brick temple outlasted floods and fires, even when Oroville’s Chinatown didn’t. The flood of 1907 submerged the temple in 5 feet of water, and the depression gripping the nation drove many Chinese to Sacramento, Stockton, Lodi, Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other towns and cities in search of work.

Today, Chan-Wilcox estimates the number of Chinese in Oroville at about 30 and says she is only member of the original families living there.

She lived in Sacramento for a while after fleeing Oroville as a teenager. But she finally came home to her roots. “I realize how fortunate I am to have all this history right here before me.”

Call The Bee’s Stephen

Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.

TONG FONG LOW RESTAURANT

Among the other historic remnants of Oroville’s historic Chinese community is Tong Fong Low, better known as Charlie’s Chop Suey, believed to be the oldest continually operating Chinese restaurant in the United States.

Sandy Wong operates the restaurant, which sits a half block from where the restaurant was founded in 1912.

Tong Fong Low was started by Lee You, who left a small village in Canton province around 1900, said his grandson, Wing Gee, 73.

Lee You and his brother were brought to Oroville by an uncle to work in a laundry, Gee said, “and after many years he decided to go into business with a friend, who was the cook.”

Gee, who was born in a house in China built with his grandfather’s Oroville earnings, came to the United States with his father in 1947. He remembers playing hide-and-seek behind the 100-pound sacks of rice in the restaurant’s back room. He said his father and grandfather, both Confucists, contributed to the temple complex before the family sold the restaurant to the Wong family in 1995.

“We still make egg foo yung, which was on the original menu,” Wong said. Another original menu item that’s still served is chop suey – invented during the Gold Rush to feed a visiting Chinese official who humbly asked for leftovers.

Tong Fong Low Restaurant, 2051 Robinson St., Oroville; (530) 533-1488 or at www.tongfonglow.com

CHINESE TEMPLE & MUSEUM COMPLEX

What: A registered National Historical Landmark, the museum is both an active place of worship and a chronicle of the history of Oroville’s Chinese population.

Where: 1500 Broderick St., Oroville

Hours: Daily for visits and worship between noon and 4 p.m. except for holidays and Dec. 15-Jan. 31

Cost: $2.50-$3, children under 12 free

Information: (530) 538-2415, for group tours (530) 538-2497; www.cityoforoville.org. If you dial (530) 539-3004 and press 102, you can hear Chan-Wilcox recount the history on the temple.

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