Isleton celebrates restoration of Chinese community center

A significant piece of Isleton history was on display Tuesday as the community celebrated the first phase of the restoration of the Delta community’s long-shuttered Chinese community center.

Isleton – like many California Delta towns – once boasted a prominent Chinese American community. Isleton’s Bing Kong Tong building was once at the center of that heritage – serving as community center and a Chinese language school from around 1926 until the 1940s. The building fell into disrepair and its facade of weathered wood planks and rusty corrugated steel made it look as if the building had washed ashore.

But Tuesday, a bit of the old grandeur was back and nearly 100 people came to celebrate the $600,000 restoration. The building has been given a new exterior, stabilized with bracing and readied for no-frills tours, but there is much more to be done. The walls are bare or exposed, pieces of the floor are missing, and large 2-foot-by-6-inch wood braces kept the walls from bowing out.

Pictures in plastic sleeves showed the artifacts to be returned once the interior work is done.

May Tom Chan, 86, was able to look past the work ahead.

Asked what it means to be inside a building that was a part of her childhood, Chan’s answered: “Everything.”

“I went to Chinese school here,” said Chan, who now lives on Oakland.

As many as a dozen longtime and former Isleton residents of Chinese heritage attended the ceremony, which concluded with raising American and historic Chinese flags over the two-story building.

“It’s nice to see things back the way it used to be,” said longtime Isleton resident Elda Lee, 88.

Charles Hasz, president of the Isleton Brannan-Andrus Historical Society, said he was pleased this and other Delta history will be preserved. An ordinance requires buildings in the area to maintain their historic storefronts.

The Bing Kong Tong building fell out of use in the 1940s, and by the 1960s it was uninhabitable. The historical society acquired the building in the early 1990s, said Hasz, who complimented his predecessors at the society for preserving all of the building’s artifacts, which will be on display once renovations are complete in about two years.

The next two phases of the restoration are expected to cost an additional $700,000, which likely will come from a combination of public, private and nonprofit funding, said Angela Jones, a spokeswoman from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency. The agency provided $441,000 of the phase one bill, with another $140,800 coming from a California Cultural Endowment grant.

“We’re excited about restoring this building. It helps bring people back,” said Isleton Chamber of Commerce board member Suzanne Black in her prepared remarks.

Even with the restoration, the community faces a long road back to its heyday. Isleton’s Main Street features more closed storefronts than open ones. Even some of the buildings that didn’t appear to be abandoned wore a “closed” sign Tuesday.

For years, the Crawdad Festival was the community’s signature event and brought thousands to the city’s downtown. But in a swarm of controversy, the event was sold to Red Bluff, forcing the chamber to replace it with the Isleton Cajun & Blues Festival. That festival may have found its footing, but the city still endures more than its share of budgetary woes.

Paul Chin, 66, of Oakland, said he hoped the building will remind people of our history – good and bad.

“People forget that California was segregated,” said Chin, who grew up on the Chinese side of Isleton and recalls being brought to the building by his mother in hopes of him learning Chinese, only to find the school closed. “For me, it’s great that they are restoring it. I hope they tell the true story of America.”