Sarah Lim: Merced’s Chinese altar considered significant historical artifact

Chinese American historians Chuimei Ho, Ben Bronson and Phil Choy came to visit our Chinese temple exhibit last month in the Merced County Courthouse Museum. Ho and Bronson are founders of the Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee in Washington. They are currently studying the religious artifacts in the northwest United States and have discovered some interesting facts about our exhibit.

The following story is a collaborative effort among us. I provide historical background on the Chinese settlement in Merced and their religious practices, while Ho and Bronson present the origin of the Merced’s Chinese altar and its historical significance:

Chinese laborers had earned a reputation as hard-working and reliable railroad workers during the construction of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. When the Central Pacific Railroad built its San Joaquin Valley line in 1872, Chinese laborers were recruited for the job and this led to their settlement in Merced.

Recognizing the need for the Chinese railroad workers to purchase their daily necessities, Chinese businessmen often opened stores in the railroad camps and this was how Merced’s Chinatown was created. Located on 14th Street, which was considered the main street of the village, Chinatown was bounded by 15th and 13th streets north and south, and by K and M streets east and west.

Chinatown was a segregated and a predominantly bachelor society.

Inside Chinatown, many stores, restaurants, shops and boarding houses lined both sides of the main street that remained unpaved until the 1930s. Most of the Chinese residents were married men who had left their wives back home to care for their parents and children. To escape from their loneliness, these “bachelors” often turned to religion for comfort.

Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism were the three primary religions. Taoism, above all, was the most popular among the working-class immigrants because its mystical aspect emphasizes the unity of yin and yang, and the worship of various legends and gods. As a result, Taoist temples were often seen in the Chinese-American communities from the mining towns to the cities.

The very first temple in Merced’s Chinatown was erected in 1875 at a cost of $1,000. The second one was built in 1885 and the third and last temple was located on the second floor of the Tea Garden Cafe at 454 W. 14th St.

It is unclear when the last temple was built, but it was demolished in 1960 to make way for the construction of the current route of Highway 99. Some temple objects – including the two altars, several idols and oracle sticks – were saved, and they have been restored and exhibited at the Courthouse Museum since 1983.

The design of the main altar in the exhibit is gracefully traditional. The many panels are symmetrically arranged, mostly with floral compositions. Some seem to be peonies and others forget-me-nots. The carvings are painted in a variety of colors, with human figures in gold and the background mostly in red.

The altar is outstanding in at least three ways in addition to its handsome craftsmanship: It is the oldest surviving complete Chinese altar in North America; it is the only early altar on this continent that was donated by women; and it is the only one made in Foshan (a town in southern China), not Canton, San Francisco or Hong Kong.

On the upper left are characters that read “Made by Zeng Tai-yuan of Foshan town.” For centuries, Foshanhas been famous for its pottery, iron work and embroidery. Its splendid wood carvings deserve equal fame.

The date when the altar was made appears on the right side of the façade. It reads, “In the autumn of Emperor Guangxu’s first year,” which in the Western dating system is 1875. Strictly speaking, Merced’s Chinese altar is the second oldest in America. The Chinese Temple Museum in Oroville has an altar fragment with an 1874 date.

But the one in Merced, built only a year later, is intact. Much earlier than any in San Francisco’s Chinatown, it is an important historical Chinese American artifact.

On the lower left side are more engraved Chinese characters. These show the names of three donors, all women: “Respectfully offered by Li who married a Lu, by Ms. Guo, and by Jin Hao: woman believers who are covered in grace.” Thus, one of the three, Li, was married. Guo probably was too. But Jin Hao is a personal name without a family name attached. This means she was single.

In early Chinese California, where males greatly outnumbered females, an unmarried woman could be the daughter of a Chinese merchant, or perhaps a maid or a prostitute. We leave it to the reader to decide which, but Jin Hao clearly had money and the status equal to that of respectably married ladies.

These three women pooled their money to buy the altar. Such all-female public funding was highly unusual among early Chinese Americans. It showed confidence and feminine pride.

The relief carvings in the lower center depict the interior of a large household, with men and women on balconies and in a ground floor reception room. Above the central figure, a dignified senior man, is a carved label, “Duke of Fenyang.” The scene is a historical drama about domestic conflict in ancient China.

The Duke’s daughter-in-law, Princess Xingping, refused to bow to him on his 60th birthday, as younger members of any family should. She claimed that as an emperor’s daughter she did not have to bow to her husband’s father.

This outrageous statement, which flew in the face of all Chinese tradition, could have led to real trouble. Luckily, however, the emperor himself intervened and the story ended happily. It is probably not a coincidence that this women-funded altar would commemorate the story of an assertive female challenging the household’s patriarchy.

To view this magnificent artifact and learn more about the history of Chinese settlement of Merced, please visit the Courthouse Museum Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

Jan. 31 is the first day of Chinese New Year celebration and this is the Year of the Horse.

If you are interested in becoming a museum tour guide, please join us for our annual docent training Jan. 25 at 10 a.m. at the museum. For more information, call the museum office at (209 723-2401.