Bok Kai Temple
The Bok Kai Temple located in Marysville, California, is comfortably nestled in the curving embrace of the Yuba River near its confluence with the Feather River. It is the only Taoist temple in the United States with Bok Eye, the god of the north who controls water and floods, as the central diety. The temple is also unique because it has an active community of worshippers and the temple is still in the hands of a Chinese organization. It is further distinguished by its elaborate murals, which are believed to be the only example of their type in the United States.
Although the temple has survived since 1880, it has sustained enormous structural damage. It has been threatened to the extent that another season of El Nino's torrential rain might render the temple irreparable. The temple's dire need for restoration has caused it to be listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2001.
First, it is helpful to look at a slice of California history in order to understand the importance of saving this unique sacred place.
The story of the Bok Kai Miu (temple) began shortly after Chinese arrived in Marysville, drawn by the California Gold Rush of 1849. A series of economic and political difficulties in China, made immigration to California attractive and the Gold Rush provided numerous opportunities. Most of the early Chinese immigrants were from the Canton province of Kwang Tung in southern China . One of the first things they did after arriving was to build a temple to house their gods and worship them.
The first Bok Kai temple constructed in Marysville was built in 1854. It is believed that this temple perished in a major flood that occurred in 1866. The current Bok Kai temple was built early in 1880 and dedicated on March 28 of that year. It has been operating continuously since that date, making it one of the oldest Taoist temples in California.
The temple's placement along the river was dictated by laws that discriminated against early Chinese settlers who were not allowed to become citizens, own land, or chose where they could live. Chinese communities were restricted to areas considered the least desirable. They were forced to build along the rivers where flooding was common. It was quite important, therefore, for protection from a powerful god such as Bok Eye. It is unusual though, for a temple to honorBok Eye as the principal god. Most Taoist temples were dedicated to Kuan Kung, a diefied warrior who had lived during the third century A.D.
The Bok Kai Temple is approached from the top of a levee by going down a flight of stairs. The temple, nearly as tall as the levee, is a double gabled brick building covered in white plaster. Two side wings have flat roofs. The central door of the tripartite building is painted a powerful red. On both sides of the door are Chinese inscriptions including one that proclaims this the "Palace of Several Saints." An overhanging roof covers a porch that protects elaborate murals done on dry lime plaster depicting traditional Chinese scenes with figures, landscapes and calligraphy.
The temple houses not only the main god of Bok Eye, but also seven additional dieties gracing one primary altar and two additional ones. These include Sing Moo, a female diety honored by ocean travelers and seamen. The early Chinese immigrants wishing to give thanks for safe passage to the United State from China probably included her. The Goddess of Mercy, Gone Yim (Kuan Yin), is also included. Other gods are, Wa-Ho, the God of Health; Gon Gung (Quan Gung) the God of Literature; Yuk Fung or Tai Sing, who holds the rank of Secretary of State; Hoo Gee the Earth God; and Ts'ai Shen or Choy Bok Sing Quan, the God of Wealth. Two other gods are represented with their names inscribed on tablets. One is Gum Far, known as the Gold Flower Lady, who is especially sought after by expectant mothers; the other is Tai Sui who controls time. All of these gods are worshipped in the central room of the temple surrounded by incense burners, divination sticks, oracle books and other ceremonial objects. On either side of the main room are additional wings; one is a council room and the other is a storeroom. Another space was added for living quarters.
Religion & Religious Festivals
Taoism was the most common religion for most Chinese immigrants who arrived in California. Taoist temples, like the Bok Kai Temple, were important spiritual centers for newly arrived settlers who would go there to honor the various gods, seek their guidance, and remember departed relatives. Worship involved silent prayers before the altars, offerings of incense, and, on special occassions, offerings of food and drink. Paper offerings were burned as a way to transport items like money or clothing into the spiritual realm. Prayers were often accompanied by written questions asked of the dieites. The questions would be burned on the altar and an answer might be obtained by consulting the divination sticks, which were interpreted by the temple's priest or deacon.
Taoist temples also functioned as social centers and included council rooms for meetings. The first and the fifteenth day of the lunar month were considered days of worship when the community might gather together.
In the spring, most temples held a 'bomb day' named after the firework type bombs that are set off during the festival. The Bok Kai Temple is the only temple in the United States that still celebrates Yee Yeut Yee or Bomb Day, a celebration dedicated to Bok Eye. The temple has been observing this religious festival since its dedication in 1880 only interrupted by the two World Wars and a revolutionary war in China. It is usually a two-day festival held on the second day of the second month of the lunar year, or on the weekend following the date.
The religious ceremonies centering on the Bok Kai Temple draw visitors from throughout North America to worship there. It is a time when worshippers can commune with Bok Eye and discover what kind of fortune the New Year will hold for them. In addition to his abilities to control the rain and floods associated with good harvests, he is known to drive away evil spirits.
The highlight of the event is the one hundred bombs that are exploded during the festivities. These are filled with "good fortune" rings that represent good luck during the coming year. People rush to retrieve the rings, which are kept as good luck talismans. An elder in the Chinese community makes the bombs by hand under a special permit because they are no longer available for import from China.
The Threat & The Plan for Restoration
The Bok Kai Temple and its religious and cultural significance remain a testament to the vibrancy of the Marysville Chinese community. The Temple and its treasures are, however, in an endangered state from age, weathering, and its proximity to the river. There are large cracks in the murals at the entrance to the temple, pieces of the plaster are falling off the walls, and the structural supports and the floor of the temple have been greatly weakened by water damage.
The Friends of the Bok Kai Temple have raised $30,000 for the restoration project, but the entire project will cost well over $1 million. The temple's inclusion of the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered Sites List has brought welcome attention and funds from the Trust and the California Office of Historic Preservation totaling $18,000.
The project is to begin with a structural report from an engineering firm. Once that is completed, more will be known about how to proceed with the actual work of shoring up the building. Plans are being made to relocate the contents of the temple so that work can begin. Athena Randolph is coordinating the restoration and she needs to secure funding for cataloguing the contents, and moving them to a safe storage facility.
Other goals include the creation of a museum near the temple to house the temple's collection of artifacts along with exhibitions about the history of the Chinese community in Marysville.
How You Can Help:
Join Sacred Sites International Foundation on a site visit of the Bok Kai Temple scheduled for Saturday, June 22, 2002. The trip is designed as a fund-raising excursion and will include a tour of the temple and lunch at a Marysville Chinese restaurant. For details, contact Sacred Sites International at 510-525-1304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also send donations to the Marysville Friends of the Bok Kai Temple, PO Box 1844, Marysville, CA 95901.
You can also contact your congressional representatives and encourage them to support a Chinese Theme Study that would include the preservation of other Chinese cultural sites.
Resources consulted for this article
The web site of the California Office of Historic Preservation: http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/5Views
The web site of Friends of the Bok Kai Temple: http://www.bokkaitemple.org
The web site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation: http://www.nthp.org/11Most/2001
"Hope for crumbling Taoist temple: Marysville site placed on endangered list", by Eric Brazil, San Francisco Chronicle, July 9, 2001.
Nancy Becker is Co-Founder of Sacred Sites International Foundation with her husband, Leonard Becker.