Who Considers it Sacred? Taoists
Significance: 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 deity. The temple is also unique because it has an active community of worshipers 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.
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 honor Bok Eye as the principal god. Most Taoist temples were dedicated to Kuan Kung, a deified 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 deities gracing one primary altar and two additional ones. These include Sing Moo, a female deity 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 worshiped 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.
The Threat: Natural disaster and weathering
Preservation Status: The temple is on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s year 2001 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Age, weather, and water damage have made immediate restoration imperative. The Friends of the Bok Kai Temple have raised $30,000 toward restoring it, but restoration will need over $1 million. The National Trust and the California Office of Historic Preservation have also given $18,000. As of 2004, about $100,000 had been raised towards a goal of $1.2. million for the temple’s restoration. As of 2012, the temple has been fully restored and a Kickstarter campaign will be taking place soon to raise money for a temple museum to house the many historic artifacts that are stored in the backrooms of the temple.
For More Information: Bok Kai Temple Updates