A Temple on the Edge of Doom
Most of the time you could drive past the Bok Kai Temple and easily miss it. From the street in this tired Central Valley town north of Sacramento only the back of the plain building is visible. The front of the temple opens smack onto an earthen levee, which towers above the structure. And once you do find the temple, most of the time its door is locked.
But during the Lucky Bomb Day festival the temple is impossible to miss. On that weekend this past March the oldest active Chinese Taoist temple in California is active indeed: At noon the line to get in stretches around the corner. Everywhere, people are carrying roasted suckling pigs on platters. The air is thick with firecrackers popping, the booms of small bombs that throw rings into the sky for children to catch and the sounds of Chinese.
Inside the temple, food offerings are piled high, incense fills the air as thick as barbecue smoke, and the small room echoes with the rattle of fortune sticks, which are shaken in a bamboo container until one of the numbered staves falls to the floor and foretells the future. In the middle of an altar surrounded by elaborate wood carvings, embroidered banners and hanging lanterns, Bok Kai stands impassively, just as he has for more than a century.
Bok Kai is the Chinese water god, the bringer of rain, the preventer of floods and the banisher of evil. And since the temple was built in 1880, locals like to point out, the town hasn’t been inundated even while the river has deluged neighboring Yuba City.
“This is the site,” says Paul G. Chace, who wrote a PhD thesis on the temple’s role in the community and visits every year from Escondido, “where the saints can best watch over the town to see that nothing good flows away and that nothing bad flows in.”
The only thing Bok Kai can’t do, it seems, is to stop his house from falling down around him.
The Yuba River courses down the hills from Gold Country and pours into the Feather River, about 40 miles north of Sacramento. Marysville was founded at the confluence of the two rivers in 1851 and during the Gold Rush briefly swelled into one of the largest cities in the state. Many of those drawn to the gold fields were Chinese immigrants from the Canton province, who made up about a quarter of Marysville’s population of about 5,000 people and built the second-largest Chinatown in California after San Francisco’s.
In 1880 the Chinese community built the Bok Kai Temple, replacing a smaller temple from 1854. The new temple faced the Yuba River, along the bridge leading into town. The building itself was unremarkable, but the inside of the front porch was painted with a lyrical mural showing robed figures, flying birds and graceful calligraphy. The main altar featured the figurines of Bok Kai and six other deities, intricate carvings, ceremonial weapons and other artifacts imported from southern China.
Most of the town turned out for the dedication ceremony, and the annual Chinese New Year parade, held in February or March, soon became Marysville’s biggest civic event--which the city claims is the longest running parade in the state.
But though the festival still draws thousands every year, time has been less kind to the temple. A levee was built in front of it, the main street (and bridge) into town was moved downstream, and most of the Chinese businesses that once thrived in the neighborhood have closed. Today, fewer than 100 Chinese Americans live in the area.
And the temple is falling apart. A plastic tarp covers part of the roof; inside, the ceiling is collapsing in places; bricks in the wall are crumbling and the floor is rotting away. Huge cracks mar the sides of the murals on the porch, the roof of which looks like it could snap off the building.
“Even as we stand, a piece could fall,” says George Rios, head of the Friends of the Marysville Bok Kai Temple, a nonprofit group that is trying to save the structure. “But all that can be brought back again.”
Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the temple one of the 11 most endangered sites in the nation.
Where there were once hundreds, if not thousands, of flourishing Chinese temples throughout the West, only a handful remain, and the Marysville structure is the only one dedicated to Bok Kai. “Those murals may be unique in the world,” says Chace, an art consultant. “Taiwan repaints its temples. China tore down its temples in the Cultural Revolution. But the Marysville temple will fall apart if nothing is done.”
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the local Kiwanis and Lions clubs contributed to repair projects, but the temple’s needs far outstrip the area’s resources. The Friends of the Marysville Bok Kai Temple and Marysville Chinese Community Inc., which owns the building, have raised about $30,000--just enough to pay for a structural report due this summer that will assess just how dilapidated the temple is and recommend a renovation program.
“The temple is not just for the Chinese community but for everyone,” says Stan Tidman, the city’s coordinator for community development. “The city has tried to help, but it doesn’t have the economic base that some communities have.”
Indeed, the temple reflects the declining fortunes of Marysville itself. The town has 12,000 residents and shares the title of “prune capital of the world” with neighboring Yuba City, but the dried-plum business isn’t exactly a growth industry. The city’s historical downtown is pretty, but boarded-up buildings and “for rent” storefronts outnumber open businesses.
The most prominent landmark in town is actually the Marysville Hotel, a stately structure built in 1926 and listed on the National Register of Historical Places but empty now for years and boarded up to keep out squatters. There are also two grand old movie houses, the State Theater and the Tower Theater, almost equally neglected.
“There are more than 300 historical buildings in town,” says Tidman. “For a small town with limited resources, it’s difficult to maintain that resource stock.”
Occasionally, the city has to pull down a historical building (many of which are owned by absentee landlords) before it falls down. Then there’s the trade-off between preservation and development. The biggest retail center in town is the Mervyn’s store across the street from the Bok Kai Temple, the construction of which required the razing of part of old town Marysville, a loss still lamented by some. “The old-timers say we really blew it,” Tidman says.
All of which makes scraping together repair money for the temple that much harder.
“They have an incredible resource and an enormous challenge,” says Anthony Veerkamp, senior program officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation based in San Francisco. “It’s a huge challenge for a rural, rather improvised community to do the kind of fund-raising that will be required. It’s a million-dollar project at least. That’s a challenge for any community.”
Marysville celebrated Chinese New Year this year as it has every year since 1872: with a huge parade snaking through town. Behind the Marysville’s dragon, supported by 40 men, another 100 groups marched, representing everyone from the Boy Scouts to the Sons of Norway.
“Bok Kai is the patron of this town and its protector,” says Chace. “Marysville’s temple is unique. The whole town has adopted it as its principle landmark. After five generations they all party together. It’s a community thing.”
The next day was Lucky Bomb Day, Bok Kai’s festival, which was once widely celebrated in Chinese communities throughout California but now takes place only in Marysville.
Families from all over journey to Marysville. Kevin Vuoung has been coming to Marysville from Oakland every year for six years--ever since he heard about the temple from a friend. He waits in line at the temple, pays for incense and fake money to burn as an offering and then makes a prayer.
“I wished [once] I had a boy,” he says. “I got a boy. I wished I had a girl. I got a girl. Now, I’m wishing for a better job.”
By 4 o’clock, when the bomb festival actually begins, most of the crowd is gone. The skies are threatening rain. A procession of Chinese elders marches out of the temple, firecrackers tossed as they go. They carry a jade tablet representing Bok Kai, decked out in ribbons, followed by smoking incense and a banging gong. “Their gods are so powerful,” marvels Chace, “but they don’t have enough money to build a new roof.”