Story BRIGHID MORET
Special to the Examiner
Today, no smoke issues from the large urn at the front of the Chinese temple in Oroville, Calif., but ash inside indicates recent use. Except for the addition of a cement floor and electric lights, the original and oldest part of the structure remains as it was 140 years ago. The updated headdresses on the temple deities and offerings left on the altar in front of them provide evidence that, even though now a museum maintained by the city of Oroville, the temple is still visited by those wanting to maintain their religion and traditions.
In 1848, gold was discovered in California, and shortly thereafter people began streaming to the area. In China, people recruited mine workers and prospectors by telling them there were mountains of gold across the ocean and, if they left their families, they would return in two years rich beyond their wildest dreams. By 1852, the Chinese were paying taxes to both their Emperor, whose tax collectors accompanied the boats of gold seekers, and the United States, who feared the vast influx of Chinese.
By 1869 the gold rush had begun to flatten and the railroad industry became the most important in northern California. The effort to connect the nation by rail was underway, and the impoverished Chinese were the ones working the rails on which they were too poor to travel. Two years turned into a lifetime, and those Chinese who had ventured away from their homeland, found that they would never return.
Chinese communities formed across the region. While San Francisco’s boasts today’s oldest and largest surviving Chinatown, Oroville has something that San Francisco historians don’t have, but wish they did. Liet Sheng Kong, or “Temple of Assorted Deities,” is the oldest, continuously used Chinese temple in the United States. What is even more impressive is this building served not one, but three of China’s religions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
Just past the iron urn stands the oldest part of the temple, constructed in 1863 with money from the Emperor of China. However, funds were insufficient to build separate sites for each religion, so for five years all three religions shared the same small, dirt-floored, one-room temple.
The gong used to awake gods, ancestors, and spirits quietly hangs just inside the door, before the high threshold put in place to keep out evil spirits. Inside the main temple, colorful thanksgiving boards, commissioned by Oroville families and imported from China, hang from the ceiling thanking the temple and gods for good fortune and prosperity. The temple priests are long gone, but the watchful eyes of the emperor still remain in the form of peacock feathers. The once gold leafed and brightly painted altar sits in the center of the room, bearing its age with dignity; the hand carved people cast their eyes to the floor, as if mourning the damage.
On either side of the Taoist altar sit beautiful woodcarvings depicting elaborately carved animals intended to bring good luck and prosperity. In the past these were illuminated by hand painted silk gauze lanterns. Now hanging in tatters in the corners, the vibrancy of the colors allows the mind to create an image of their former brilliance.
Above the lanterns hang dragon masks, once used in Chinese New Year celebrations and parades, the papier mâchè faces now stand as sentinels, watching all who approach the altar.
In 1868 the community could afford to expand the temple compound. The Moon Room, or Buddhist temple, and a council chamber were constructed.
The Moon room is impressive in its own way. On the second story of the compound, a stand of bamboo grows outside the circular “moon door.” There are once again two altars, one with a set of pewter candlesticks and, the ornately decorated, rear altar which houses a statue of Buddha, sitting in the lotus position with his hand raised. Other religious items and cultural treasures reside here, including a heavily embroidered parasol presented to the temple by the Empress of China and hand painted lanterns hanging undamaged from the ceiling.
Below the Moon Room, the Council Room displays not only beautiful artifacts such as an elaborately carved “ship of life,” covered in gold leaf, or the equally beautiful council chairs, with mountain landscapes painted on their white marble backs, but also remnants of everyday community life such as business ledgers, the “Rules and Regulations” of the community drafted in 1900, and partially translated books.
The Chan Room, or Confucian temple, was built for ancestral worship by the Chan Family in 1874. Once all three religions had their own space, the original temple became the Taoist temple.
The Chan Room is located next to the Taoist temple. While the simplest of the three temples, it still houses several beautiful objects. There is a central altar figure symbolic of the teaching of Confucius. The figure is surrounded by Chinese characters and red placards with gold leafed designs. The second altar in front of the image is very simple. A red altar, with black detail and no carving or additional embellishment other than the pewter altar set that sits on top, a picture of ancestors on one side with silk flowers in a vase on the other. Against the wall sits a bridal sedan chair, waiting for a wedding.
In 1907 a series of devastating floods rushed through Oroville, decimating Chinatown. After the floods, many of the Chinese moved to Sacramento or San Francisco, hoping to start over. Those who stayed, salvaged what they could from the temple, theater, and nearby buildings. The Chinese community continued to taper off, until the Temple Association Families turned the temple, its possessions, and many other cultural artifacts over to the city of Oroville in 1937, with the stipulation that the temple remains open for worship. In 1952, the remnants of Chinatown were demolished, leaving only the temple and two accessory buildings.
In the last half of the 20th century an annex was built across from the temple, separated only by a traditional Chinese garden, complete with koi pond. The annex houses a Tapestry Hall, which displays some of the finest examples of Chinese embroidery; the Display Hall, which houses artifacts from everyday Chinese life in 19th century Oroville from pottery, to theater puppets; and the Cullie Room, which contains a collection of American and Chinese clothing from 1860-1930, designed to compare and contrast the two cultures.
Back in the Main Temple, statues of the three honored Taoist gods still sit on the rear altar. The statues are delicately carved and covered with painted rice paper that is starting to flake and the carver’s hair forms the gods’ beards.
The gods that are honored say a lot about the type of lives the Chinese of Oroville experienced in life. Of all those who could have been honored, they chose a god who was known for solving problems, the god of medicine, and the goddess of the heavens who protected travelers. Today the temple complex, while still a house of worship, primarily acts as a testament to the lives and culture of the thousands of Chinese who lived in Oroville, whose fortune faded with the end of gold.
Brighid Moret is a freelancer living in Silver Spring, Maryland. .