This post was originally publieshed in September of 2016
A very good friend of mine moved about an hour’s drive north to another small, Northern California town, Oroville. She was worried about being lonely but I promised to visit. I assured her we would have great fun getting to know her new area together. Oroville, although small, has lots of interesting things to do. Our first outing was to the Chinese temple. Who knew such a little gem existed!
Oroville is home to one of the best-preserved temples of the Chinese Gold Rush. The Liet Sheng Kong or “Temple of Many Gods,” is one of three remaining Chinese temples in California from the Gold Rush era (Weaverville and Marysville are the other two.).
We entered the temple through a small gift shop. The volunteer-on-duty, Thil Chan-Wilcox, turned out to be as much a gem as the museum. Chan-Wilcox is 4th generation Chinese-American and has lived in the Oroville area for 70 years. In addition to volunteering at the temple, she serves on the town council. She was a wealth of information on the museum and local history and graciously shared some of it with us.
Chan-Wilcox’s great-grandfather came to “Gold Mountain” (California) as a representative of the Emperor. He became a successful herbalist, who also traded in gold. She can trace her Chan ancestry back 28 generations and there is a genealogy chart of her family in the museum going back to 500 A.D. Chan-Wilcox is a traditional clan keeper of the temple.
At one time there were more than 10,000 Chinese in Oroville. This largely immigrant population was made up mainly of laborers, but also included merchants and their families (some of whom were born in the US.) The Chinese-American community, or Chinatown, in Oroville was one of California’s busiest Chinatowns. Funds for a temple and furnishings were provided by the Emperor and Empress of China and local Chinese labor built the structure. The temple served as a place of worship as well as a community center for the Chinese.
In 1907, an Oroville flood badly damaged the once-thriving Chinatown that surrounded the temple. The Chinese-American population began a mass exodus to metropolitan areas, such as San Francisco and Sacramento, where there were established communities and work was more plentiful. The Chinese Temple in Oroville was deeded to the city of Oroville in 1937. It was only in 1949, after restoration work was started by the Oroville Women’s Community Club, that the Chinese temple was again open to the public.
I was amazed at the number of cultural relics displayed and the large size of the complex. The Oroville Chinese Temple is actually comprised of four original rooms (three for worship), plus a large tapestry and clothing/artifact display hall that itself spans three rooms, as well as a replica of an 1860s Chinese worker’s hut, a small central courtyard garden, and the Fong Lee Room (the newest addition, which was built in 2008 as a gift from the descendants of the founding Chin/Chan family).
Beyond the gift shop, the first room that we toured was the main worship room. It was built in1863 after burning down twice before. It is the oldest surviving room in the temple. On an altar are three carved wooden statues with images of three deities. On the left sits Hua T’o, the Daoist god of medicine, credited with the discovery of acupuncture about 450 B.C. In the middle is Kang Kong (aka Kuan Yu), a Confucian folk hero revered as a god of literature, war, fair play and business acumen. And on the right you find Tien Hau, the Buddhist holy mother of heaven, goddess of the sea and guardian of travelers. Also alongside the main altar are two paper maché Buddha Lion heads used in Chinese New Year’s parades and believed to be the oldest in the country, and two large bamboo lanterns covered with silk mesh.
The temple was open 24 hours a day to people of any religion, and they would ring the gong that’s still inside the front door to let people know when the priest was here. Displayed in the room are numerous 19th-century religious cultural artifacts, paper-thin delicate with age. More than 30 large prayer boards in various colors line the temple walls and hang from the ceiling, either asking the gods for a favor or thanking them for making their dreams come true.
Another building houses the Council Room which was added in 1868. Just as the name states, the Council Room served as a civic center for Oroville’s Chinese-American community. Business was transacted, arguments settled, taxes collected, and justice was dispensed in the Council Room. Here, illiterate Chinese could hire someone to write letters back to China, and Chinese leaders would discipline the Chinese who needed to be disciplined for stealing or cheating, so Oroville authorities didn’t have to be involved. The displays in this room included marble-seated chairs, pagoda-style altars, tables, and books that displayed handwritten documentation.
Above the Council Room sits the Moon Temple (Wong Fut Tong) with a round door signifying the circle of life and three statues of Buddha. In the middle of the museum/temple is a courtyard, which is filled with Chinese plants and a small fish pond. A small garden in a traditional layout remains, and guests can sit on benches that hold plaques with donors’ names on them. This courtyard separates the tapestry room from the four original rooms.
In 1874, local Chinese built the adjoining Chan worship room in honor of Soong dynasty Gen. Chan Low Kwan, the “Viscount of Purification” and the original ancestor of all Chan or Chin families from Toi San (also known as Toy Sun). Among the photos in the room of early Oroville is one of Chan-Wilcox’s uncle standing on the levee built to keep out floods. There is also a curtained bridal sedan chair used in parades.
In 1968, the museum opened the Tapestry Hall, where among the collection of embroidered tapestries, parade parasols and other objects, you also can see donkey-skin “Shadow Puppets, “golden lilies,” tiny shoes for a lady whose feet were bound in the custom of the day; articles of clothing, including wedding gowns from the 1860s, and artifacts donated by two Chinese missionaries.
We learned that most of the Chinese in California in the 1860s were illiterate, so they relied on huge tapestries, which served as billboards for performing troupes and “like newsreels” about China. These tapestries had been stored by Chan-Wilcox’s family for decades. I loved the Tapestry Room. The workmanship in the gowns and the embroidery on the tapestries was exquisite.
The Fong Lee Room (the newest addition) was built in 2008 as a gift from the descendants of the founding Chin/Chan family.) It holds a replica of Chan-Wilcox’s great grandfather’s original herb shop and assay office, which burned down in 1880. His herb cabinet, safe and cash register remain. Visitors get a peek into the lives of members of the greater Chinese community with a replica of a Chinese miner’s wooden hut.
We ended our outing with lunch at another remnant of Oroville’s Chinese history, Tong Fong Low. Better known locally as Charlie’s Chop Suey, it is believed to be the oldest continually operating Chinese restaurant in the United States.
We ordered the Tong Fong Low special, a combination of pork, beef, chicken, and shrimp with vegetables and a very tasty sauce. Absolutely delicious! We also had the good fortune to meet the owner, Sandy Wong. She filled us in on the 104-year history of the restaurant. The current site of the restaurant is only half block from where the restaurant was originally located.
Tong Fong Low was started by the You/Gee family. Lee You left a small village in Canton province around 1900. He was brought to Oroville by an uncle to work in a laundry. In 1912 he opened the restaurant (around 1947 the Gee branch of the family was operating the restaurant.) The Gee family sold the restaurant to the Wong family in 1995.
I asked Wong how often she changed her menu. “Not too often. We still make egg foo yung, which was on the original menu,” Wong said. Another original menu item that’s still served is chop suey – invented during the Gold Rush to feed a visiting Chinese official who humbly asked for leftovers. (People around town would call the it “Charlie’s Chop Suey ” and it stuck as the unofficial name of the Restaurant.)
I complemented Wong on our delicious lunch and she proudly informed us that the secret was in selecting the freshest and the best ingredients to prepare each plate it presents. She asked us what we ordered, I told her the special. I also let her know the shrimp in the dish was cooked perfectly. She said if I liked that we should come back for the Walnut Shrimp. I will be making more visits to Tong Fong Low.
It was a delightful day visiting an old friend and experiencing a little Gold Rush history and sampling the culture and food of the once vibrant Chinese community. Oroville’s Chinatown is now long gone. The Oroville’s Chinese-American population has dwindle down to barely 100. Oroville’s Chinese temple functions mainly as a museum. But just maybe the best of that world has survived.