A Quiet Town Has One of North America’s Oldest Chinese Temples


For a brief time in the mid-19th century, one of the biggest cities in California was a place you may never have heard of: Marysville, about 40 miles north of Sacramento.

Marysville was a gold rush boom town, more populous in 1860 than any other city in the state except for San Francisco and Sacramento. The community, in Yuba County, was the last stop along the way for gold-seekers who had come to California by steamship and were headed inland to the mines.

It was also home to the state’s third-largest Chinatown, a hub for immigrants from the southern province of Guangdong who worked on the railroads.

“I grew up knowing Marysville as Sahm Fow,” or “third city” in Cantonese, said Jon Lim, a 54-year-old native of the town.

Today, Marysville is a quiet town of antique shops and Victorian houses, and a population that is only 7 percent Asian. Yet the legacy of its once-bustling Chinatown remains.

Bok Kai Temple, built in 1880 at the center of Marysville’s Chinatown, has survived as one of the oldest Taoist temples in the United States. The temple, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, honors the water god Bok Eye, to whom locals prayed for enough rain to grow crops, but not so much that their homes would be submerged. Marysville is at the confluence of the Yuba and Feather Rivers, and its Chinese residents were relegated to its lowest, most flood-prone parts.

I recently stopped by the temple and passed through imposing red doors into a sanctuary where the air was cool and smelled of incense. An ornate wooden altar framed brass statues of gods decorated with peacock feathers and red ribbons.

Under the temple’s eaves were surprisingly well-preserved murals painted nearly 150 years ago, showing Chinese scenes. They had been obscured for decades by layers of incense smoke, which seemed to have protected them from the elements, said Lim, who is president of the nonprofit Marysville Chinese Community, which owns the temple.

Lim told me that Bok Kai was built to replace earlier temples in Marysville that had been destroyed by fire and vandalism. His family, which has been in the region since the 1860s, believes the current temple survived for so long in part because the surrounding community was more tolerant of Chinese immigrants than people in other parts of the state were.

(Bok Kai is not the oldest Chinese temple in California; there’s a temple dating from 1863 in nearby Oroville and one from 1874 in Weaverville, another gold rush town, farther north in Trinity County.)

Bok Kai’s grand iron gates now abut a dirt levee that keeps the Yuba River at bay, and the temple is on a desolate street next to the Silver Dollar Saloon, a former brothel. With Marysville’s Chinese population now a fraction of what it once was, the temple is typically open only by appointment, except for one weekend a year, which is coming up next month.

The 144th annual Bok Kai Festival, which is billed as the longest-running parade in California, is scheduled for March 8 to 10. Visitors can tour the temple, see traditional lion dancing and enjoy a firecracker show. The festival celebrates Bok Eye’s birthday, which falls on the second day of the second month of the traditional Chinese calendar.

Lim told me that he was trying to reignite interest in the festival, despite the dwindling of the town’s Chinese population. He hopes to keep it going as long as he can.

“If I don’t do it, my kids don’t have it,” he said.

What are the best California movies? “Chinatown”? “Vertigo”? “La La Land”?

Tell us which movie you would put on a California movie list and why. Email us at CAtoday@nytimes.com. Please include your full name and the city in which you live.

A Los Gatos man, Mark Zhang, has been lending portable generators to his neighbors in the South Bay who lost power this winter, including during the recent heavy rainstorms, The Mercury News reports.

His effort began in earnest a year ago, in January 2023, when Los Gatos experienced extensive outages after a bad storm. Zhang, who is passionate about preparedness and had amassed a collection of used generators, was out of the country. But with the help of a local council member, he was able to lend out his generators to neighbors who had no lights.

The generators made such a difference that this year, Zhang decided to formalize the operation, leading lessons for the community about how to set up the machines and teaching the town’s Community Emergency Response Team, of which he is now a member, to use them.

Zhang said he hoped to create a generator-sharing program for South Bay residents, to ensure the community is as prepared and resilient as possible.

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