August 23, 2014

1860s Oroville Chinese Temple

Oroville Chinese Temple (1863)
 in Oroville, CA (located at the Sierra foothills)--
image from NoeHill.

Earlier this summer, we visited the historic Oroville Chinese Temple.  The information provided in this post is from my own experience coupled with information found in the Oroville Temple brochure.  All photos are my own except for the one above.

Temple History:
The Oroville Chinese Temple originally served as place of worship for the sizable mid-19th-to-early-20th-century Chinese American population (estimated at 3,000 to 10,000 people) in Oroville.  This largely immigrant population was comprised mainly of laborers, but also included merchants and their families (some of whom were born in the US), thus creating a Chinese American community, or Chinatown, in Oroville.  

In 1907, an Oroville flood badly damaged the once-thriving Chinatown that surrounded the temple.  As a result, the Chinese American population began a mass exodus to metropolitan areas, such as San Francisco and Sacramento, where there were established Chinese American communities and work was more plentiful.  The Chinese Temple in Oroville was eventually 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.  

Now, the historical temple functions mainly as a comprehensive museum, which boasts an impressive collection of of historical relics with vast relevance for Chinese American, Gold Rush, and California-specific history.  Beyond the temple/museum, two other buildings, and a few plaque markers and outdoor artifacts, Oroville's Chinatown is now long gone.  

Plaque marker noting the site's
historical significance.

The Anti-Chinese Movement:
During this time period, vehement racism against the Chinese in America culminated in the passage of two historic anti-Chinese laws that severely restricted the legal entry of this racial group to the United States: Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) and its predecessor the Page Law of 1875 (the latter of which excluded the immigration of Asian women to the US, but was aimed primarily at Chinese women).  Historically speaking, these two laws are notable in that they were the first-ever US laws whose specific target was a racial group as a whole.  As a result, the Page Law and the Chinese Exclusion Act set a historical precedent for race-based immigration to the US, whose legacy is the immigration quotas we know today.  The anti-Chinese movement, which was dubbed the Yellow Peril, or the irrational fear of an Asian invasion and takeover of white America, fueled the renewals (and the subsequent permanency) of the Chinese Exclusion Act until the law's eventual repeal in 1943.  These race-based laws were enacted on a local as well as national level through both legislation and anti-Chinese sentiment, which collectively affected all Chinese (both immigrant and American born) residing in the US.

The Temple Grounds:
Rather unassuming, 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 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).  

The Chan Room 

Initial Thoughts:
Unaware of the once-booming Chinese presence in Oroville, I was amazed at how comprehensive the temple grounds were, including the sheer number of cultural relics displayed and the large size of the complex, itself.  Additionally, the structural upkeep by the city of Oroville is commendable.

The museum docent was a middle-aged woman who gave off a hippie-meets-New-Age vibe.  She eyed us a little warily at first, presumably because I wore a large backpack and we touted cameras.  She soon did warm up to my presence while I waited in the gift shop/museum entrance for my husband, who kindly went to stow my backpack in the car.  Note: Security cameras are installed in every room of the complex, as well as in the courtyard, and are religiously monitored by the museum docent in the gift shop room.  If you take photos, flash is prohibited in order to preserve the artifacts.

The Self-guided Tour:
Beyond the gift shop, the first room that we toured was the main chapel (not shown here).  The main chapel was built in 1863 after burning down twice before, which makes it the oldest surviving room in the temple.  Relatively untouched over the years, beyond some odd hippie-ish decorations that were added to the altars, in the room sits numerous 19th-century religious cultural artifacts that are very dusty and paper-thin delicate with age.  In this room, one can perceive and feel its extensive historical significance by merely walking into it.

The Chan Room, the second room of worship, can be accessed without having to enter the temple complex.  To visit the Chan Room, enter to the open door to the left of the museum entrance.

Chan Room relic from the mid-to-late 1800s.

In the middle of the museum/temple sits the 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.

Garden inside the complex walls with Chinese plants,
as seen from the second story.

The staircase can be accessed from the courtyard to view the Moon Temple (not shown), which showcases a unique moon-shaped brick doorway entrance to the temple room.  Structural issues can be seen here, and the ground is a little unstable underfoot--we tread lightly here, and didn't linger for too long.

Staircase to the upper level where the Moon Temple
(not shown) is housed.

View from the upper level,
where a modern security camera can be seen. 

Directly below the Moon Temple, on the first floor, is the Council Room, which held the most varied historical items: marble-seated chairs, pagoda-style altars, tables, and books that displayed handwritten documentation.  Just as the name states, the Council Room served as a civic center for Oroville's Chinese American community.

The Council Room downstairs,
below the Moon Temple.

In the Council Room, Chinese workers could have letters written and sent to family back in China, disputes could be settled, banking carried out, and advice given.  

The Council Room

Tall, thick bamboo in the garden.

Plaque in front of the Fong Lee Room,
 which was a gift of the Chin (Chan) Shew Ting Family trust
in 2008 to honor their ancestors who helped
shape Oroville's once-large Chinatown.  

Inside the Fong Lee Room is a genealogy chart which indicates that descendants of this prominent 19th-century immigrant Chinese family are now in their 5th and later generations.  This was an interesting item to see because most people view Chinese as immigrants, but this genealogy chart counters that assumption.


A great self-guided tour that we took at our own pace, I was pleasantly astounded by the time and care put into the preservation and presentation of the museum's many artifacts.  There was an abundance of glass cases and dehumidifiers in certain display rooms, as well as informative signs that did not visually overwhelm the displayed objects.  As I've mentioned here, the sheer amount of artifacts was extremely fascinating.  

What We Did Not Do: 
We did not visit the mannequin room because it was creepy and dark.  The room showcased Chinese and Western attire on life-size mannequins, some of which were physically altered to "appear Asian."  Additionally, the Asian music playing in the tapestry room was rather too Orientalized for my discerning palate as well, although the collection was extensive and well displayed.

However hippie-Orientalized-camera-ized the temple complex was in certain areas, I found the place to be an extremely well-curated and interesting post-Gold Rush-era museum, actually rivaling the amazing Downieville museum that I blogged about here.  Although there was so much to see at the Oroville Chinese Temple, I was not visually overwhelmed--nor did I feel rushed to take it all in.  I credit this to the layout of the original four rooms, which were kept as they were over the years.  This unique set up gave the complex more of an old-time temple feel--with each room providing its own historic ambience and mood--rather than that of a traditional museum.

Interestingly, upon our conclusion of the self-guided tour, the hippie-New-Age museum docent told us that the reason why the Oroville Temple has retained so many artifacts is because the complex was used as storage space for Chinese items!

One of the other Oroville Chinatown buildings left

I highly recommend visiting this historic Oroville Chinese temple for its wealth of artifacts, and its well-documented history of what is now a long-gone American Chinatown.  For more information: UC Berkeley's The Bancroft Library houses a comprehensive online collection of photographs from Oroville's Chinatown.  This collection can be found here.

* * *

Our road-trip travels also took us to see Mendocino's historic Temple of Kwan Tai, which I happily blogged about here.

No comments: