The town of Marysville, CA, north of Sacramento, hosts a parade each year honoring the Bok Kai Temple and the Chinese-American descendants of people who came to the town in the 1880s. Seminar-goers from the Temples and Museums Conference got to watch the parade down the main street, a spectacle that included their beloved and extremely long Chinese dragon (I counted at least 35 pairs of legs propping him up), martial arts clubs, high school bands, the de rigueur politicians in vintage cars, lads popping fire crackers along the street, and fire trucks old and new.
The day after the town celebrated “Bomb Day.” The event begins with a procession through town. Participants carry plaques with the names of various Buddhist deities. Thousands of firecrackers explode, turning the street a bright pink with their detritus. Eighteen handmade bombs stuffed with gunpowder are set off near the temple. A ring atop each cylinder bomb blasts into the air while young men below scurry to catch it and learn the lucky number it bears.
This was the 136th year of the Bok Kai Festival. Bok Kai is a protective god. The temple bears his name and is one of oldest Taoist temples in the country. The celebration happens in the second month of each Chinese New Year.
Friends of Marysville (California) Bok Kai Temple spearheaded a “Temples and Museums: Managing and Interpreting Historic Cultural Assets,” conference March 12 and 13. The Chinese American Museum of Chicago put on the event. I attended as a member of the Brannan Island-Isleton Historical Society board and learned that we in Isleton are lucky to have a tong building (Chinese gathering place and temple) that is under restoration. The Bing Kong Tong will have its many artifacts replaced and be ready for public viewing by about April of 2017.
But I learned that many towns’ and cities’ Chinese temples have gone under the wrecking ball, usually to make way for freeways and other roads. Their artifacts have been carried off as well.
Presenters shared their difficulties in preserving Chinese temples and their original contents. They were from Singapore, Victoria, Idaho, New Hampshire, Oregon, and other parts of the United States, along with a number of places in California.
Marysville organizers said their town has a long history of Chinese integration into the community and that they have been valued community members. Chinese descendants and non-Chinese members of town attested to that and urged participants to see the Bok Kai Temple in town. The temple was built in 1865, destroyed by fire the next year and rebuilt. Renovated in 1880, the temple saw 1,500 Chinese and other citizens at its grand opening. It is the oldest continually operating temple in Northern California.
Bok Kai was known as Ruler of the North. He vanquished the Demon King and is known for his ability to bring order out of chaos. He also is considered a water god, providing protection from both flood and drought.
We then adjourned to the Chinese temple in the town of Oroville where the restorer’s daughter gave us a tour of their extensive museum and still-active temple. The temple was built in 1863 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Conference organizers said that they want to keep the momentum of preservation going and will pass the baton to San Jose and Isleton to host the next two seminars.
Guilin was the beginning of our Li River experience. Chinese travelers packed our plane from Shanghai to this small city of about 1 million in Southeast China. I had read that Chinese people were traveling as tourists in their own country in increasing number. This was nice to see. Everyone seemed in a good mood.
My companion was impressed with how quickly Chinese air travelers exited the plane. No futzing around. Deplaning was their mission and they got ‘er done. Jan, who has been traveling around lately on U.S. conveyances, marveled at the mass efficiency we witnessed on Air China.
As we both did the driving in crowded cities—and pretty much everywhere is a crowded city. Our car drivers, experts in their field, seemed to manipulate the traffic rather than fall prey to it. Every moment called for attention in the extreme and was spent in what amounted to a contest of wills: cutting in front of, or dodging, all manner of vehicles: from bicycle trailers piled high with produce and three-wheeled trucks carting construction materials, to umbrella’d scooters loaded with whole families. Add to the mix multitudes of necessarily wary pedestrians.
Guilin’s traffic was less tense most of the time, except coming back from a cave walk and tea farm tour when we hit rush hour. (At the tea farm, we were able to try the regional variety made from sweet osmanthus.) Our hotel was surely the finest. Pagoda style, it sat in the center of Seven Star Park. Guests could only approach by staff-driven eight-person carts, luggage and all. They carried you through lush vegetation and grass clearings where people did Tai Chi, children raced around post-picnic, and tired parents relaxed.
Our second-story room looked out on a central pagoda and a couple of koi ponds. I say koi ponds because the fish dominated, particularly next to the bridge leading to the breakfast room. Children were given little bags of dried food to feed the begging fish, probably to discourage the kids from dropping miscellaneous breakfast items into the pond and to keep the koi on their regular diet. I had a favorite yellow giant but it was impossible to single out any one in the gush of bodies.
A light rain fell both mornings we were there but obligingly lifted as we left the dock on our Li River boat ride. That was fortunate because I didn’t want to miss one peak of the karst mountain ranges along our four-hour ride. We are talking bucket list, here, so I planted myself on deck with binoculars and camera. My friend and Australian tablemates were more comfortable downstairs and the views were good as well, but I somehow wanted to be in the outdoors. It made the mountains more immediate and real. Because one’s first impression of the scenery is, “This is not real.”
You must have to get up earlier than we did or stay out later to see the famed Li River fishermen with their cormorant pets, whom they have taught to catch fish and “hand” them over. But that was a small matter compared to seeing the endless, crazy, pointy mountains lining both sides of the river. I suppose one of the things that makes them remarkable is that they rise from the flat plains. The mountains’ limestone shapes are what one tourist outfit calls “fantastical.” I think that’s about the best adjective I’ve heard. I think I only took a little over 100 photos.
My last day in China, the guide who came to take me to the airport was not the same person who had seen me off to Mongolia 10 days before. Mr. Wong was again my driver, a friendly non-English speaker who had the smug air of a Chinese gangster one might see in a movie and who gave other drivers hell in Beijing traffic.
This Chinese woman, who mysteriously called herself Cathy, asked if she might sit in back of the van with me instead of up front with Mr. Wong. She talked more intimately about her life than any person I had met in China. She had been a guide for 20 years. She was not married and didn’t particularly want to be. She got to travel within China a lot. She hoped to travel outside China as well. And, she came from a “small village” in the Western part of China near the Russian border.
This last piece of information arose after I told her I live in a small town in California. I asked how many people were in her village and she said, “Only two million.” We laughed when I told her Isleton only claims 847 people. “You mean 847,000,” she asked? No, subtract those zeros. She was shocked.
But her disclosure pretty much sums up my new understanding of China. There are people wherever you travel there. I marveled at how well they seemed to be putting up with one another, although there is plenty of honking in traffic.
When I had arrived in Shanghai two weeks before, I was dumbfounded by the extremely gray trip from the airport to our hotel. (I was with a friend for almost all the trip.) Miles and miles and kilometers of gray and brown high-rise apartment buildings going up—or finished and vacant—“for all the people who are moving to the cities,” our guide explained. People buy their apartments, like condos, but unlike in the U.S., the units are just empty shells. It is up to the new owner of each space to put in the toilet and other bathroom fixtures, cabinetry, etc. All expensive propositions.
The construction had a sameness to it and it reminded me of the grim tenement buildings I had seen in Chicago as a child, although these were not run down. Perhaps because they were so new, there was a lack of landscaping. No green of nature alleviated the neutral tone. The whole look was exacerbated by the visible air, a slightly lighter gray draped among the construction zone buildings like shrouds.
Once in Shanghai, the Huangpu River and the view of the downtown from the Bund revived my spirits. I think I am a victim of having read too many novels dwelling on the romantic vision of the French, English and American Concessions in bygone days. The Concessions are shrinking into token areas for visitors as building after building meets the wrecking ball.
But, let’s face it: Why would Chinese communists want to celebrate the days of foreign occupation and memorialize that time with preservation? For the descendants of former occupiers to come and relive what China wants to forget?
No, I understand why these once grand sections of the city are going away. It leaves Shanghai in somewhat of an identity crisis, however. Even the good-spin guide admitted that the food of Shanghai lacks definition. It has not decided what its specialty food is “yet,” he said.
The most enjoyable day in Shanghai, for my companion and me was when we visited the Shanghai Museum where the ancient definitely is treasured. Amazing displays from China’s long history —many civilizations and dynasties—include more than 120,00 pieces of ceramics, bronze, calligraphy, furniture, jade, coins, paintings and sculpture.
Thank you China for preserving these beauties of your past.
Next: Favorite places in China: Guilin and Yangshuo.
And: strange foods sampled and not sampled in China and Mongolia.