Old bones and lost temples

Presentation focused on faces from Chico’s Chinese past

Liz Stewart has been researching Chico’s Chinese history since 2009.

Liz Stewart has been researching Chico’s Chinese history since 2009.

Photo by Ken Smith

Check out Chinatown:
Many of the pictures used in the Chico Heritage Association presentation and more information about Chico’s Chinese past can be found at www.buttecountychinese.net.

In November 1897, the Chico Cemetery was the site of a strange and macabre scene, when the bodies of 135 Chinese immigrants were dug from their resting places, treated with lye and left to sit in the open air for five days. The bones were then cleaned by hand, wrapped in linen and boxed for transport to their Far East homeland.

The work was carried out by a half-dozen laborers under the direction of a yellow-robed holy man known as a bone priest. When the task was completed, much of Chico’s Chinese population joined a procession to carry the dead from the cemetery to the Joss House, or temple, in Old Chinatown, located on Flume Street between Fifth and Sixth streets. A two-day celebration ensued, replete with glazed pig and other delicacies of the day.

“The story in the newspaper [The San Francisco Call] said white people came to watch and were ‘profanely curious’ about all of it, meaning they were standing around saying, ‘What the …?’” Liz Stewart, treasurer for the Chico Heritage Association, said during a presentation on that historic population at the group’s annual meeting on Sunday (Feb. 28) at the Old Municipal Building. “But it was sacred to the Chinese, and the bodies exhumed were those whose families could pay the tong [secret society] to ship the remains back to China for reburial.”

Stewart prefaced Sunday’s program by saying that, while it is well-known Chico had a plentiful Chinese presence, little is known about the individuals within that community. Stewart has been researching those residents since 2009, and for Sunday’s presentation, she and CHA board member John Gallardo borrowed from fellow historians and pored through tax rolls, census reports, newspaper articles, immigration application photos and old maps to bring some of their stories to life.

Some of the pictures and stories shared Sunday were that of Tung Fu, who the pair posited was a wealthy man, as evidenced by 1899 tax assessments for two houses, leased farmland and a then-sizable savings of $2,000. Also featured was Wong Quong, known locally as Charlie Wong. Stewart discovered a local newspaper interview with him from 1938, when he was the last resident of New Chinatown (located on Cherry Street between Seventh and Eighth streets) before that community was torn down.

Other stories involved an elaborate wedding reception in 1889 and the 1905 visit of a ceremonial dragon from Marysville called Moo Lung, which is currently on display in Portland and will be returning to Marysville’s Bok Kai Temple in the near future. The Bok Kai Temple is still functioning and will hold its 136th annual celebration March 12-13.

Chico’s Chinese history was also marred by horrible racist acts. When Gallardo mentioned he and Stewart tried to find evidence of a purported third Chinatown located on Humboldt Road, local historian Michele Shover confirmed from the audience that there was a small settlement there that housed Chinese workers for Sierra Flume and Lumber Co.

“It was burnt down, and the townspeople came to cheer on the fire,” Shover said, offering a reminder of the immigrants’ more tragic history. “Even the police came and watched it burn.”

Though the CHA presentation wasn’t designed to coincide with the Chico Museum’s latest exhibit, Chico Through Time, Gallardo and Stewart noted the exhibit features relics from the city’s long-gone Chinese temple.