The Bok Kai Temple in Marysville is humming with activity on a recent weekday, with worshippers preparing food and burning incense at the altar of the Chinese water god, Bok Kai. Marysville may not be the first place many Californians think of when they think of Chinese American history, but the city was once a hub for Chinese immigrants coming to mine for gold or build the railroads.
The Bok Kai Temple in Marysville Calif, as viewed from the levee.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
When Chinese immigrants settled in Marysville in the mid 1800s, they also brought many of their traditions from China with them. The temple they built overlooks the Yuba River, and the water god was once believed to have kept the city of Marysville safe from flooding, and continues to be a focal point of the community.
“Bok Kai is the water god of the north, the old man of the north,” said Jon Lim, president of the Marysville Chinese Community. “Because we’re on the northern shore of the river, he protected the area from being flooded, and also helped with controlling the rains for agricultural reasons.”
Today, the history of Chinese settlement in Marysville and the legacy of Bok Kai continues to be celebrated during an annual, weekend-long festival that happens 30 days after the Lunar New Year. The festival, which is held to honor the water god’s birthday, is now in its 143rd consecutive year. Lim’s ancestors date back to some of the first people who settled in Marysville. He said when he was growing up in the area, the festival was always a highlight.
“Oh my goodness, it was a weekend for me to get together with my cousins and run amok and light firecrackers and just have a lot of fun,” Lim said.
Jon Lim handles a personalized tag for a firework set to go off on Sunday, "bomb day," as part of the Bok Kai festival in Marysville, Calif.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
The Bok Kai Temple in Marysville Calif. has food offerings in front of an altar.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
But he said Marysville has changed since he was younger. Today, the city is just 4% Asian, with the majority of its residents identifying as white. The festival has fewer Chinese Americans participating in it than it had at its peak in the 1950s, but he says he feels a need to continue to preserve the festival so his children and children’s children can experience what he had.
“My generation especially, grew up, got a job, don’t want to move back, that kind of thing,” he said. “The parade and the weekend itself has really declined and grown smaller over the years, but that’s why I decided with the help of everyone involved, that we need to do something, because as I looked at it, if I don’t do this now, my kids won’t have this.”
Candice Fresquez, the co-chair of the Bok Kai Parade, said she’s glad the city has continued to put on the festival, even if today’s Chinese American population isn’t as large as it once was.
“Sharing what we have, sharing that with my children and hopefully their generation to come,” said Fresquez, who’s Chinese American herself. “Even though the population doesn’t necessarily exist here anymore, seeing this weekend come around and how many people come, it’s pretty amazing to think what if that’s what it was like back in the day.”
The Bok Kai Temple is Marysville Calif. has an historic mural above the doors to its entrance.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Lim said because this festival represents such a particular part of Chinese immigration, and now Chinese American culture, there are parts of the festival that happen in Marysville that aren’t found anywhere else. One of the key components of the Bok Kai Festival is “Bomb Day” where a string of firecrackers is set off and small rings are thrown into the air. Then, crowdgoers scramble to catch the rings.
“It’s kind of a Chinese American thing as opposed to just a strictly Chinese thing, because you won’t see this over there. When we do the bombs, you don’t see that in China anymore, you don’t even hear about that,” Lim said.
The temple also holds significance for other reasons; aside from continuing to be a fully-functioning Daoist temple, it also served as the inspiration for the temple illustrated in Disney’s 2022 animated film, “Turning Red.” Visitors may recognize familiar aspects of the Bok Kai temple in the movie, like its Fu dogs that guard the entrance, the altar to Bok Kai and even yellow plastic crates the temple uses to store candles.
Heather Young poses in the Bok Kai Temple in Marysville, Calif.Andrew Nixon / CapRadio
Heather Young, whose family runs the Bok Kai Temple Museum, said despite the smaller Chinese American population, Marysville and the temple still play an important role in preserving this history.
“We get a lot of worshippers here to pay their respects, it’s fundamental in that fact, because everybody still comes,” Young said. “This is such a historical part of this community and of this area in general, and to have it in peoples’ backyards and to not know about it is sad, but also I’m a firm believer in teaching younger generations, all of this exists in your backyard, it’s all here.”
The Bok Kai Festival starts Friday at 6 p.m. in Marysville and will continue through the weekend.
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