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‘We always look back'
Bay Chinese explore roots in Marysville
Mak Yuet Shan, 93, marveled at an old table that once had been used for washing and preparing Chinese vegetables. It brought back fond memories, she said.
Shan traveled by bus from Oakland on Friday with about 40 other Chinese-born senior citizens to see Marysville's old Chinatown, once California's largest outside San Francisco.
The group, affiliated with The Salvation Army Oakland Chinatown Corps and Community Center, had arranged in advance for tours of the Chinese American Museum of Northern California and the Bok Kai Temple, both on First Street in Marysville.
"The past made us what we are, so we always look back," said Edward Hom, a history buff and volunteer for the corps who acted as interpreter for the mostly Cantonese-speaking group.
Brian Tom, the museum's curator, said he gets frequent requests for such tours, in spite of the fact that it has no Web site. When the first visitors came through in 2005, Tom said, his intention was to promote the site, and Chinatown in general, as a destination.
He also intended to have descriptions of artifacts and photographs in the museum translated to Chinese and posted alongside the English descriptions. But he hasn't had time to look for a translator or Web designer. Other history-related projects have consumed him in recent years.
The retired San Francisco attorney grew up in a crowded family house just a half block from the museum. A building beside the museum once served as a Chinese School, which Tom attended as a child.
After collaborating with his brother Lawrence Tom on a book about Marysville's Chinatown — an Arcadia publication with the familiar sepia-toned cover — the two were asked to do the same thing for Sacramento's long-gone Yee Fow, or second city (the second Chinatown one would reach by train after entering the U.S.).
The small community of Chinese lived on what is now Sacramento's railyards, on what was then a bank of Sutter Lake. Many of its residents were Marysville transplants, said Brian Tom.
Anti-Chinese sentiment in the late 19th century was strong, and the small community was burned down again and again. The Chinatown facsimile that exists now, he said, bears no resemblance to the original.
The Tom brothers are in the final stages of publishing their book, which is scheduled to appear in stores May 10.
Brian Tom also has acted as a consultant to a group looking to build a Chinatown museum in Sacramento.
"But you can't just open a museum without artifacts," he said. Few of those exist from Yee Fow.
Because so many American-born Chinese in California have ancestral roots in Marysville, said Brian Tom, "I know there's a good deal of interest in Marysville."
Hom, the Oakland interpreter, first read about Marysville's Chinatown through a San Francisco Chronicle article about the Bok Kai Temple's needs for repair. He saved the article and has been interested in visiting Marysville ever since.
He believes his great-grandfather made his fortune here in the Gold Rush before bringing it home to China.
The next generation in his family immigrated again to the U.S. and stayed.
Tuey Xil Lee, 75, expressed aloud her surprise at seeing an old Chinese wine jug during her tour of the museum.
It had been a long time since she had seen such a thing.
Wine in her home country was fermented rice, flavored with medicinal herbs and spices.
"Good for the health," she said in broken English. She pointed to her back and laughed. "And for the big pain."