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Puppet dolls back in Bok Kai Temple
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They were meant to help tell stories and accompany religious rituals.
Eight puppet dolls, brought to Chinatown in Marysville during the earliest years of the Gold Rush settlement, had been kept for decades at the Bok Kai Temple.
The characters represented by their carved faces and ornate costumes were part of centuries-old southern Chinese tradition.
But weather wreaked havoc on the temple and its treasures. And in the 1950s, theft and vandalism posed additional problems.
"They started asking people to take things for safekeeping," says Gordon Tom, president of the Sahm Fow Chinese Community in Marysville. "Nobody kept track of where all these things went."
In September, because of a dying man's wish, two puppets were returned to the Bok Kai Temple.
Their recovery coincides with renewed academic and popular interest in Chinese folk traditions and religious rituals, most of which were outlawed during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s.
During Mao Zedung's sweep of China, artifacts of the old ways — like shadow puppets, glove puppets and the rod puppets kept at the Bok Kai Temple — were destroyed.
"They were right at the center of pre-modern village culture and entwined with local religion. Communists attempted to wipe that out," says David G. Johnson, scholar of Chinese popular culture and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley. "The Cultural Revolution destroyed a massive amount — puppets, costumes, all that stuff."
But in Marysville, puppets were not politically threatening.
They were artifacts left by immigrant ancestors — pioneers who built the 1880 temple overlooking the Yuba River, and attempted to hold on to some of their old ways there.
The man who had been holding on to the two missing Bok Kai puppets since the 1950s had been a celebrated architect and artist, and the great-nephew of two prominent Marysville Chinese community elders.
Gerald K. Lee of San Francisco was asked on behalf of the temple's caretaker to take them until the building could be made more secure.
The arrangement was meant to be temporary, says Brian Tom, cousin of Gordon Tom, and founder of the Chinese American Museum of Northern California.
Years went by, however, and no one got in touch with Lee.
Like many objects that had once belonged to the temple, the puppets' whereabouts became a mystery.
"The folks that knew about them passed on, and the ones that came in weren't around when this was happening," says Brian Tom. "And he (Lee) didn't know who he should contact here."
Lee died in April at age 77. Among his last requests was a plea to his sister: Get the puppets back to their home in Marysville.
In August, Brenda Lee of El Cerrito contacted Brian Tom, whose name is now associated with a history book about Marysville's Chinatown, published in 2008.
"None of the old-timers live in Marysville anymore, so it was not easy tracking anyone down," he says. "Her brother had been worried about this for so many years. It's very touching to me."
Five other puppets from the original set of eight were recently repaired and restored. Another is too badly damaged to be displayed.
But at least the two missing puppets, which had been carefully stored and are in near-perfect condition, now are back where they belong, says Gordon Tom.
"Maybe some other people have things they'll bring back to us now too," he says.
CONTACT Nancy Pasternack at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4781. Find her on Facebook at /ADnpasternack or on Twitter at @ADnpasternack.