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Bok Kai on the rebound
Artifacts uncovered during restoration
Janice Nall carefully opens a credit-card-sized packet discovered recently behind the lining of an old trunk at the Bok Kai Temple.
Oil stains and bits of a black substance within, she says, may prove to be opium, smuggled long ago from China.
The current phase of restoration on the temple, under way for three weeks, has uncovered a treasure trove of artifacts from a storage room and from a crawl space beneath the 128-year-old building.
"To think about those lives in the 1800s," said Nall, 56, who was born Janice Soohoo to a family with long Chinatown roots. "Their disappointment and frustration — they had nothing, and no money to go back to China."
The Taoist temple had been built by a generation of men who had come to find "Gum Shahn" — gold mountain. They were expected to mine their fortunes and return to China and care for their families.
But those fortunes eluded them.
"They were stuck in a twilight zone and they couldn't get home," Nall says.
Nall, president of the Sahm Fow Chinese Community of Marysville, has been helping raise money for the preservation of Bok Kai, the aging architectural landmark, for as long as she can remember.
As a child, she sold small gold decorations — Chinatown souvenirs — to help with costs for the temple's maintenance.
The latest round of work, funded through a $331,000 grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, includes the cleaning and preservation of an elaborate mural above the temple's porch.
A long central panel of the painting is in surprisingly good condition, said Molly Lambert, an architectural conservationist hired from Berkeley for the project. Two smaller side-panels show more wear and tear due to water damage and an accident during work to stabilize the building in 2004.
The artwork is fresco seco, made on dry plaster, and "the level of painting is really, really high," says Lambert.
Standing atop a scaffold during Friday's sweltering afternoon heat, Nall looked at the mural up close for the first time, and sighed happily.
For her, the historic downtown project carries the weight of the personal.
"We were the bridge," she says of her generation in Chinatown, "between old China and this new life in the U.S. We had one foot in China and the other one here with the hot dogs and the cool bobby socks."
In the entrance to the temple — a room that once served as a community council room for Chinese immigrants — Nall pointed out two hand-carved opium pipes and more than a dozen puppets depicting Chinese men in silk costumes that were discovered during this most recent phase of restoration.
Those artifacts, as well as the head of the original Bok Eye dragon, nicknamed Moo Lung, were being professionally readied for transport to a climate-controlled storage facility in San Francisco Friday.
Moo Lung, the first Chinese parade dragon in the United States, was loaned out several times for use in Chinese community events in New York City more than 100 years ago, according to Nall.
She and other local Bok Kai supporters have begun fundraising efforts for their next project, which will include restoring the old dragon and other artifacts from the site. Nall and Ron Haedicke, a former Marysville mayor, also are making a DVD that documents work on the temple, and hope to establish a traveling museum exhibit with artifacts from the site.
Contact Appeal-Democrat reporter Nancy Pasternack at 749-4712 or at firstname.lastname@example.org