Historical Chinese temple faces closure

California's Chinese American Assembly Speaker pro Tem Fiona Ma, one of the most vocal supporters of the Weaverville Joss House, speaks out about its importance to the community.

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The oldest continuously used Chinese temple in California is facing closure as the state continues to struggle with its financial woes. The Weaverville Joss House is a Taoist temple built by Chinese Gold Rush miners in 1874. In 1938, Weaverville Chinese resident Moon Lim Lee was chosen as trustee for the Joss House by the local Chinese community. In 1956, Mr. Lee gave the temple to the state and the Weaverville Joss House officially became a state park.

Mr. Lee’s daughter Carole Lee said, “My father wanted to preserve the temple. It was agreed upon that it would be taken care of by the state enabling people to come and worship.”

However, as California’s budget crisis worsens, the Weaverville Joss House is now one of the 70 California State Parks slated for closure on July 01, 2012.

To many residents of Weaverville, a historical Gold Rush town 260 mimes north of San Francisco, the Joss House is one of the most significant relics of the town’s Gold Rush heyday.

During the 1850s, Weaverville had a population of about 10,000 at its peak, one third of which were Chinese miners from China’s Guangdong province.

Compared with their white counterparts, the Chinese miners often had to endure more hardships.

“Some of the mining camps were very very primitive. They were lucky to have tents to live in,” said Jack Frost, the Joss House’s only full time tour guide. ” The Chinese miners also mined the old mining claims that others had abandoned, and just worked harder and more diligently at the process.”

“Many people were surprised that the Chinese did not give up and move to an easier part of California to live,” Frost added.

For those early Chinese miners, life in this far away land was no easy task. In the early 1850s, shortly after their arrival, the Chinese miners started to build a Taoist temple to create a sanctuary away from home.

“It was built as a place to honor their ancestors honor their families on special occasions and to celebrate Chinese New Year,” said Frost. “Just by visiting the temple they felt they were really at home because the real world outside in the 1850s was much different than China at the time.” The initial temple burned down twice. The Chinese miners however did not give up. In 1874, they erected an even bigger and more elaborate temple, the current Joss House.

For the Chinese miners, the Joss House not only provided a place to worship and to celebrate traditional holidays, it also quickly evolved into a community center. It was even a Chinese court where disputes among themselves were settled.

The Chinese strove to get along with other ethnic groups in Weaverville. “The Chinese realized that if they were going to survive here with everyone else, they had to participate within the community,” said Frost. “The Chinese were supporting the volunteer fire department at that time. They really tried to work as civic group within the Caucasian community. I think it gained them a lot of respect and many of them were able to survive and start families and raise Children here.”

After the Gold Rush period was over, the Chinese population dwindled fast. “Many of them went to the bigger cities, Sacramento, Stockton, San Francisco,” said Frost. “By 1937,it was down to just 13 Chinese families, very small community at that time. But they maintained the temple.”

Today, Asians only make up one percent of Weaverville’s 3,600 residents. Yet the Joss House remains intact from its earlier days and is still used by Chinese worshippers coming from all over America.

The Joss House is also the site of the well-known Weaverville lion dance held during the Chinese Spring Festival to celebrate the arrival of the Chinese New Year.

Interestingly, most members of the lion dance troupe are non-Chinese. They say that participating in lion dancing gives them a chance not only to embrace other cultures, but also to remember their town’s history. Randy Bashaw, the troupe leader said, “We talk a great deal about the history of the Chinese who came here, what they went through, everything from the Exclusion Act, to just the enormously difficult hardships they faced here. We broaden our horizons a little bit even in a small town about other cultures.”

Many Weaverville residents worry that shutting down of the Joss House would also bring an end to their beloved lion dance tradition, which draws hundreds of visitors every year to their town.

“It’s sad. We need more historical landmarks like this. We are going to do our best to contribute and help out,” said one resident.

The local community led by the Weaverville Joss House Association is now working hard to raise funds to ensure that the doors of this historical and cultural landmark remains open.

“We have taken on the fund raising to help keep the temple open,” said association chairperson Paula Masterman. “Because we do feel so strongly and passionately that it is important to keep the temple intact and to be available for people to worship as well as to be able to visit and learn from this temple.”

According to the association, the state needs about $80,000 a year to maintain the Joss House as a state park.

The association is asking for donations through their website (weavervillejosshouse.org).

“Under our agreement with the state, if the state decided they wanted to close the temple anyway, all the donated money would have to be returned to the donors,” added Masterman.

One of the most vocal supporters of the Weaverville Joss House is California’s Chinese American Assembly Speaker pro Tem Fiona Ma.

“It’s history we have to preserve,” Ma stressed. “We need something like this to remind people how the Chinese got here and what they did to contribute to the history of California.”