The Temple of Kwan Tai in Mendocino
The Chinese New Year which is on Friday, February 16, 2018 is the year of the Dog. The dog is one of 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac (Shēngxiào, or 生肖), which is based on a 12-year cycle. The Year of the Dog begins on Chinese New Year, ending the year of the Rooster. People born in the Year of the Dog are traditionally considered to be loyal, honest, responsible, courageous, and warm-hearted.
The Temple of Kwan Tai at Mendocino, California is dedicated to the Chinese God of War. A Taoist symbol of Integrity and loyalty, the Temple of Kwan Tai offers living evidence of Mendocino’s 19th century Chinese community.
This original Taoist Temple, a site now recognized as California Registered Historic Landmark # 927. The Temple of Kwan Tai was restored and rededicated in October 2001 through the efforts of the Hee Family, the Temple Trustees, Mendocino youth involved in the North Coast Rural Challenge Network, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the California Coastal Resources Agency. Visitors may view Temple of Kwan Tai at 45160 Albion Street, in the National Historic District of Mendocino.
Founders of the Temple: It was about 1850 when the gold rush was just beginning in California. With starvation and insurrection at home (China), immigration was a natural choice for residents of the Canton District, the capitol of Guangdong Province in southern China. The first chinese are believed to have reached the north coast of Mendocino in the early 1850’s. The north coast chinese population grew quickly, particularly in the redwood logging camps where men served as cooks, launderers, and water slingers.
By the 1860’s Mendocino was home to 500 to 700 chinese. Among the early chinese settlers were Lee Sing John and his wife Fung Sun Choy, both born in the village of Lee Ook Bin, Guangdong Province. Lee Sing John worked for a time as a cook in the woods. Later he worked in the Caspar Mill cookhouse. Their granddaughter, Grace Hee Yee was provided much of the oral history anecdotal family information that dates construction of the Temple of Kwan Tai to 1852.
Temple History: Official records report the sale of the temple’s Albion Street site to the chinese in 1867. A Mendocino Beacon article describes formal opening ceremonies held on November 4, 1882. Since 1871, when the deed was recorded to Lee Sing John, successive generations of the Hee Family have held and preserved the Temple, which was awarded California Registered Historic Landmark status in 1979. In support of anecdotal dating of the Temple construction as 1852, a report by the California State Architect dates construction to the early 1850’s based on materials used in the structure. If accurate, this report establishes Temple of Kwan Tai as the oldest “original” Chinese Joss House in rural California. In 1995, Hee family members deeded the temple property concerning Chinese immigrant history and to the celebration of community and diversity.
The Temple Features: The Temple of Kwan Tai is on a south facing hillside above Albion Street overlooking Mendocino Bay. A simple structure, reportedly built with $12.00 worth of virgin redwood, it survived remarkably intact for nearly 150 years prior to its restoration and rededication in October of 2001.
Freshly painted in its original red with green trim. The brilliant red of the simple shiplap siding signifies the essence of joy and good luck. When entering the building, one walks under a sign in gold Chinese characters on a red painted background. Read from right to left, the symbols proclaim Do Dai Miu, which means, roughly, “Military God-King Temple.
While the exterior of the building is not a rare architectural gem, the interior is an invaluable resource of ethnic history. Entering the main room, you will find a small table in front of the altar that holds three place settings of chopsticks, and small bowls of various sizes. Centrally located in the mainroom is a small table with a bamboo mat in front where the worshipper may kneel and pray. There is also a small stove in the southwest corner of the room which was used for the burning of prayer papers. Behind the small table is the shrine containing an image of Kwan Tai, the deity to whom the temple is dedicated.
The fortune sticks flanking the portrait of Kwan Tai were formerly used by the priest who lived in the tiny lanteroom during the 1870’s. Other furnishings are sparse; two simple wood benches line the side walls and two ornate lanterns hang over the prayer table. Except for the portrait and one lantern, interior furnishings are said to be original.
Rare Historic Building: The Temple of Kwan Tai underwent a thorough Historic Building Assessment by Architect Laura Culberson of the San Fransisco architectural firm of Carey and Company. Miss Culberson concluded in her report with the following assessment of the significance of Temple of Kwan Tai:
“The Mendocino Joss House is and invaluable resource to the State of California. It is the only surviving physical document (made more significant by its continued use from the early 1850’s), which retains its original integrity and marks the now mostly lost history of the Chinese in Mendocino. Mendocino was one of the few communities along the Pacific North coast that housed a substantial chinese community. Although Mendocino’s Chinatown burned in 1910, the knowledge of its existence and the cultural and historical relationship between the Joss House and the Chinese community are significant aspects of local and state history”.
Story by Nelson Symes