Keith Johnson writes that Chico’s “‘Old Chinatown,’ located on Flume Street between East 5th and 6th Streets, was established around 1865.” Then “a second settlement, ‘New Chinatown,’ was firmly established by the early 1880s on Cherry Street between West 7th and 8th Streets. This settlement contained a Chinese temple or joss house.”
As Johnson notes, “Old Chinatown had its gambling and opium dens. … With the aid of Federal agents, the Chico Police finally succeeded in curtailing Old Chinatown’s narcotics trade in 1925. This hastened the decline of Chico’s Chinese population, which continued to drift away from the city. In 1939, the last three elderly residents of New Chinatown deeded the altars and furnishings of the temple to George Orberg, a long-time friend of the Chinese in Chico.”
Johnson, now retired from teaching anthropology at Chico State University, “came here from UCLA in 1963 and initiated the Archaeological Research Program and founded the Museum of Anthropology (now the Valene Smith Museum of Anthropology) at Chico State.”
In 1971 Johnson located many parts of the temple. His museum exhibits class “cleaned and catalogued the temple materials,” some 175 pieces, and put them together for public display at the Museum of Anthropology in 1972-73. And Johnson took many color photographs which now adorn almost every page of “Golden Altars: A Visual Tour of Chico’s Chinese Temple” ($30 in paperback, published by Johnson and The Butte County Historical Society through lulu.com).
“With few exceptions,” Johnson says, “the temple altars and associated religious objects were manufactured in Canton, China, shipped to San Francisco and brought overland to Chico,” with most pieces “produced between 1884 and 1910.” A wooden sign announced the “Temple of Many Gods” “in gold Chinese characters. Stepping inside the doorway, one would look directly at the three magnificent golden arches above the main altar at the back of the room.”
The book is a lovingly detailed and beautiful tribute. “Unlike the towns of Oroville, Marysville, and Weaverville, Chico was unable to save its temple. The religious furniture and artifacts from the joss house still survive, however. Over the past many decades they have been scattered around town, protected by several concerned citizens of Chico … and now reside, hidden from the public, in a Chico warehouse.”