Every spring Luong Kang wakes up from his year-long sleep and marches down Marysville’s main street ready to ward away evil spirits. Many people, some even from as far away as Mexico and Canada, greet him. He’s not that hard to miss. Just look for the 150-foot golden dragon.
On March 12 and 13, the 125th Annual Bok Kai festival was celebrated in downtown Marysville. Those who are unfamiliar with the name may have a confused look on their faces when told about the festival. But if you have lived in the Marysville area for any length of time, “Bok Kai” is a common name.
Who this is Bok Kai, and why is he here in Marysville?
“Bok Kai is the main deity, who controls the flooding and can banish evil.” explained Keith Bogt, one of the temple’s volunteer caretakers.
During 1850 and 1900 the Marysville Chinese population in the northern Sacramento valley was so large that at times it ranked second only to San Francisco. Most of Marysville’s Chinese population was part of the Chinese workers from the mines and on the railroads. They brought their traditions and religion with them and erected Bok Kai Mui, which translated means, “Temple of the North side of the stream.”
Bok Kai is the Chinese God of Water. It is said that some of Bok Kai’s powers are to oversee irrigational waterways and rain. Bok Kai Mui is the only surviving Taoist temple in the western hemisphere with Bok Kai as its central deity. In the 1860’s, the first of two temples were built. After it was destroyed, the second, and present temple was built in 1880 in the location of an old bathhouse.
Inside the temple, worshipers take incense and light candles to pray to the many gods there. They also get answers to their questions they ask the gods.
“What they do,” Bogt said picking up a container filled with fifty numbered sticks, “is they take this and ask a question like ‘What will the weather be like next month?’ and shake the container until one of the sticks is slightly sticking out. Then they take that stick downstairs where they decide what slip of paper you get.”
The two-day ceremonies begin quietly with religious observances on the first day, and on the second day, the participants fire the good luck ring bombs. The ceremonies occur annually around the second month and second day of the Chinese lunar calendar The Bok Kai parade is the oldest running parade in California and has been mistaken by many in the past as the “The Chinese New Year” celebration, but is in fact a two-day celebration of Bok Kai’s birthday. Dragons, floats, lion dancers and martial arts demonstrations are among the entertainment by the Hop Sing Society.
During the celebration is the Yee Yeut Yee (“Bomb Day”) of the Bok Kai festival, 100 bombs go off launching Good Luck rings. If caught, the rings bring good luck all year long to the owners of the rings. Numbers assigned to the rings tell how much luck the ring gives. Sometimes the rush for the rings can result in broken limbs or cuts to the face. This tradition is open only for Chinese males but can be viewed by the public.
The temple itself houses wall murals that depict scenes of Chinese culture that are one of a kind because most of these paintings were destroyed in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Some water damage and time have taken toll on the murals, but the temple was recently designated as one of America’s 11 most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The people of Marysville along with the National Trust for Historic Preservation have joined up to help save this national and local treasure. It is a constant and local tribute to the thousands of Chinese who helped build the West and made it what it is today.