The Taoist Temple and Museum in Hanford’s China Alley
Feb 28, 2020 11:00AM
By Natalie Caudle
Story by Natalie Caudle
Photos by Monica Fatica
SOON AFTER GOLD was discovered around Sacramento, surges of immigrants rushed to the Golden State in hopes of striking it rich. In response to the plethora of Chinese immigrants and the competition of resources, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibiting immigration from China to the United States. Ten years later, the state of California passed the Geary Act, creating strict rules for Chinese immigrants. These acts increased animosity toward Chinese residents, who in turn formed a tight-knit community.
Hanford had one of the state’s larger Chinese populations, as residents moved south from San Francisco and Sacramento. Today, remnants of the thriving community line Hanford’s China Alley just off North Green Street and East Seventh. The historic alley is composed of original buildings, many boarded up and awaiting restoration, but a few beautiful and revived gems are sprinkled throughout the lane.
LT Sue Co. Tea Room and Emporium is a whimsical shop full of sunlight and adorned with turquoise walls, high-backed wooden booths and touches of traditional Chinese art. Owners Steve Banister and Arianne Wing, also active board members of the China Alley Preservation Society, happily serve guests a variety of teas and tasty treats while donating 20 percent of profits to the revitalization of China Alley. Banister says their passion for history is an inherited trait. The couple has devoted an incredible amount of time to the preservation of Hanford’s history, their finest accomplishment being the full preservation of the Taoist Temple.
Across the alley and a few skips down from LT Sue Co., the Taoist Temple is atop a museum of local Chinese history. Behind metal doors, curious tourists and history buffs pass through a gift shop adorned with Chinese gifts and tchotchkes, as well as displays of musical instruments and artifacts. Beyond the bright trinkets and tea sets sit three meticulously restored rooms.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the lower level of the temple served as a boarding house for Chinese travelers. Due to the hostility most Chinese residents received from local businesses, the building’s construction required creativity and resourcefulness, resulting in each room being constructed from unique materials. An assortment of textiles was used as makeshift insulation while the walls were decorated in newspapers; remnants of centuries-old paper can still be found attached to the aged boards. Each room is filled with local history that paints the picture of a snippet of life as a Chinese American during this era. Many artifacts were donated to the Preservation Society by descendants of those who had frequented the temple or attended the adjacent Chinese school. A small number of the antiques have been handpicked for an exhibit in Hong Kong to better illustrate the emigration wave from China and depict life in the states.
Officially, the temple was dedicated in 1897, but historians have discovered photographs dating the building back to as early as the 1880s. Above the museum, the temple seems untouched by time. Originally used as a place of worship for the Tao religion, the Sam Yup Society (an organization of people originating from the Guangdong province in southern China) would gather and worship by candlelight. As improvements in technology were made throughout the decades, the lighting progressed from candlelight to kerosene to gas lamps and eventually electricity. As each new addition was installed, the former was left untouched, decorating the ceiling with a timeline of history.
In the center of the temple, a large wooden table holds platters of fruit offerings and an incense urn. The temple is adorned in themes of red as seen in the uniformly painted brick, artificial flowers, banners and beaded lantern strings. At each end of the altar, silk embroideries depict the Tree of Life with symbols of dignity, protection and happiness. The altar is red, bordered with intricate wooden leaves painted gold. Temple goers gathered regularly to practice Taoism, which dates back to the 6th century BC. The main principles of Taoism are harmony and balance and is recognized by the People’s Republic of China as one of the country’s five official religions.
The temple is open for tours on the first Saturday afternoon of each month. Anita Rodriguez has joyfully given historic tours of Hanford for the last 30 years, but finds a special excitement when leading guests through the history of China Alley. The hidden garden behind the temple is especially tranquil, she says, and she regrets the moments where she hasn’t paused in the serene space to admire the pink camellia tree. Rodriguez’s co-board member and docent, Johnny Wheeler, has volunteered with the Preservation Society since 1994 and eagerly passes on his knowledge to visitors. “It’s important to share the history and learn something new,” he says. Both Rodriguez and Wheeler look forward to the annual Moon Festival on the first Saturday in October, where festivalgoers celebrate the harvest and enjoy traditional mooncakes.
In 2011, China Alley made the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Due to the efforts of Banister and Wing, in addition to the many volunteers and dedicated Preservation Society members, today the Taoist Temple and Museum offer a glimpse into the important local history of the Chinese immigrant of yesteryear, a vital piece of South Valley history. •
China Alley Preservation Society, Hanford
(559) 582-4508 • www.chinaalley.com
Open the first Saturday of each month from
noon to 6 pm
Homegrown in the Valley, Natalie Caudle finds beauty in the mundane and is ever on the hunt for the perfect salsa recipe. A mother of four, this minivan chauffeur is passionate about adoption and strives to perfect the art of balancing grace and grit.