Q: Across the street from Mexicali in downtown Bakersfield is a small green building on a long, narrow lot. According to GoogleEarth, the building is only 15 feet wide and 25 feet long and has a sign on the front that reads "Let Sing Gong Temple."
I've never seen this building in use and am curious what it is and its history.
-- Dan Cronquist
A: The historic Let Sing Gong Temple, which still stands at the southwest corner of 18th and R streets, is a rare reminder of a time when two Chinatowns marked the cultural, economic and spiritual life of Bakersfield.
The history of the temple goes back more than a century, but the details of that history may have become blurred with the passage of time.
According to the book "The Chinese in Kern County: 1857-1960," by William Harland Boyd, the original temple was built in a strawberry patch near the intersection of 17th Street and Kern Island Canal, now known as Mill Creek.
Boyd's book, which contains sometimes conflicting oral histories relying on the memories of longtime residents, notes that in the 1890s, the modest wooden temple was relocated to a brick structure at 701 18th St., the temple's current location.
Often referred to as a joss house -- "Joss was a corruption of Deus, meaning God," Boyd wrote -- the Chinese temple was simply a house of God, a place where individuals and small groups could gather to pray and make offerings to the ancient gods as well as to their ancestors.
Norman Lum, a descendent of one of Kern County's pioneering Chinese families, still has the original deed to what he believes is the land on 18th Street where the temple was built.
Dated April 11, 1904, the document shows the land was sold for $25 in gold coin to the association that owned the temple. The seller was Dr. Lewis S. Rogers, a physician who was said to be sympathetic to the Chinese at a time when they faced legal and discriminatory roadblocks to land ownership and citizenship.
The Lum family's Kern County roots go back to the 1880s. A local elementary school was named for his father, Sing Lum, in the 1980s, a century after the family's early arrival.
Norman Lum, now 69, remembers as a child going to the old joss house for seasonal and cultural events. There, worshippers could light candles and incense and pray to the gods, whose gilded likenesses seemed to look back in calm repose.
Due to a fire and possibly other damage, the temple was condemned, probably in the late 1940s, Lum said. But local Chinese-Americans soon began raising money to rebuild.
According to Kern County property records, a replacement -- the 443 square-foot structure that still stands today -- was built in 1951. The Lums, along with three other families, inherited the job of caring for and overseeing the aging temple.
But with the passing of the older generations, Lum says, direct cultural knowledge and participation in the old rituals has ebbed.
For those who may have thought the old joss house was an empty shell, Lum is quick to correct that assumption.
"It is still in use," he said. "What most people don't understand is it is not used in weekly services. It is mainly used at different seasons, for weddings, funerals and other things."
Even as use by local descendents of the early pioneering families has faded, an influx of immigrants of Chinese descent from Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia has kept the temple in use. But over the past several years, even that patronage has declined, Lum said.
On Friday, he offered a tour of the temple to a Californian reporter and photographer. While dusty and in need of some repair, when the red doors were opened, the old joss house seemed to crack open a portal through time.
Filled with intricate and ornate brass-colored panels and figures, painted images, the gilded sculptures of ancient gods and incense urns, the temple must have appeared much like it did to the descendants of the Chinese workers who built railroads and mined for gold -- those pioneers who helped build California -- in the mid- to late 1800s.
But now the old joss house is at a crossroads, Lum said.
As use has declined, and the cost of insurance and property taxes has increased, a decision will eventually have to be made about the future of Let Sing Dong Temple.
There's no doubt that it is a valuable historical landmark, Lum said. It helps tell the story of the important role people of Chinese decent played and continue to play in the formation and development of a tiny farm town that would grow to become the ninth largest city in the Golden State.
But past attempts to designate the temple as a historical building or landmark have not been successful. And Bakersfield's record of preserving the history and artifacts of old Chinatown do not inspire confidence.
To Lum, the temple seems frozen in time.
For now maybe that's the best he can hope for.
-- Staff writer Steven Mayer
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