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Sister Act Restoring Taoist Site

Heritage: The shrine, co-founded by an ancestor in the 19th century, is a testament to Mendocino's vanished Chinese community.

January 06, 2002|MICHELLE LOCKE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

MENDOCINO, Calif. — Amid the quiet pastels of the coastal village of Mendocino, the brilliantly red and green Kwan Tai Temple is as startling as a shout.

Growing up next door to the temple, Loretta Hee McCoard used to feel her feet dragging as she neared it--a gaudy reminder that the Hees were different, the last remnant of a once-bustling rural Chinatown.

As an adult, she sees the temple with new eyes.

"There is this pride," she said.

Recently, McCoard and sister Lorraine Hee-Chorley celebrated their 12-year campaign to restore the Taoist temple. It was a family promise fulfilled, a vanished community honored: the Chinese who built railroads and chopped timber before being driven out by discrimination and unemployment.

"We're survivors," Hee-Chorley said. "Our family has always had to struggle, to fight for what we believe in. We just have never sat down and died. And we've never let the community forget."

Hee family history indicates that the Kwan Tai Temple was built in the 19th century, and one of the founders was the sisters' great-grandfather. But all the other families from that time left, leaving only the Hees to look after the simple, two-room structure dedicated to the Taoist military god Kwan Tai.

The family patriarch charged his daughter, Yip Lee, with taking care of the temple, a duty she fulfilled even after her husband went back to China, leaving her with 10 children.

Yip Lee passed the obligation on to son George Hee, father of Hee-Chorley and McCoard.

The family faced prejudice on two fronts. Hee had defied convention by marrying a white woman in the early 1940s; the couple had to go out of the state to find a judge to perform the marriage. Hee-Chorley and McCoard remember classmates taunting them with racist chants. Meanwhile, their Chinese relatives were less than accepting.

At times, the sisters wished that they were anywhere but Mendocino.

A bluff-top collection of graceful Victorians used as a backdrop for TV's "Murder She Wrote," Mendocino isn't known as an outpost of early Asian immigration. But the Chinese had a presence here, as they did throughout the state.

Chinese Brought Changes to State

"The Chinese didn't just come to San Francisco," said Wendy Roberts, a temple trustee who has researched the history of the North Coast Chinese while raising money for the restoration.

"They affected virtually every industry that helped to build this state. They were involved in agriculture, railroads--customs that have just gotten woven into the fabric of the state. You find evidence of their presence in irrigation ditches up in Gold Country and then on the redwood coast where there was logging and fishing."

In boom times, the Chinese were tolerated as hard workers willing to take on dangerous jobs. (A 1913 story in the Mendocino Beacon about exhuming Chinese remains in a local cemetery for shipment back to China notes, "It is a significant fact that all of the Chinese recently exhumed have been victims of accidents, not one having died a natural death.")

But when the economy soured, the Chinese proved convenient scapegoats, says Lorraine Dong, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and past president of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

"Chinese people were seen as unchristian, immoral and unassimilable," Dong said.

Official records make little reference to the Chinese population, but insurance maps from 1890 show Chinese herb shops, a laundry and "Chinese shanties" in Mendocino.

Only now do Chinese railroad workers get credit.

"If it wasn't for the experience of the Chinese, when it came time to building Tunnel No. 1, this railroad line would have only been about four miles in length instead of 40," said Robert Jason Pinoli, who works for a train tourist attraction.

Pinched by discriminatory laws and unemployment, the Chinese left, some going to China, some to big-city Chinatowns.

Today, census data show 380 Chinese Americans living in Mendocino County, less than half of 1% of the county population. Chinese Americans make up about 3% of the statewide population and account for about 20% of San Francisco residents.

Roberts is sometimes stunned at how invisible the Chinese were when they lived in Mendocino--and how quickly they were forgotten.

"The temple is a way of making us look those Chinese in the eye for the first time," Roberts said. "After all these years, we're finally seeing it, seeing them."

While other Chinese left Mendocino, the Hee family remained.

About a dozen years ago, the Hee sisters turned to the job of protecting the family legacy in earnest and got nonprofit status for the temple.

By then, it was showing its age. The foundation was going, a wall was leaning.

With the help of their brother, Wes Hee, and others in the community, including Roberts, the sisters got a $5,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and an $85,000 grant from the California Coastal Resources Agency.

Preparing to Open Their Doors

That was enough for major repairs to the structure, but there's more to be done; artifacts inside the building need preserving.

This year, the sisters hope to have the temple open for visitors as they continue to raise restoration money--and the profile of North Coast Chinese.

They're particularly pleased that local schoolchildren have been researching and celebrating Mendocino's Chinese legacy.

"History is not just about the nice stuff," Hee-Chorley said. "It's about the bad stuff as well so that you don't repeat history."

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