Chinese pioneers evoked Beuk Aie, the god of water and flood control, when they established a temple in 1875 in Idaho where the Snake and Clearwater rivers meet.Today Lewiston’s Beuk Aie Temple is one of the oldest surviving Chinese temples in North America. While constant floods threatened its early existence, it was fire that sent the collection into storage four years ago. A new chapter in the temple’s history begins today when the redesigned exhibit opens with an updated interpretation of its story and new artifacts at the Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts & History.
“It’s an exhibit, but the sacredness of the Beuk Aie is still there,” says historian Garry Bush, who worked with historian Lyle Wirtanen and the college on the redesign.
The temple and other artifacts are displayed through three areas in the center’s upstairs gallery, now fitted with an elevator. The walls in the exhibit have been painted in rich gold, red, green and black — traditional colors signifying great honor, Bush says.
One enters the exhibit through an entryway lined with maps charting the journey from China to “Gam Saan,” the Chinese term for the North American West. They followed gold strikes from California to Pierce in 1860. A page from the registry of the Luna House hotel from the era shows the elegant, flowing signature of a Hop Lee of Hong Kong.
Through a door red walls enclose the temple room featuring an elaborate wooden altar painted with dragons and other symbols. Hexagonal glass lanterns hang from the ceiling depicting scenes of birds, flowers and fruits. Wooden fortune sticks recall futures now past.
The 2009 fire left the temple and other Chinese artifacts soot damaged. Professional restorationists cleaned them and put them into storage while the gallery was redesigned. During this time new information came to light about the temple and its contents. A large wooden donor board hanging in the temple is one of the objects now better understood because of the Chinese Remembering history conference held in Lewiston from 2008-12.
The conference explored Chinese history in the West, including the little-known 1887 massacre of as many as 34 Chinese miners in Hells Canyon. One of the scholars drawn to the event was Chuimei Ho of the Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee at Bainbridge Island, Wash. Ho, who speaks Chinese, took an interest in the temple and continues to help interpret its contents. Examination of the donor board suggested that the local Chinese community may have come together after the massacre with money to bolster the temple. Priscilla Wegars of the Asian American Comparative Collection at the University of Idaho also assisted with interpretation.
When local historians started the conference, “somebody mentioned that the ghosts of the miners were still there and we need to do something to placate and heal,” says Wirtanen, one of its organizers. “All this has come from that. … This is a lasting legacy for the community and Chinese history in the community.”
A third room in the exhibit is the Hip Sing Tong. While the American press often used “tong” as shorthand for a Chinese criminal organization it has a more benevolent meaning. The Hip Sing Tong was a place where the people could gather to play instruments and games. An altar represents the tong’s authority to settle disputes. Nearby one can leaf through a Chinese almanac suggesting days for auspicious occasions and see photographs of local Chinese families.
Grants, private funding and donations paid for the work. The reopening is only the first phase in the revamped exhibit, says Kathy Martin, the dean of community programs at Lewis-Clark State College. The exhibit is expected to expand over the next two years.
There are more artifacts to interpret and put on display. An altar cloth on loan from the private collection of Michael Mossler is possibly the only one in the United States from that era and needs to be restored, Bush says. Recently a stack of rare ledgers from the early 1900s was discovered and is now being interpreted by Ho. Martin says the story of the people who came together to preserve the temple also needs to be told.
Community members continue to come forward with items related to the Chinese history in the era. A wood and leather drum on display in the Hip Sing Tong room spent decades in the family home of Vernon Lott of Lewiston. He donated it to the exhibit after his wife recognized it in an archive photo. Wirtanen says they are interested in working with the public to recover more items.
“I can’t appreciate enough the people that really care about the Beuk Aie Temple,” Martin says. “Just to be a part of it is such an honor, just to play a small role and to be able to say we have restored it and made it available again for the public to appreciate.”
if you go
WHAT: Reception for the reopening of the Beuk Aie Temple exhibit
WHEN: 5-7 p.m. Thursday, May 9
WHERE: Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts & History, 415 Main St.
OF NOTE: Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday