If you try to imagine where in California you'd find a 143-year-old Chinese New Year parade, you might not think of this majority-white small town in Gold Country.
But Marysville, a city about 45 minutes north of Sacramento, is the place that maintains the record for the state’s oldest continuous parade: Bok Kai.
On Saturday, despite an unprecedented winter storm warning, thousands of people—many of whom were not of Asian descent—gathered in downtown Marysville to celebrate this almost one-and-a-half-century old tradition.
Candice Young Fresquez, a Marysville native and the event’s organizer for the past 10 years, said it was heartwarming to see so many people turn out.
“Marysville is such a small town, and we don’t get too much exposure,” she said. “I feel very humbled to have been a caretaker of the event to continue the heritage and legacy.”
Starting in the 1850s, the Bok Kai celebration was the cultural highlight for Chinese immigrants in the area during the Gold Rush time. In Marysville’s Chinatown, the Bok Kai Temple is also one of the oldest Chinese temples in California.
The word “Bok Kai(北溪)” means “northern creek,” and the deity worshipped in the temple is considered the god overseeing the water, so he can protect Marysville from flooding and provide the region with water for the crops.
The full series of Bok Kai celebrations is typically held on the weekend that falls nearest to the second day of the second month of the Lunar calendar. After Saturday’s parade, the iconic “Bomb Day” event falls on Sunday, featuring “fighting” between Chinese people, as they try to catch rings shot to in the sky for good luck.
The faithful burn incense at the temple, asking fortunetellers about their fate.
A Place of Refuge
The Chinatown in Marysville was once the third-largest in California, and it later became a place of refuge as other, smaller Chinatowns were facing racism and violence and eventually erased. The Yuba County community played a key role in saving the Bok Kai tradition.
But as the dreams of finding gold vanished, many Chinese moved to bigger metro areas like Sacramento, Oakland and San Francisco, so the local Chinese American population dwindled as it did in California’s other rural Chinatowns.
Now, every year since 1880, Chinese Americans from all over the country—but especially from the Bay Area—travel to Marysville to join the Bok Kai festivities. The Chinese American Pioneer Heritage Committee, a group formed by many Bay Area Chinese American leaders, including former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, has led a group that’s come to Marysville for the past five years.
Gordon Tom, 82, a descendant of a historic Marysville family, said there are only a handful of Toms still living in the area, as many of his relatives have moved to the Bay Area. Tom said his grandfather came to Marysville in 1851 at the age of 13.
“I grew up here. I had a wonderful childhood here,” Tom said. “I love this town.”
Han Li can be reached at [email protected]