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Virginia City’s Joss Temple

Many of the action scenes in Soiled Dove Murder, the third book of the Moonshiner series, take place in the joss temple in Virginia City. This was an actual building and the heart of the Virginia City’s Chinatown. On various historical maps and documents, it was listed as the Chinese Masonic Lodge, Chinese temple, or Joss House and was located at the west end of Wallace Street. Best estimates are that it was constructed in the 1860s and remained intact until 1939 when the state highway department demolished the building in order to change the angle of the turn where the highway enters town.

The term “joss” is based on a corruption of the Portuguese word Deos, meaning God and was used to refer to any kind of traditional Buddhist or Daoist (Taoist) temple. It is likely that the Chinese residents of Virginia City practiced an eclectic mix of Confucianism, Taoism, and local folk traditions from the Canton region of China where many of the immigrants were from.

But unlike a Western church, a joss house was not solely a religious edifice. It was also a combined social hall, fraternity house and travelers hostel. was the focus for social and religious activities in the community.

The building was known by Euro-American residents as the joss house, the term “joss” referring generically to the presumptive Chinese deity and also to the incense sticks burned in religious rituals, as well as joss paper which includes sacrificial paper money, paper funerary goods, printed paper charms, etc.

Like those in other Chinese communities of the American West, the joss house in Virginia City was likely built by subscription, with each member of the Chinese community contributing in some way to the temple’s construction, decoration and furnishing.

“The new joss house has been fitted out at a cost of about $2,000. Eight rooms in all compromise the part of the building devoted to the use of the order. Of these, seven are for transient guests of the society, the other being a lounging place as well as one of worship.” The Chinese Joss House Museum, in Evanston, Wyoming

The joss house in Virginia City may have picked up the Chinese Masonic Lodge identity because these temples were not operated by religious institutions and almost all were owned and operated by various community organizations. Often the largest temples were operated by different district associations, while other temples were run by secret fraternal organizations or various other associations organized around clan lineages or trades.

You’ll notice in this old Virginia City postcard, the joss house is not located next to Big Pete’s shoe store, as was described in the novel. Another fictionalization.

There was no priest or religious leader, but one resident of Chinatown was selected each year as the “Keeper of the Joss House.” His responsibilities were to keep the building in order and stocked with whatever supplies were needed. Readers of Soiled Dove Murder will recall the fictional temple guardian character that Lucy had to deal with on several occasions.

As mentioned, as an author of historical fiction, I often have to weave a fictionalized story on limited factual information. Such was the case in Soiled Dove Murder where I portrayed Virginia City’s joss house being operated by the local tong. This came about because of research on the Bow on Tong Joss House in Fresno. Although tong associations carried a negative stigma because of their close ties with organized crime, joss houses functioned as social centers for the whole community. The Bow on Tong Joss house pictured represented a large number of Fresno’s Chinese and according to newspaper articles the opening of the building was a cause for great celebration.

The joss house often served multiple purposes. It Virginia City, it has been described as the home of the Chinese Masonic Lodge, which was a fraternal society that reinforced Chinese social and cultural values, taking the place of the family for these single men.

A banner hanging inside listed 21 rules that the men had to abide by, including avoidance of fighting in public and not coveting someone’s wife or sister for her beauty. These rules seem to indicate the Chinese were trying to maintain order in their community; this might have been part of an effort to prevent trouble with the surrounding community, which were already prejudiced against them.

While there are archival references from newspapers and other anecdotal references to the Joss temple in Virgina City, they have not been verified by historians, anthropologists, or archaeologists and are colored by the suspicions and biases of their times.

These recollections mention the temple being on the second floor of the lodge. Newspaper references from the time describe the ground floor as an opium den filled with booths for lying down and smoking. The temple and lodge also served as a fraternity house, a brothel, and a gambling house for all the Alder Gulch Chinese.

In 2000, an excavation took place on the south side of Highway 287, near the Chinese temple location. The university crew excavated one unit (Unit 28) trying to find features or artifacts related to the temple, knowing that this could be problematic because of the past highway construction. No identifiable Chinese related artifacts were found, but the old boardwalk that can be seen in historical photographs running in front of the Chinese Temple was located.

The majority of these structures were wooden and fire demolished many of them. As well, the Chinese populations in these frontier mining and railroad communities dwindled away over time. There are turn of the century references to a third of the population in Virginia City being Chinese, however census records from 1930 show only one Chinese person remained in the ghost town.

I was able to locate a rare interior photograph of Virginia City’s joss house. It shows an altar constructed in characteristic layers, as well as elements commonly found in Chinese temples include lanterns, tapestries, peacock feathers (above the altar), candles and artificial altar flowers, incense burners, and joss sticks (center).

The academic thesis The Chinese Presence in Virginia City Montana has a fascinating description of Virginia City’s joss temple.

I was also able to find a beautiful image from the Joss House in Butte, Montana.

Weaverville Joss House

Weaverville Joss House, also known as the Temple of the Forest Beneath the Clouds, is one of three old Chinese temples that still survive in Northern California, USA.

Weaverville’s original Chinese community disappeared because of dwindling prospects of finding gold, amid other factors, to shrink from 2,500 in its heyday to a mere 16 persons by 1931. The original temple management committee dwindled to just a single caretaker.

Overtime, fire, vandalism, and burglaries threatened the abandoned structure. The citizens of Weaverville realized the temple must be preserved, for the joss house was a link with the history of all the area’s pioneers, regardless of their origin. It was more than simply a domestic matter for the Chinese community and eventually became part of California’s State Historic Park system.

In the front porch a “spirit screen” serves to prevent evil spirits from entering. According to Chinese belief evil spirits can only proceed in a straight line. The spirit screen foils any attempt to enter and so keeps the temple safe from harm. A similar screen is mentioned in Soiled Dove Murder.

Along the wall are ranged four colorful processional banners. The temple’s central altar, the Altar of Wealth, is dedicated to the gods Kuan Ti and Bok Ai. The left-hand altar is dedicated to Cling Loy Goon, Toy Sing Goon and Uah Poe, all gods of good health, and the right-hand altar to Kuan Yin and Leong Mar, goddesses who protect women and children.

For more information about the Weaverville temple, check out An Historic Chinese Temple in California

ABC also did an amazing video. It’s worth a watch, although you do have to wait through the advertisements at the front end. Sorry, my technical skills can’t figure out how to embed it without the ads.

The Chinese Joss House Museum

The Chinese Joss House Museum in Evanston, Wyoming tells the story of Chinese immigrants who lived and worked in Uinta County from the 1870s through the 1930s. It is a replica of a Chinese temple constructed in Evanston in 1874.

Although the Chinese Joss House Museum is in a different location than its predecessor, its distinctive architectural features bear witness to the nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants in the community. The Joss House is operated by the Uinta County Museum (1020 Front Street). Inquire at the museum for access.

In 1898, two 8-foot-tall carved wooden panels were installed on the front of the original building, flanking the front door. The panels were inscribed with the names of those who had donated money for their creation and installation, along with traditional Chinese symbols for good fortune and prosperity. The panels were fabricated in San Francisco from fragrant Port Orford cedar, which grows only in coastal areas of northern California and southern Oregon.

After the notorious Chinese massacre in Rock Springs in 1885, coupled with national exclusionary legislation, the Chinese population in Evanston steeply declined; by 1920, there were fewer than a dozen residents remaining in Chinatown. In January 1922, the Union Pacific Railroad, which owned the land where Chinatown had been built, forced the Chinese to vacate the Joss House. Shortly afterward, the building burned to the ground. There may have been some prior quiet intimations of the fire, because several residents of Evanston managed to salvage some of its furnishings, including the carved panels from the front of the building, before the fire broke out.

Sixty-eight years later, in 1990, Wyoming celebrated its centennial with community-based “Lasting Legacy” projects, with Evanston choosing to build a replica of the Joss House in Depot Square, the downtown civic plaza. The replica, which was based on historic photos of the original, is a 35 x 35-foot, single-story, stained wood structure. Like the original building, windows flank its front door and a shallow front porch runs the length of the facade.

The new Joss House was built to serve as a museum telling the story of the Chinese in southwestern Wyoming, and Evanston in particular. Its most treasured artifacts are the carved wooden panels that were rescued from the original Joss House, and later donated to the Wyoming State Museum.

The panels rescued from the fire were eventually given to the City of Evanston and are displayed inside the building. Also on display are a model of Evanston’s Chinatown, based on Sanborn Fire Insurance maps from 1910, and a small collection of artifacts, including a few items salvaged from the 1922 fire and others from a Chinatown archaeological excavation in the 1990s.

The museum collection also includes a carved decorative panel from the interior of the building, and a wooden sign from the original structure that names the building “the East Road Dwelling Place”—which hints at its role as a hotel on the railroad, known to the Chinese immigrants as the “east road” because it led east from their landing point in California.

For more information on the Evanston Museum check out Chinese Joss House Museum. Society of Architectural Historians

I love the research that goes into writing historical fiction and hope this article and others on the blog show both the historic facts and their inspiration are woven together in my novels. Sherilyn

Image “Where strange gods worshiped- Photo of front steps of a joss temple in San Francisco, photo by Arthur Genthe, from his Old Chinatown collection (1912)

Interested in the other blog posts related to Soiled Dove Murders, book four of the Moonshiner Mysteries series?

Chinese Prostitution in the American West

Shanghai Tunnels




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