(Note: This post does not discuss Buddhist imagery, but examines the religious imagery of Chinese immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century)

Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco in the middle of the nineteenth century would be met at the docks by agents of various Chinese associations known as huiguan 會館. These agents would inquire about the newcomer’s place of origin and based on the response each immigrant would be assigned to a corresponding huiguan association. Because common geographic origins formed the organizational principle for the huiguan, these are often translated as “district associations,” referring to the shared native districts of its members as well as the shared regional dialect, local customs, and close family or clan ties among inhabitants of the same locality.[1] American press at the time often referred to these organizations as “companies,” such as the famous Six Companies confederacy, but district associations functioned in far more dynamic ways than as just brokers for Chinese labor. They would provide social support and economic aid for all of its members by providing room and board for new arrivals, lodging and medicine for the sick, loans for those in need, and even legal council for Chinese immigrants facing racial discrimination. Moreover, each district association constructed its own building to accommodate all of these important functions, often reserving the top floor for religious icons where worship could be performed and offerings could be made.[2]

Non-Chinese observers would frequently refer to these buildings as “Joss Houses,” with joss being an Anglicized reading of the Portuguese deus, “god.” Thus, in the minds of many Americans, a principle function of the district association buildings was to serve as sites of religious worship where incense sticks, then commonly known as joss sticks, would be burned and offered to enshrined religious icons. By the 1870s, white Americans would regularly visit the Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York where these temples, along with Chinese restaurants, theatres, markets and curio shops, and opium dens were considered the main attractions. Not surprisingly, local commercial studios took photographs of these same attractions and made them available for purchase in a variety of formats. Exterior architectural photographs showing the display of Chinese plaques and lanterns adorning the association buildings were relatively commonplace, while interior photographs of the shrine halls and religious icons were rather rare.[3] Furthermore, narrative ethnographic accounts given in newspapers, magazines, and guide books rendered these icons invisible in another manner, by regularly dismissing them as “heathen idols” and “grotesque figures.”[4] Given the American Protestant opposition to idolatry, the materiality of Chinese religious practice was often overlooked or, more commonly, openly denigrated.

Figure 1

Yet, the potential commercial appeal for Chinese religious imagery did not escape all professional photography studios. One of the most reproduced photographs of a Chinatown joss house altar, made as engravings in magazines and on books covers, and eventually as lithographic postcards at the turn of the century, was taken by the San Francisco-based photographer Isaiah West Taber (1830-1912).[5] Entitled “The Five Idols in the Holy of Holies in the Joss Temple of Lung Gong,” the photograph was taken in 1887. According to Taber’s 1889 catalogue, he sold the photograph in both 18×22 inch and 8×10 inch formats.[6] In the early 1900s, this image was licensed by two popular San Francisco-based postcards publishers, Edward H. Mitchell (1867-1932) and Charles Weidner (1866-1940) [Fig. 1], thus diffusing the photograph of Chinese religious icons to even wider audiences. The photograph of five similar altar figures with long beards, richly brocaded garments, and peacock feather headdresses undoubtedly played to the sensibilities that Chinese temples housed garish idols that deemed no further serious investigation.

Map 1

From “Official Map of ‘Chinatown’ in San Francisco” (1885), David Rumsey Collection

The identification of these five idols does not seem to be discussed in scholarly literature and will be examined here. The Temple of Lung Gong refers to the headquarters of the Lung Gong Association 龍岡公所 (Longgang gongsuo), now known as the Lung Kong Tin Yee Association 龍岡親義公所 (Longgang qinyi gongsui). According to the association’s own account, the Lung Gong Ancient Temple 龍岡古廟 was constructed at 9 Brooklyn Place, in an alley branching off Sacramento Street, in 1875 [Labeled “New Joss House” in Map 1] .[7] A nineteenth century source claims the construction cost over fourteen thousand dollars, and contained handsome carvings and embroidered decorations.[8]

Though similar in function to district associations, Lung Gong membership did not derive from native districts, but from familial clans, specifically serving members of the Lau/Lew 劉 (Liu), Kwan/Quan 關 (Guan), Cheong/Jeong 張 (Zhang), and Chin/Chew 趙 (Zhao) lineages.[9] The grouping of these four family lineages was not accidental, as each name can be traced to figures who played a prominent role in Chinese history during the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-280), namely Liu Bei 劉, Guan Yu 關, Zhang Fei 張飛, and Zhao Yun 趙雲. Moreover, the stories surrounding these figures were dramatized and romanticized in the fourteenth century historical novel the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi 三國演義), further casting them as important Chinese cultural heroes. The historical origins of the association derive from a story preserved in the Pervasive Record of Guang[zhou] and Zhao[qing] (Guangzhao tongzhi 廣肇通誌). This tells of sacred hill named Lung Gong (Longgang, “Dragon Ridge”) that was located near the village of Kaiping 開平 which served as the ancestral home to the Liu clan. The hill was coveted by several powerful local clans, thus, based on the legends of faithful partnership in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Liu allied itself with the Guan, Zhang, and Zhao clans and constructed a temple on the hill to claim lasting ownership.[10] According to this record, the first Lung Gong Ancient Temple was constructed there in 1661/2. By 1827 a Lung Gong association comprised of these four clans was in existence in Singapore, a precursor to its expansion to America later in the century.[11] The San Francisco temple, along with it records, were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. A new building was constructed on Stockton Street in 1910 before the association moved to its current location on Grant Avenue in 1924.

Figures 2-6

Returning to the photograph of the Lung Gong altar, knowledge of the association’s history provides us some leverage in identifying the religious icons. One contemporary nineteenth century article claims the central figure raised above the others is Lau Pay, who we can identify with confidence as Liu Bei (161-223), the celebrated emperor of the southern Shu 蜀 kingdom during the Three Kingdoms period [Fig. 2].[12] To Liu’s proper left we find Guan Yu (d. 220), often deified as Guangong 關公 or Guandi 關帝, the famed military general who had several shrines dedicated to him across Chinatown [Fig. 3].[13] To the proper right of Liu we find Zhang Fei (d. 221), another general who along with Liu and Guan became sworn brothers as dramatized in the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Religious iconography (shenxiang 神像) of Zhang often gives him bulging eyes, an attribute we can easily identify in the photograph [Fig. 4]. Sitting furthest to the right side of the photograph is Zhao Yun (d. 229), another lauded general who served under Liu [Fig. 5]. These four figures comprise the four family clans that formed an alliance under the Lung Gong organizational banner. Sitting furthest to the left of the photograph is Zhuge Liang 諸葛亮 (181-234), a famed chancellor to the state of Shu. He is easily identified by the feather fan he holds [Fig. 6].[14] While each of these figures have origins as celebrated civil and military heroes of the early third century, their apotheosis took place over the succeeding centuries and were absorbed into what scholars sometimes term Chinese folk or popular religion. These icons, made of carved wood, hair, fabric, and feathers, would have reminded a Chinese immigrant of his or her nation’s rich history filled with tales of heroes exhibiting a conquering spirit.  

Sitting on the table in front of the five image we can see five urns for burning incense. Incense was among one of the most common offerings to religious icons, in addition to food and drink that would be given to nourish them. Faintly visible in front of the censers are canisters filled with thin slivers of bamboo used for divination. Typically these would be used in conjunction with two kidney-shaped wood blocks that would be tossed on the ground and interpreted to understand the will of the deity. Thus, as American commentators were often quick to note, immigrant Chinese had no fixed day or time for religious service, but instead came when they had a concern or problem they wished to resolve. Communication with the deities through offerings and divination practices formed the backbone of daily worship.

While seemingly documentarian in nature, this image emblazoned on Weidner’s postcard heightens the sense of Chinese religious practice as merely idolatrous. No context is given in the caption to identify the figures or state their importance to a Chinese worshiper. Even the specific location of the shrine is erased with the generic “joss house” employed instead. No nuance is given to the variety of Chinese religious icons or religious sites across San Francisco’s Chinatown or throughout the United States.[15] In some ways, this image becomes voyeuristic, a lurid glance into a religious life that was almost wholly mysterious.

Figure 7

Turning to our object’s materiality, Weidner chose to have his cards printed in Germany, the center for postcard production at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Auto-Chrom logo indicates that Louis Glaser of Leipzig was the printer [Fig. 7]. Glaser used a relatively complicated chromolithography process that required multiple lithostones, minimally between 4-6 printing substrates, with each printing a separate hue.[16] This process rendered a high quality print of vibrant colors and deep contrast. When the card was first issued, Weidner was still working with an unknown partner named Goeggel whose name disappears from cards issued around 1904. Weidner reissued his series of Chinatown views after the 1906 earthquake with an extended, and often provocative, caption. For example, his original card depicting a pair of young Chinese girls is captioned simply with “Chinese girls,” but his post-earthquake issue is re-captioned “Chinese aristocrats, reduced to poverty by earthquake and fire April 18,1906.” Several Chinatown street scenes are noted as being “destroyed by earthquake and fire,” while his card depicting the Lung Gong shrine is noted as being “smashed and reduced to ashes.” The wording is particularly evocative of iconoclastic sentiment, suggesting that divine providence caused the earthquake that ultimately halted the unwholesome heathen practices. Curiously, Weidner changed his role from publisher of the first card, to photographer of the second, even though he still used the same photograph taken by Taber two decades earlier.

Both cards bear an undivided back, dating the first to between 1901 and 1904 (when Goeggel departed), and the latter to between 1906 and 1907.


Notes

[1] Huiguan had their origins in sixteenth-century China when Cantonese merchants started these mutual aid organizations in various Chinese cities to help sojourning merchants and craftsmen originating from the same locality with room and boarding, among other forms of social and economic assistance. Huiguan were later instituted overseas as Chinese settled abroad, such as in Singapore and the Phillipines and eventually the United States. Because of their similar organizing principles and purposes, huiguan are often compared to German Landsmannschaft. For the Chinese origins of huiguan and associated craft guilds, see e.g. Moll-Murata 2018, esp. pp. 321-348. For the early history of huiguan in the US, see Armentrout-Ma 1983, Lim 1987, and the more recent Qin 2016.

[2] Some of these shrine halls were not open to the general public, but huiguan buildings would often have organizational halls for various secular functions that also housed small shrines, thus blurring clear demarcations in the use of these spaces for the visiting public. Independent temples, often open to the public, were also constructed around San Francisco, such as the structure at Lone Mountain cemetery constructed by the Six Companies for all Chinese to make offerings to the spirits of the dead, see Qin 2003: 228. Importantly, the distinctions between shrines, shrine halls, and temples is not emic. For example, the famous Tin How Ancient Temple 天后古廟 (Tianhou gumiao), the presumed oldest Chinese temple in California founded in 1852, likely occupied the top floor of the Sam Yup 三邑 (Sanyi) district association building on Waverly Place and was not its own building. Today, the temple occupies the top floor of the Sue Hing Benevolent Association 肇慶會館 (Zhaoqing huiguan) building that was reconstructed after the 1906 earthquake; for more on the worship of Tianhou in the US, see Kuah-Pearce & Huang 2012. Likewise, around 1853­, the Sze Yup 四邑 (Siyi) district association opened a temple dedicated to Guandi 關帝 on the corner of Kearny and Pine Streets, a location that matches its organizational headquarters at 512 Pine Street (address cited in Berglund 2005: 21). The multipurpose use of such buildings in San Francisco can also be found in New York City, where the Chinatown “city hall” at 16 Mott Street housed the Fan Tan Hong (“Fan Tan Syndicate”), the Quong Ying Lung Company (a mercantile establishment), the Sing Me Hong (a laundryman union), the meeting hall of the Mee Shing Kung Saw, and a shrine hall to Guandi on the top floor, see Maffi 1995. Nineteenth century maps and Chinatown guidebooks would often simply refer to these buildings as Joss Houses or temples, even though the activities engaged therein would vary considerably, see for example the 1885 “Official Map of ‘Chinatown’ in San Francisco” in the David Rumsey collection which depicts thirteen different Joss Houses of which only two are denoted as belonging to particular district associations. In 1892, Methodist pastor Frederick Masters counted a total of fifteen “heathen temples” in San Francisco, but more regularly assigned them to particular organizations, see Masters 1892.

[3] Eadweard J. Muybridge (1830-1904) was among the earliest photographers to take an interior photograph of a Chinatown joss house. The photographs were as part of a series of stereoviews of the Pacific Coast bearing the sequential numbers of 840-847. One stereoview (#843; held by the Getty Museum), dated to about 1870, shows three figures behind a joss house altar, with the central icon representing the Emperor of the North 北帝. The editors of the Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee website believe this photograph to depict the interior of the Tung Wah Temple 東華廟 (Donghua miao) once located on Dupont Street; see https://www.cinarc.org/Shrines.html#anchor_331. Carlton Watkins (1829-1916) was another professional San Francisco-based photographer who took another early stereophotograph of the entrance of an unknown joss house, see http://www.carletonwatkins.org/getviewbyid.php?id=1003485.

[4] Many of the more robust descriptions of nineteenth century Chinese temples in America were offered by protestant ministers such as Augustus Ward Loomis, Otis Gibson, and William Speer, see Maffly-Kipp 2005. The quote of “heathen idols” here was taken from the comments of Gibson, see Berglund 2005: 23. “Grotesque idols” was taken from an anonymous newspaper article entitled “The Joss-House,” see Anonymous 1878.

[5] The photograph was rendered into full page engraving accompanying “The Chinese Joss-House,” in Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, April 1888, p. 312. The article notes that Taber used a calcium light to produce sufficient interior illumination to make the exposure. It can also be found in Florence V. Hughes’ “San Francisco’s Chinatown,” in The Golden Rule, May 20, 1897, p. 688 (also see the illustration in Masters 1892: 735). The image was also used as the cover illustration for William Bode’s Lights and Shadows of Chinatown, see Maffly-Kipp 2005: 85-6.

[6] Taber 1889: 5-6. Taber also sold an interior photograph of the Hop Wo 合和 (Hehe) temple showing the image of Kwang Koong 關公 (Guangong).

[7] See Zhao undated. For further passing mention of this association, see Lim 1987: 31-2 and Qin 2016: 36. According to Masters, this temple was a few doors down from the Kum Fa 金花 (Jinhua) temple, also on Brooklyn Place, see Masters 1892: 737-9. Both of these temples are see on the 1885 Chinatown map in the David Rumsey collection, see footnote above.

[8] Masters 1892: 739. Taber took anohter photograph of the Lung Gong incense table [see here]. Regrettably, I have been unable to identify an exterior photographs or illustrations of this building.

[9] Since many Chinese villages were comprised of members of the same family linage and possessed the same surname, family associations and district associations were organized on similar principles in practice. For the minor differences between huiguan and gongsuo see Moll-Murata 2018.

[10] See Liu undated and Lim 1987: 48-9n.61.

[11] Lim 1987: 32.

[12] Masters 1892: 739.

[13] Known since the seventeenth century as the “Saint (or God) of War” (wusheng 武聖) and honored for his loyalty (zhong 忠) and bravery (yong 勇), a deified Guan Yu was widely celebrated among immigrant Chinese. The Ning Yeung甯陽 (Ningyang) district association joss house, widely described as the finest in Chinatown, was dedicated to Guangong, see Andrews 1870: 470 and Masters 1892: 728-32 (the temple apparently moved between these two descriptions, from Broadway to Waverly). The Hop Wo and Kong Chow (formerly part of the Sze Yup) associations also had shrines dedicated to Guangong, see footnotes above.

[14] Further information about the background stories and iconography of the images can be found in Stevens 1997: 145-50.

[15] This point is made more forcefully in Maffly-Kipp 2005.

[16] I estimate six or seven color lithostones were used in addition to the black key plate in our specimen. Chinatown is the subject in these Weidner postcards (using stock numbers printed on the obverse or reverse of the cards): 14, 15, 16, 21, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 140, 142, 156, 162, 190, 458, 459, 589, 590, 591, 592, 593, 596, 597, 598, 599, 600, 690, 694. The cards issued before the 1906 earthquake have at least four designs in total: 1) credit printed on obverse as “Goeggel & Weidner, Publishers”; 2) credit as “Charles Weidner, Photographer”; 3) added reference to earthquake in caption; 4) place credit on reverse (with divided back).

References

  • Andrews, Sidney. 1870. “The Gods of Wo Lee,” Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 25 (April), pp. 469-79.
  • Anonymous. 1878. “The Joss-House,” Chicago Daily Tribune (September 1), p. 16.
  • Armentrout-Ma, Eve. 1983. “Urban Chinese at the Sinitic Frontier: Social Organizations in United States’ Chinatowns, 1849-1898,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, pp. 107-135.
  • Berglund, Barbara. 2005. “Chinatown’s Tourist Terrain: Representation and Racialization in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” American Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 5-36.
  • Kuah-Pearce, Khun Eng and Huang, Yedan. 2012. “The Flow of the Traders’ Goddess: Tianhou in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century America,” in Narratives of Free Trade: The Commercial Cultures of Early US-China Relations, eds., Kendall Johnson. Honk Kong: Hong Kong University Press, pp. 163-76.
  • Lai, Him Mark. 1987. “Historical Development of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association/Huiguan System’, in Chinese America: History and Perspectives, ed. Chinese historical Society of America, San Francisco: San Francisco State University, pp. 13-51.
  • Liu Weisen 劉偉森. Undated. “Longgang shilüe ji sixing yuanyuan” 龍岡史略及四姓淵源 [A Brief History of Longgang and the Origins of the Four Families], May 20, 2020, https://www.palungkong.org/LK%20history.htm.
  • Maffly-Kipp, Laurie. 2005. “Engaging Habits and Besotted Idolatry: Viewing Chinese Religions in the American West,” Material Religion, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 72-96.
  • Masters, Frederick J. 1892. “Pagan Temples in San Francisco,” The Californian Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 2 (November), pp. 727–41.
  • Maffi, Mario. 1995. Gateway to the Promised Land: Ethnic Cultures in New York’s Lower East Side. New York: New York University Press.
  • Moll-Murata, Christine. 2018. State and Crafts in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
  • Qin, Yucheng. 2003. “A Century-old ‘Puzzle’: The Six Companies’ Role in Chinese Labor Importation in the Nineteenth Century,” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations, Vol. 12, No. 3/4, pp. 225-254.
  • Qin, Yucheng. 2016. The Cultural Clash: Chinese Traditional Native-Place Sentiment and the Anti-Chinese Movement. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Stevens, Keith. 1997. Chinese Gods: The Unseen Worlds of Spirits and Demons. London: Collins & Brown.
  • Taber, Isaiah W. 1889. Catalogue: Pacific Coast Scenery. Alaska to Mexico. Views, Albums, Transparencies, Etc. Oakland: Oakland Tribune Publishing Company. [viewable here]
  • Zhao Zhengzheng 趙錚錚. Undated. “Meiguo yu sanfanshi longagn qinyi gongsuo jianjie” 美國與三藩市龍岡親義公所簡介 [A Brief Introduction to the Long Kong Tin Yi Association of American and San Francisco], May 20, 2020, https://www.palungkong.org/usa-sf%20history.htm.

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