Joss House Museum a link to Auburn’s Chinatown

Feb. 13 dinner at Happy Wok to raise funds for Old Town icon
By: Paul Cambra, Features Editor
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Joss House Museum
Annual fundraising dinner
5:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Happy Wok Restaurant, in the Elm Center, 352 Elm Ave., Auburn
Cost: $28 per person
Info: (530) 346-7121

Visit the Museum
Where: 200 Sacramento St., Old Town Auburn
Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. first Saturday of each month

Today begins the Year of the Snake. Ancient Chinese wisdom says a snake in the house is a good omen because it means your family will not starve. Maybe this has something to do with the rattlesnakes floating at the bottom of an old “Rock and Rye” bottle in the kitchen of Auburn’s Joss House.
“You know how the Chinese were herbalists,” said Richard Yue, president of the Joss House Chinese Museum. “I was raised Chinese, I know the customs of my grandparents. I knew those deer leg bones in that pot over there were to make soup with. Who wouldn’t want to be able to run like a deer?”
No family will have to worry about starving at the Joss House fundraising dinner this Wednesday.  Held at the Happy Wok Restaurant in Auburn, the proceeds will help keep the museum’s doors open.
“It’s a lot of fun every year,” said Karl Wong, owner of Happy Wok. “We’ll be doing some special preparations for the New Year. Chinese-style fried chicken, mushrooms, greens, fried rice …”
Definitely no rattlesnakes or deer bone soup, but …
“For Richard, I’ll make him some pig’s feet,” Wong said. “Barbecued, steamed and in oyster sauce. It’s his favorite.”
Yue inherited the Joss House in the late 1980s, when it was in a “state of arrested decay,” as he put it.
His family had owned the Shanghai Restaurant and Bar since 1896, when his grandfather opened it, until its closure in 2005. His grandfather built the Joss House in the early 1920s. His father attended Chinese school there in the 30s. As a child, Yue can remember walking from his family home on Sacramento Street to his grandmother’s house down the road.
“I used to have to walk by it at night sometimes, and I always thought it was a creepy place,” he said. “A guy we called ‘Bumps’ lived down below (called so for the golf ball size bumps on his head).”
In the mid 90s, Yue decided to do something with it. He turned it into a 501C3 nonprofit museum foundation, was then eligible for grants, and restoration work soon began.
“A house museum is supposed to look like the last resident just walked out,” he said.
Considering the last resident lived there in the late 60s, this was going to be a challenge. The place had been boarded up; the porch collapsed over time and the stairs so rickety that they closed off the back. At one point, transients had broken in, built a fire in the main room and busted up the deities.
During the restoration, a worker found a hidden storage space below the altar. Turns out all the missing altar pieces were hidden there, wrapped in newspapers dated Dec. 8 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Looks like racial profiling was alive and well back then,” Yue said.
The museum’s board only has about six members, and Yue hope to see new faces this year, as he could use a docent or two. He opens the museum for four hours the first Saturday of each month.
“Whenever I open the door, someone will walk by and peek in,” he said. “We get to talking and when I mention that my grandfather built it, they get excited. It gets their interest.”
Joss Houses represent the center of the Chinese community in towns and they served four functions, as an altar, schoolhouse, fellowship and hostel (there are six bedrooms downstairs).
The sign above the door reads “Ling Ying Association” (The Brave Heroes Association).
 “It’s an awesome little museum,” said Placer County Museums Administrator Melanie Barton. “It’s a favorite for visitors on the Heritage Trail museums tour. The Chinese were a big part of Auburn’s history and it’s nice to have something that addresses that.”
Yue is thankful that the Joss House stands as a physical edifice to their history.
“It’s an incredible gem to the Chinese community,” he said. “How they lived, how they prayed, there is nothing like it between San Francisco and Truckee.”
Rene Yung from Chinese Whispers, a storytelling project about contemporary folk memories of the Chinese of the American West, will be the guest speaker at the dinner at Happy Wok Restaurant.
“The Joss House provides a bridge of communication and education from the old Chinese people of the Gold Rush era to today,” Wong said.
Wednesday is your chance to welcome in the New Year while helping to preserve the past.