Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Bomb Day at the Marysville Bok Kai Festival

Marysville's annual Bok Kai Festival, our holiday to honor the Taoist water god Bok Eye - who is a very important god to try to please and gain favor from at the moment, considering California's ongoing drought - was this weekend. In past years I've attended the parade, which always takes place on Saturday, but this year I instead attended Bomb Day, which is always Sunday. (Apparently I'm not enough of an enthusiast to attend both days in the same year. Though I did leave the house and do stuff on Saturday, just not parade stuff: I helped my friend Alyson with her daughters' Girl Scout cookie sale, because she was legally required to have a second adult present and couldn't find any actual parents to help her out that day.)

This was my first time attending Bomb Day, although I'd read quite a bit about it ahead of time, so it was interesting to finally see it for myself. It's a pretty big deal for a small-town event; even the New York Times has an article about it today. It's certainly, unquestionably, the biggest event of the year in Marysville, every year.

W. T. Ellis, Jr., mayor of Marysville from 1894 to 1898, described Bomb Day in that era in his autobiography, Memories: My Seventy-Two Years in the Romantic County of Yuba, California:
New Year's day celebration was always followed in the next month with the Chinese "Bomb Day," when bombs were shot up in the air with numbered tags attached and the one who caught the wicker ring with the attached tag when it descended to the ground was entitled to call for and retain for one year a prize screen which was expected to bring good luck to the holder for that year. Great crowds would congregate to witness the scramble for possession of the wicker rings, when they were shot up in the air, particularly for the big prize one, and in those days I have witnessed over 150 Chinese pull and haul and tug for over an hour, trying to get possession of this prize, their clothes torn to ribbons, their hands and arms scratched and bloody, until finally some one of them would be successful, with the aid of his friends, to escape and run as fast as he could to the Joss House where the prize would be awarded him. Then would follow processions and banquets where large roasted hogs, "cooked to a turn," would be the piece de resistance.
That, of course, was back when Marysville actually had a large Chinese community. Back before Marysville, along with much of the rest of California at the time, violently drove all the Chinese residents out of town in February 1886, after which Marysville (along with nearby Wheatland, Nicolaus, Lincoln, Chico, Grass Valley) became for many years a sundown town in which Chinese people were threatened with violence if they attempted to live there or remain there after sunset. The Bok Kai Festival continued to be held in Marysville every year despite this - it is now the oldest continually held parade in California, having been held annually since at least 1880, but also apparently held at least sporadically as far back as the 1850s - but the actual Chinese American resident population of Marysville never recovered and is now possibly in the single digits. We do, however, still receive hundreds of Chinese American visitors once a year for the Bok Kai parade, and it seems that a few of them (less than a hundred, I'm pretty sure) either returned for a second day or stayed overnight to attend the Bomb Day celebrations as well.

Far fewer people not of Chinese descent bothered to attend Bomb Day, though. I expected the crowd to be smaller for Bomb Day than for the parade, but I was a little shocked at how much smaller it was. On parade day, you have to show up early to have any chance at a parking spot within ten blocks of the parade, and that's even though large spaces not ordinarily used for parking are converted to legal parking spots for the occasion, and nearby residents offer to rent out parking spaces in their driveways. So on Bomb Day, I drove as close as I thought I possibly could, then kept driving closer while wondering why there were still parking spaces available, and finally just decided there couldn't possibly be any more parking spaces available any closer to the event than I already was, so I pulled into one and got out and started walking . . . only to find myself walking past five more blocks of empty parking spaces.

As I walked, I began to hear firecrackers. The event was supposed to start at 4:00 p.m., and it was only about 3:50 p.m. when I started hearing the firecrackers, but I guess they aren't very particular about exact times. It wasn't really the sort of event you need to be there to see the very beginning of anyway: Bomb Day events begin with lighting the first of a two-block-long string of firecrackers stretched down 1st Street from D to C Streets. (That's two blocks because Oak Street is between D and C.) These two blocks, plus a block of C Street on each side of 1st Street, comprise what's left of our Chinatown. The Bok Kai Temple, and the similarly historic but not so Chinese-themed Silver Dollar Saloon (built in 1851, and rather proud of its former use as a brothel), are at one end, and the Suey Sing and Hop Sing tong buildings are at the other, and in between are the old Chinese school, the Chinese American Museum of Northern California, and a couple of Chinese restaurants. (The tongs, historically speaking, were basically gangs, and could be violent, often in defense against violent white people. I had a memorable conversation a couple of years ago with the man who runs the Chinese American Museum; he described having to engage in perpetual battles in the streets of Marysville in the late 1950s. The conversation was memorable because it isn't often that well-dressed, well-spoken, well-mannered men in their 70s vividly describe to me how they used to beat people over the head with heavy metal chains during their teenage years.) Anyway, the west end of the long string of firecrackers had been lit by the time I arrived, but it hadn't burned very far yet; I watched most of its travels through the small crowd that had shown up. The two-block route was fairly well lined with people; I'd guess there were between 200 and 300 people there, of whom maybe a third appeared to be probably of Chinese descent. (We don't have all that many local residents of any type of East Asian descent, so I think it's safe to assume that the vast majority of Asian people there were of Chinese descent. And have you ever been in a crowd where nearly all the people of one race are from out of town and nearly all the people of any other race are from the local neighborhood? The divisions between out-of-towners and locals tend to be pretty visible even without the race difference. Even more so in a small town where many of the locals know each other.)

When the line of firecrackers reached C Street, it curved around into a large spiral, which was roped off to keep the crowd a little distance back. The people who'd been lining other parts of the route, including me, crowded into a circle around this spiral. When the entire spiral had exploded, it was time for the special "bombs" with the numbered rings of thin rope inside to be shot off. First, the competitors who would grapple for the rings were chosen. Unlike in W. T. Ellis's day, there were probably not 150 people of Chinese descent in Marysville yesterday, let alone 150 youngish males of Chinese descent who felt like volunteering to fight for numbered rings of thin rope with one another, so there were only maybe 15 competitors chosen.

The competitors do all have to be male. I'm not sure why - although, given the physical nature of the competition, if women were allowed to participate, they would probably be competing separately in women-only contests over the rings. But tradition dictates that women are just supposed to stand on the sidelines; only the men are invited to tackle each other and wrestle each other over numbered rings of rope. The competitors also all had to be of Chinese descent, with one exception: our mayor, Ricky Samayoa, was also invited to compete. (And he caught one of the rings! Yay, Ricky!) The competition also appeared to be limited to somewhat youngish men (the oldest competitors were probably in their early 40s), although I think that was a matter of self-selection: older men don't care to volunteer to be tackled and wrestled with by much younger men.

Once the competitors were chosen and lined up inside the rope circle, the man shown below started lighting the bombs with the rings inside them, one at a time, on top of this tree stump, while another man pounded on a gong in the background. Supposedly a total of 100 numbered rings are shot into the air. I'm not sure whether that's really the current number or not. What I did see was that there were two different types of firecrackers being shot off during this section of the festivities: some of them contained numerous rectangular objects, while others contained a single ring of thin rope. I think there were about ten of the firecrackers that contained a single ring of thin rope, so if 90 other numbered rings were also shot into the air, they must have been contained in rectangular boxes.

Bok Kai 022.jpg

When the rectangular objects were shot into the air, there were enough for many of the competitors to catch one, so the competitors all ran different directions. But when the single rings of thin rope were shot into the air, all the competitors had to fight for the single ring. If no one caught it while it was still in the air, everyone would dive for it on the ground, which is what's happening in the picture below. (The mayor is the guy in the bright orange shirt. This was not the round in which he successfully caught the ring.)

Bok Kai 015.jpg

There seemed to be several methods of obtaining a ring. The easy way was to be tall, good at jumping high, and able to catch it in the air. The harder way was to fight for it after it fell to the ground. If you have basketball-player skills, there doesn't seem to be much sense in resorting to using wrestler skills. Though some of the numbers are considered luckier than others, with the number 4 considered the luckiest of all, so I guess if you really want the number 4 and you didn't manage to catch it in the air . . .

Bok Kai 021.jpg'

But if you prefer not to get hurt, waiting for the next numbered ring to be shot off and just jumping for it is the way to go.

Bok Kai 020.jpg

In the picture below, the guy near the center, wearing a white shirt and grinning, has just caught the ring. You can see it faintly in his right hand.

Bok Kai 019.jpg

So now I've seen Bomb Day for myself. It was interestingly different from the parade. The parade mostly consists of a bunch of non-Chinese people dressing up in Chinese costumes while most of the people who are actually of Chinese descent sit on the sidelines and watch. Then on Bomb Day, the non-Chinese people are relegated to the sidelines while the people who are actually of Chinese descent get to participate. So I guess it balances out?

Anyway, the festival seems to have achieved its main purpose this year by pleasing the water god, Bok Eye. It rained last night!

(Historically, the parade and the temple were for the purpose of protecting Marysville more from flooding than from drought, because the debris that the gold miners in the mountains dumped into the rivers during the Gold Rush raised the riverbeds and created severe flooding problems; Marysville is now completely encircled by levees to protect it from this continuing problem. It's said - in the parade advertisements every year - that Bok Eye has never allowed it to rain on the Bok Kai Parade. This year, too, the rain waited until after all the ceremonies were over. But we definitely needed the rain, so it was good to receive some.)
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