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History of Chinatown told through photos
By Nancy Pasternack   - 10/09/2008

The Appeal Democrat

More Info on This Book: Marysville's Chinatown

Like many natives of Marysville's Chinese-American community, Brian Tom, 66, left the area as a teenager to attend college and pursue opportunities that were not available in this small, post-gold rush town.

But he never forgot his roots.

The retired San Francisco lawyer founded the American Museum of Northern California just one block away from the building that most of his sprawling family once called home.

His brother, Lawrence, 71, was born in that house at 310 First Street, as were 30 or so other members of their expansive clan.

On Sunday, Brian and Lawrence Tom will present a book they recently authored together about Marysville's Chinatown.

"The perspective of the Chinese-American in Marysville," says Brian Tom, "is unique."

While most books on the subject of Chinese-American experiences focus on San Francisco or other large cities, the Toms' work reveals a cross-cultural experience that could only happen in a small town, where the Chinese population was significant enough to impact the rest of the community.

"The Marysville Chinese became integrated much more quickly than in San Francisco," says Brian Tom.

And unlike any other Chinatown in the U.S., Marysville still boasts a traditional Chinese festival that revolves around its Chinese temple.

Of 30 or 40 Chinatowns that sprang up in Gold Rush towns, Brian Tom says, Marysville's is the only one that still boasts an active Chinese temple community.

"Our community forgets what a treasure our Chinatown is," says Kara Davis, co-owner of Amicus Books Literary Arts Center, which will host the authors' presentation and book signing Sunday at 1 p.m.

"There's a lot of people living here that have never even been to the Bok Kai Temple," Davis says.

The book, part of Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, has been but one in a long list of projects Brian Tom has embarked upon, that are related to his Chinese heritage.

He became the founder and founding coordinator for the Asian American Studies Program at UC Davis in 1969, while he was still a law student there. The program, among the first of its kind in the country, became the very first student-founded academic program at the university.

Lawrence Tom, his brother, collected more than 150 photographs for the book. They include one of their parents and of an infant-sized Brian Tom during World War II. The photo graces the book's cover.

Lawrence Tom served in the late 1990s as comptroller for the California State Department of Transportation. Now retired, he is tour director for the Chinese American Museum of Northern California in Marysville, which opened last year.

Text on the book's back cover points out that two of the first four Chinese American judges in California were from Marysville, as was the first Chinese American elected to the San Francisco Board of Education.

These success stories owe, Brian Tom says, to Marysville's relatively quick and easy acceptance of Chinese Americans into its schools and the community at large.

As in most successful immigrant communities, Chinatown has been a victim of its own success.

The number of Chinese families in Marysville dwindled in the last half of the 20th Century due to increasingly well-educated and privileged generations of offspring, and due also to the loss of community elders.

This year has seen the passing of Bing Ong and Katie Lim, two stalwarts of the Chinatown community, and ambassadors of Chinese culture for the rest of the Mid-Valley.

Their passing makes the publication of the book even more poignant, says Davis.

"It's a beautiful time for Marysville's Chinese community to come alive," she says.

Buy It Now: Marysville's Chinatown $21.99

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