Thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived in Idaho in the 1850s and 1860s to work on the railroads. Boise had a thriving Chinatown in the area loosely bordered by 9th, Idaho and Grove streets, and Capitol Boulevard. By the 1960s, many of the city's Chinese-Americans had moved away. In the 1970s, urban renewal swept away what was left of their buildings.
The Idaho State Historical Museum's exhibits on the Chinese temple and herb shop give a hint of this substantial part of Boise's ethnic past.
Opened in May 1972, the exhibits - down to the orange wax apricots in the blue and white porcelain bowl - haven't changed much in 40 years, said Rachelle Littau, curatorial registrar at the museum.
The herb shop exhibit is a re-creation of the Downtown shop kept by Dr. Ah Fong, then by his son and then by his grandson. Fong began his practice in Boise around 1890. His grandson Gerald practiced medicine in Boise until the mid-1960s.
Before what remained of Boise's Chinatown was demolished as part of urban renewal in early 1971, the Boise Redevelopment Agency allowed museum staffers to go into the long-vacated Fong building on Capitol Boulevard to salvage items. Worn wooden drawers, the front window of the shop, medicine jars and other pieces of his shop are what museum visitors see today.
In addition to the items on display, the museum keeps a massive collection of Chinese herbal medicine from the Fong family. Scholars still seek out the Boise collection for research, said Littau.
The temple artifacts have different origins. The Idaho Statesman ran an article in the early 1970s about the museum's plans to create an exhibit about Boise's Chinese population, said Littau, and Boiseans began donating art and artifacts.
It's likely the carvings and other items in the temple exhibit came from various locations around town, including a temple that stood on Front Street (torn down in 1937) and the Chinese Masonic Lodge that stood on Idaho Street near Capitol Boulevard (torn down during the 1970s).
A researcher, Chuimei Ho, visited Boise a couple of years ago to see the museum's opium-related artifacts. Littau asked her to interpret the large, gold carved panel that hangs as the centerpiece of the temple exhibit. Ho said the carving was made around 1906 by a Chinese company that supplied religious carvings to American Chinese.
It tells two stories. The top section portrays Xuan-mu, a female deity. The lower panel is an episode of a popular drama, said Ho. It features two sons of a prominent family showing their willingness to be deployed to battle.
Two donors gave the separate sections to the museum independent of each other.
"When we received them in the early '70s, (historian) Arthur Hart noticed that they fit together. We have no idea when they became separated from each other, but it's nice to have them reunited," said Littau.
Anna Webb: 377-6431