Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Chinese Altar

Preparations are underway for the Montana Historical Society’s latest major exhibit, The Chinese in Montana: Our Forgotten Pioneers. The exhibit will feature Chinese textiles, ceramics, and cultural treasures that have never been on public exhibit. Items  include a sixteen-foot hand written banner from the Chinese Masonic Temple in Virginia City, a noodle machine from the Mai Wah Noodle Parlor in Butte, and traditional clothing. But one especially exciting item is an altar from the Chinese Masonic Temple in Helena.

The Chinese altar from Helena’s Chinese Masonic Temple is currently undergoing conservation.
When the conservator laid the altar on its back, the address “206 Clore” was discovered penciled on its underside. From the 1870s to about 1892, the address belonged to a small log cabin on what is now Park Avenue, immediately next door to the Pioneer Cabin. The tiny dwelling was one of a row labeled “Chinese.”  Whoever the occupant of the cabin was must have played some role in the altar’s installation in the Helena temple.

The altar is not only beautiful art, but it is also richly symbolic of the land left behind.  Worship in the temple was a solace to these sojourners who kept their customs, their beliefs, and adapted their lifestyles to the western frontier. Rich green, red, and gold paint is typical of Chinese furnishings.  Intricate characters flanking the altar’s sides, according to our translators, poetically glorify some long ago military hero. Carvings in the wood across the top poignantly represent the Chinese homeland. Golden silkworm moths, wings outspread, flutter among flowers; pairs of bats, their expressions peculiarly menacing, symbolize good luck.

Bats appear menacing in the altar carving but represent good luck.
The altar was a gift in 1973 of Helenan Doris Marshall who, with her husband Walter, founded the Brewery Theatre.  The altar was purchased at auction when the temple fell to urban renewal. Mrs. Marshall likely used it in a stage production and then donated it to the Montana Historical Society. And it is fortunate that she did. This rare object will be a focal point in Forgotten Pioneers, scheduled to open in May 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Interestingly, bats are considered signs or icons of good luck because the ideograph for “fortune” or “good luck” (福) is homophonic (that is, it sounds like) the pronunciation of the character for bat (蝙蝠). There’s even more complicated stuff about how these characters are often written upside down (and bats pictured flying upside down) because then it looks like the character for “arrives.” Thus you get a two-fer in one character, “good luck arrives,” the flying bat making this especially visual.

    I love the Chinese language for its many-tiered, poetic complexity. On any given hiking trip with my Chinese grad students or colleagues, you could guarantee an argumentative “discussion” anytime I asked the group to tell me what the characters carved into a rock might mean. There is seldom a simple answer. There are often many answers. All correct.