Chinese Temple

Chinese heritage on the Central Coast


The Chinese Temple, or Association House, sits in Greenspace's lush Creekside Reserve. Newly restored, the location serves as a cultural hub in Cambria's historical district where Cambria celebrates the community’s past. The building dates back to the 19th century, when Chinese immigrants helped build the county’s economy as miners, laborers and fishermen. 

As one of the the oldest remaining Chinese temples in Southern California, studies have  identified the site as potentially eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, and it has been given an AH (Historic) overlay designation by the County of San Luis Obispo. Greenspace has relocated the temple back to its original setting, restored it in great detail, and made it available for public use and interpretation. 

History of the Site

During the later years of the nineteenth century, a small cluster of Chinese structures existed along Santa Rosa Creek in downtown Cambria.  Chinese settlers worked in the area as miners in the local quicksilver mines, laborers, and gatherers of abalone and seaweed.  These hard-working men – and they were almost entirely men – created a refuge in Cambria where they could rest, interact with their fellow countrymen, and practice traditional ways and ceremonies on weekends, holidays and during inclement weather.  The number, placement, and even the identification of buildings changed over time.  Contemporary maps from 1886 until 1913 label the structures as laundries, cabins, and a “joss house.”   Local citizens and writers have identified buildings used for dining and sleeping and described a large brick oven.  Historic maps indicate that all of the buildings were gone from this portion of the parcel and the joss house was joined to two other buildings to complete the Warren family residence, commonly known as the Red House, at 2264 Center Street prior to 1926.   

Local lore perceived the structure as a Buddhist temple. Yet historical research suggests that at least from 1899 until its removal in about 1925, the building also referred to as a temple was probably either consecutively or concurrently a lodge of the Chee Kung Tong, a fraternal society that provided for the needs of Chinese living in the United States.  

Chinese on the Central Coast

While it is unclear when Chinese first came to the Central Coast, the earliest seem to have arrived by the 1860s.  When Chinese arrived on the Pacific coast, they found the California fisheries overflowing with marine species that were considered delicacies in China.   Chinese settlers on the Central Coast were engaged in seaweed and abalone harvesting.  The rocky shoreline provided  the optimal habitat for abalone, which was collected at low tide, and the ideal environment for seaweed that was actually cultivated  The Chinese men who worked the Central Coast lived in isolated cabins along the shore instead of in crowded urban Chinatowns.  This dispersion was necessary for the gatherers to be close to the seaweed beds and have space to dry the seaweed by spreading it on the grass.  For more than 100 years, seaweed gatherers worked at China Cove about two miles north of Cayucos. 

When local Chinese seaweed gatherers wanted to rest, retreat from bad weather, and to socialize with their countrymen, they would travel to Cambria’s Chinese Center.  Since they worked and lived alone in remote locales, interaction with others must have been greatly desired.  At the Center the Chinese could celebrate traditional holidays and events, write letters home, share information, gamble, cook, and converse in their own language.  Around the 1920s, most of the Chinese had moved on to San Francisco, and the local structures were abandoned. 

Creekside Reserve Patron Path

Greenspace is working to enhance Creekside Reserve so that the community will have access to and enjoy this rare piece of open space in downtown Cambria. There will be a Patron Path walkway through the property made of 222 brick nameplates. You can take this opportunity to be recognized as a distinguished supporter of the project by contributing $500 for a brick.  You can inscribe your brick in honor of someone, in memory of a loved one, your family name or business. Download the Patron Path brochure in the Downloads section below and return it to Greenspace along with a method of payment. 

Chinese Temple Volunteer Curator John Seed

Greenspace is excited to announce in 2019 the appointment of Cambria Local John Seed as the new Chinese Temple volunteer docent and curator. John Seed comes to Greenspace after a long career as a professor of art and art history whose knowledge of Chinese artwork and passion for history made him the ideal candidate for the position. John says "this opportunity has great appeal to me. Seeing the interior of the temple was a "must" when we moved here six months ago and Wayne [Attoe]'s gracious tour was a lovely experience." John will promote the temple to appropriate organizations, arrange for tours and plan events, and bring engaging guest speakers to help educate and inspire visitors at the site. 

Webinar: Chinese in Cambria