I by chance happened upon an old magazine article that mentions the worship of Sun Wukong in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1892. The piece is written by one Frederic J. Masters, D.D., a Methodist pastor who wrote extensively about the area’s Chinese community. Not surprisingly, the article is dripping with condescension towards Chinese religion, condemning the Great Sage’s worship as “the acme of absurdity and sinfulness.” Below is the section discussing the Monkey King.
In the Spofford-alley temple are found the shrines of some twenty other gods and goddesses, the principal being the Grand Duke of Peace, the God of Medicine, and Pan Kung, a celebrated Prime Minister of the Sung Dynasty. The funniest discovery in this temple was that of Tsai Tin Tai Shing [Qitian dasheng, 齊天大聖]. He is a beatified monkey in the image of a man. Hatched from a bowlder [sic], this animal is said to have proclaimed himself king of the monkeys. At last he learned the language of men, and finding himself possessed of supernatural powers, he obtained a place among the gods. Such is the legend. Chinese idolatry thus reaches the acme of absurdity and sinfulness in the canonization of a monkey. Thoughts of Darwin’s descent of man at once flashed across our mind as we looked at this image. It was disappointing at one’s curiosity to find that the old temple keeper who cared more for a pipe of opium than for speculations in theology and anthropology could not tell us what part natural selection played in the evolution of Chinese deities, or whether monkey worship was the newest phase of Chinese ancestral worship. Finding him lamentably ignorant upon the great question of the descent of man, we astonished with him with a complete history of his monkey god.
There was an ape in the days that were earlier;
Centuries passed and his hair became curlier;
Centuries more and his tail disappeared,
Then he was man and a god to be feared (Masters, 1892, pp. 736-737).
So what can we learn from this brief entry? Given the time, place, and use of Cantonese, the worshipers were most likely immigrants from Guangdong province. Refo Mason (1994) explains, “When news of the discovery of gold in California reached South China in 1849, thousands of labourers in Guangdong and Fujian provinces left their villages to seek work in the gum shan ([金山] ‘Gold Mountain’) … Emigration from South China to California…peaked in 1852, when 20,000 Chinese arrived in San Francisco” (p. 200). Monkey‘s adherents may have counted among these men or their descendants (or possibly among those from later periods of immigration). Either way, belief in the Great Sage came with those who traveled from southern China to America.
Fig. 1 – A photomanipulation of Sun Wukong above the title logo from the ongoing American Gods television show (larger version). By the author. The program is based on the 2001 novel of the same name.
Somebody please get Neil Gaimon on the phone and tell him that he can now include Monkey in American Gods (fig. 1). What do you think the character would look like? Maybe a short old man with a cane?
Fig 2 – A modern Google satellite image of Spofford Alley (larger version). It is only a few hundred feet long.
During the 19th-century, Spofford Alley (fig. 2), where the temple housing the Great Sage shrine was located, was home to the Chee Kong Tong (Zhigongdang, 致公堂, “Chamber of High Justice Society,” a.k.a. the “Chinese Freemasons”), the secret Chinese society-turned-criminal organization running Chinatown’s illicit opium, gambling, and prostitution trade (Risse, 2012, p. 37). The Chee Kong Tong were originally an offshoot of anti-Manchu rebels who wanted to overthrow the foreign-ruled Qing dynasty (Cassel, 2002, pp. 218-219).  Therefore, Sun Wukong’s worshipers may have included gangsters and rebels. As mentioned in this article, the Great Sage was venerated by fighters of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). This makes sense as the divine primate is famous for his rebellion against heaven in Journey to the West.
1) Sun Yatsen, the “Father of modern China,” made contact with the Chee Kong Tong several times and even used their no. 36 Spofford Alley office as his own while raising money for his revolution in China (United States, 1993, pp. 45-46; Lum & Lum, 1999, p. 57).
Cassel, S. L. (2002). The Chinese in America: A history from Gold Mountain to the new millennium. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Masters. F. J. (1892). Pagan Temples in San Francisco. In C.F. Holder (Ed.). The Californian illustrated magazine: June to November, 1892, vol. 2 (pp. 727-741). San Francisco, Calif.: Californian Pub. Co.
Lum, Y. M., & Lum, R. M. K. (1999). Sun Yat-sen in Hawaii: Activities and supporters. Honolulu: Hawaii Chinese History Center.
Refo Mason, S. (1994). Social Christianity, American feminism, and Chinese prostitutes: The history of the Presbyterian mission home, San Francisco, 1874-1935 In M. Jaschok and S. Miers (Ed.) Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude, and Escape (pp. 198-220). Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.
Risse, G. B. (2012). Plague, fear, and politics in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
United States. (1993). An introduction to organized crime in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Organized Crime/Drug Branch, Criminal Investigative Division.