The forgotten Chinese name of a California town

Han Li
2 min readOct 31, 2021
Inside the Oroville Chinese Temple 列聖宮. (Photo: Han Li)

A small California town once inhabited by thousands of early Chinese pioneers has lost its historic Chinese name.

Oroville, a Butte County city located in rural Northern California, had a legacy of Gold Rush history and early Chinese immigration during the 1800s and early 1900s.

The town carries significant Chinese American history. Over ten thousand Chinese — immigrants from Canton and the Pearl River Delta area — once settled in the Oroville area and in 1904, Dr. Sun Yat-sen visited Oroville to fundraise for China’s revolution.

Unlike San Francisco or Sacramento, Oroville’s Chinese community slowly faded out as the dreams of finding gold vanished. And, the name that early Chinese immigrants used faded with their exodus.

A group of Bay Area historians and volunteers visited the historic Oroville Chinese Temple 列聖宮 in early October 2021 to digitize books, documents, and the entirety of historical records housed at the temple.

A group of Bay Area historians and volunteers visited Oroville in early October 2021. (Photo: Marshall Li)

Built in 1863, the temple was a repository for documents dating from the late 1800s. A plaque dated spring 1900 designates the Chinese name of Oroville as 柯吪, O’Fa. The Cantonese or Toishanese pronunciation of 柯吪 does not sound close to Oroville.

So where does O’Fa come from? Here’s one explanation. Research shows that Oroville was originally named “Ophir City,” but later changed to Oroville when the first post office opened in 1854. It’s likely that the Cantonese name 柯吪, O’Fa, comes from “Ophir.”

吪, Fa, is a rarely-used Chinese word. Some historical records show Oroville’s Chinese names using the more common characters 化 or 花, with a similar Cantonese phonetic as 吪.

Today, O’Fa is no longer used by the Chinese-speaking community to refer to Oroville.

Buck Gee, a native of Oroville, recalled that his family was one of the few Chinese families there in the 1950s because most of the Chinese families have moved out of the area. Gee's siblings remember their grandparents’ Cantonese pronunciation of Oroville as “Oh-phew” or “Oh-fehow.”

Brian Wong, a current Oroville resident running the iconic local Chinese restaurant Tong Fong Low, thinks the original name was “lost,” as most of the old-time Oroville Chinese families have left, and Chinese newcomers like him would have no idea to connect O’Fa to Oroville.

“We pronounced ‘or-lo-wil’ as the closest Cantonese equivalent,” Wong said.

For World Journal, a major Chinese-language newspaper in the U.S., Oroville is being translated as 奧洛威爾, Ao Luo Wei Er, a Mandarin-based transliteration.

***

--

--