Temple of Jeo Wong Ya

By Lama Naomh Tomás

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It sits in obscurity between two hotels, almost invisible to those  walking by. The only hints are the red banners with Chinese script around the doors. Local men, trying to enlist tourists for boat trips and information for money, sit on the steps drinking coffee and beer passing time until opportunity arises.

The temple of Jeo Wong Ya has a long history in Bocas Del Toro but receives little recognition among the people of Bocas. If you ask someone where the Chinese temple is you will most likely get a quizzical look and the usual, “There’s a Chinese temple in Bocas?”

The original temple of Jeo Wong Ya was built by the first Chinese settlers when they came to the Archipelego around 1870. It was a two story building over the ocean, a center of spiritual and cultural attention and gathering for the Chinese community after they fled the building of the Panama Canal because of the massive death toll due to malaria. (It is estimated over 20,000 died from the insect-borne-illness originally thought to have been caused by the air in the excavated swampland land that became the canal. Hence the name “mal aire”, meaning bad air).

The Chinese diaspora brought the popular religion deities with them to their new settlement to protect the community and as a source to offer prayers and supplication. The Chinese of Bocas brought Jeo Wong Ya, the protector of the sea. People came to pray every day and celebrate special occasions such as baby blessings, birthdays and the annual New Year dinner.

In 1991 Panama suffered a devastating earthquake and the temple collapsed into the sea that Jeo Wong Ya was protecting and protecting the community from. Some of the Chinese community fled after the earthquake in fear of more and the tsunamis that could come with them. It took a year for the Chinese Association of ocas Del Toro to replace the temple with the single story structure you see today. While some of the artifacts were saved, times had changed as had the community.

The older multi-generational members that I refer to as Panachinos have been raised Catholic and have used the temple for birthdays and New Year observances
but not for daily prayers or a spiritual center. The “new Chinese” are members of the few families that run all the stores and the ferry from Almirante. Very few of them use the temple as a place for spiritual expression and since November I have only seen two members of the community come to pray, although I’m sure others do.

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I lived here in Bocas for a year before I found out the building was a temple. In my research over the past year I also learned there was a second temple built back in the late 1800’s. This second temple is the old broken down structure across the street from Hotel Gran Bahia and long since abandoned.

My spiritual curiosity took me on a month long search for someone who knew about the history and use of the temple. Through Couyu at the little store on the corner across from the Catholic Church I found Jorge Chin at Panaderia Isabel. Jorge’s family has been at the store and making bread since his father started it many years ago. After several weeks of attempts we found time in his schedule to unlock the door to peak inside this unknown temple.

It had seen very little use since the New Year dinners were stopped almost four years ago. The expenses were originally paid for by the Panachino community, but now it was obvious that without the attention it needed, the temple had fallen into a state of near disrepair and needed cleaning (a lot of cleaning) and fumigating. It seemed like a good project and a chance to give to the Chinese Association of Bocas and maybe re-establish the temple as a spiritual and cultural center for the community.

My goal was to make it ready and available for that purpose. And my hope was to be able to open it to the general and traveling ommunity as a place of cultural history with a little heritage space in the back.

It has been very difficult getting any information, let alone accurate information, as those who know the most about the temple and the history of the Chinese community are either not available or not able to remember much due to age. I have gleaned some information from several sources to at least be able to present a
picture of the temple history to people in Bocas. I have also been in touch with a journalist originally from Bocas del Toro, Alexis Sanchez, who has been very helpful and interested in this project.

I am trying to record oral histories for preservation while searching for old pictures of the temple and the Chinese community going forward. Jorge Chin and several others have been very open and welcomed my presence and intention. They encouraged me to open the space and to use it for meditation.

The first guided meditation took place August 13, with plans to open two nights a week in the high season, one night of guided meditation and one night of unguided meditation, a contemplative space. Also if it works out I would like to open the temple on Sunday afternoons as a point of interest. There is still work to do in the temple, and I find my way there at some point every day. Please stop if you see me or the “monkcycle”out front and take a look.

I am happy to be able to do this work for all the community of Bocas Del Toro.

May this merit I have accumulated from this effort
benefit all sentient beings.
May all beings be well,
and may they all attain perfect peace.

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