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A Chinese lion dancer performs a blessing of the building at the ceremony kicking off the renovation of the historic Bing Kong Tong building on Main Street in Isleton, Calif., on Monday, March 3, 2014. Once a center of Chinese cultural and social life in the Delta community, the building has sat vacant for decades but will find new life as a museum. (Glenn Gehlke/Bay Area News Group)

ISLETON -- It's been a long -- and sometimes frustrating -- journey, but the first phase in the restoration of one of the Delta's most historic buildings got under way this week.

The Bing Kong Tong building began as a branch of the San Francisco Bing Kong Tong association to support the 1,500 Chinese residents living in Isleton in the early 1900s. It was later rebuilt after a fire ravaged the original structure -- and the entire downtown -- in 1926.

After securing nearly $600,000 in funds, local historians, Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency and California Cultural Historical Endowment officials were on hand this week to kick off the restoration efforts of the landmark building, which was donated to the Isleton Brannan-Andrus Historical Society in 1994.

Empty for years, the Tong building was once a gathering spot for immigrants who worked the farms surrounding the community. It housed a Chinese language school, and was used for banquets, community festivals and local Tong Association meetings.

For the past several decades, the Isleton historical society has worked to bring the dilapitaded structure back to life. The group almost raised enough money in 2011, but then lost a good portion of it when the state dissolved redevelopment agencies that year.

"We had to start all over again after that," said Chuck Hasz, project manager and member of the Isleton Brannan-Andrus Historical Society. "It wasn't until we enlisted the help from (Supervisor) Don Nottoli that we were able to get back on track."

The fifth district Sacramento County supervisor was able to put Hasz in touch with the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, which helped with raising $41,000 for the project. The group also received a grant from the California Cultural Historical Endowment funds for $140,800. In all, the Historical Society was able to raise $600,000 for the first phase of restoration.

Initial renovation will include restoring the exterior and stabilizing the building at 29 Main St. An example of Chinese-American architecture, the structure is believed to be the only one of its type to be constructed with a tin sheathing on its exterior, according to the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.

The local historical society plans to eventually create a museum on the bottom floor and allow it to become a meeting hall of sorts again, Hasz said.

In 2008 the society worked with the PBS television show "History Detectives," which was able to look closer into the long history of the Bing Kong Tong building.

Through its efforts, they found Roger Chin, a one-time resident of Isleton whose grandfather, Yee Toy, a Chinese-American, formed a Bing Kong Tong Iselton affiliate and opened the Tong building in 1903. Born in San Francisco, Toy had moved to the Delta as a young man and become a leading businessman in Isleton.

While some of the other Tongs have been reported to have questionable and sometimes criminal histories, Chin said that wasn't the case for this hall.

"As a child I learned to speak Chinese in the bottom floor of the building and played in the side property swings," he said during Monday's town restoration celebration. "I also attended several Chinese New Year celebrations here in this building."

Chin's parents worked to restore the building while his father was in charge of the Tong until the building closed in the 1940s.

"I really appreciate what is happening to the building now and really want to thank the town and all the people who are bringing back the building," Chin said.

Hasz says there are far fewer than the 1,500 Chinese who lived in Isleton when the building first opened, but the restoration work is an important step and will keep the town's history alive.

Cheryle Apple has lived in Isleton for 50 years and over the years she has seen the building deteriorate. "This is such a historically important building for the Delta," she said. "Completing this restoration will complement what we would like to see for the restoration of the whole downtown."

Nottoli said that the restoration of this building is not only an investment in this community, but in the Delta as a whole. "This building represents the diverse and rich cultural community of not only this community, but of all of the Delta area."

Reach Roni Gehlke at festfan@comcast.net.