The curious history of the Chinese-American cemetery

Whenever I travel to a new place, I try to stop by the cemetery, even if it’s just for a few minutes. You can learn a lot about a place, its people, and its history from its burial practices, from who is buried where to how graves are marked to the cemetery regulations. The older the cemetery, the better, as it offers a wealth of information that can cover centuries of history.

In California, as elsewhere, cemeteries contain all sorts of buried secrets for those who want to dig a little. (Sorry.) While many people are sort of loosely aware that cemeteries in the US were segregated not just by faith but by race, it can be startling to be confronted with that evidence in the flesh. California has a wealth of ‘Chinese cemeteries’ from the 19th and early 20th centuries, filled with the graves of people who weren’t allowed to be buried anywhere else.

That’s why even a small town sometimes has a couple of cemeteries for no apparent reason. At one time, they were actually segregated, and over time, the lines of that segregation broke down. Changing mores and the pressures of space forced some poor white people into the Chinese cemetery, allowed some Lutherans to sleep with the Methodists. Now, there’s often a high degree of integration, especially in closed cemeteries — they closed because they ran out of room, and that’s likely because they crammed as many people as they could in there but still ran out of space.

I like wandering through cemeteries and confronting myself with this history, thinking about it. Seeing the evidence of Chinese burials in the form not just of headstones, but also of altars and platforms for offering incense. Some are weedy and overgrown, untended after generations. Others are still in active use, with the local community keeping up historic graves. Some cemeteries have sections that contained Chinese graves but you wouldn’t know it to look at them — markers have been moved and disturbed, the cemetery has shifted, and you have to rely on historical documentation to find what you are looking for, only to discover when you arrive that there is nothing there at all.

I explore the history of the Chinese community in California intermittently here because of personal connections, and also because it’s not something that gets a lot of attention in the mainstream. Yet, the history of Chinese-Americans and the larger Asian-American community here played a vital role in making California what it was, and in shaping attitudes that surround us to this day. The cemetery is not an exception, and is in some ways one of the most intimate and fundamental aspects of this history, because while we all experience very different lives, eventually we all die, and the question of what we do with our dead becomes pressing, as we have invested corpses with rich social meaning beyond their function as dead bodies.

In a state that vehemently hated them, Chinese immigrants arrived in floods to make their own fortunes in the Gold Rush, even as they were barred from many white occupations and forced to live and work in horrific conditions. When they died, there was a difficult decision at hand: To bury them in Chinese cemeteries, or to bear the expense of sending their bones back to China, which some people did. In regions with larger Chinese-American communities, like Nevada City, there was a formalised Chinese cemetery and a community to support it, leading people to bury their dead there rather than dealing with the complexities of shipping remains back to China to lie with their ancestors.

Even in established cemeteries, though, a population that was often poor and struggling for social acceptance commonly had improvised grave markers which have been lost to time, one reason it’s hard to find 19th century Chinese graves in California. In fact, construction in Los Angeles actually dug up nearly 200 bodies of deceased Chinese labourers who might in life have been buried thoughtfully and respectfully, but who after nearly 150 years had tumbled into an unmarked, confusing mass. (They were reburied and people put up a lovely monument, though many members of the Chinese-American community were not happy with how the discovery and subsequent reburial were handled.)

If you’re lucky, sometimes you can also find a historic temple near a Chinese cemetery, lovingly kept up by people committed to preserving their community history, but also to practicing their faith. Some are open to the public when they aren’t being used, and may also have interesting artefacts and historical information that provides insight into the community that lived and worked there — on occasion, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet elders who still remember people who lived through the era of Chinese exclusion, of systemic violence against Chinese and other Asian immigrants, and an opportunity to talk with people who sit that close to history is amazing. It is a case of living history side by side with the dead, and it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of effort to find, which makes it all the more worth it.

The next time you happen to be journeying in a strange town, stop by the cemetery. You might be surprised by who, and what, you find there.

Image: Chinese grave markers with altar in a cemetery, ca. 1900, California Historical Society, Creative Commons