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Chinese Group Wins Battle to Buy 1888 Shrine

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Concluding a 27-month battle, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California today will acquire a 19th-Century burial shrine in a Boyle Heights graveyard that experts believe to be the oldest evidence of Chinese habitation in Los Angeles.

The price for the 42 burial spots surrounding the shrine, built in 1888, is $14,000--less than half what the cemetery owner originally demanded.

“This is a milestone for our community,” said Irvin Lai, a member the society’s Shrine Preservation Committee. “The monument shows that the Chinese have roots here and that we contributed to the building of the West.”

Tucked in a corner of 115-year-old Evergreen Cemetery, the shrine--consisting of twin furnaces and a stone altar--was a ceremonial site where visitors paid respects to their ancestors. “The survivors burned clothes so the dead had plenty to wear, and burned paper money so they had plenty to spend in the other world,” Lai said.

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The shrine stood at the edge of a five-acre parcel that Evergreen’s owners gave to the city for use as a graveyard for indigents. The Chinese, however, were charged $10 per burial, Lai said.

Much of the record of early Chinese settlement in the area has been lost.

There was a “significant Chinese community in Los Angeles in the 19th Century, but most of the evidence of it is lying under Union Station,” said USC anthropologist Eugene Cooper, who was active in the campaign to preserve the monument.

That was where the Chinese community lived from the 1880s through the 1930s. The neighborhood was demolished to make way for the train station. The Chinese lost their homes and businesses without compensation because they were “second-class citizens,” Lai said.

The city allowed the Chinese community to erect the shrine, but the practice of Chinese customs in Los Angeles generated angry reaction. In its Dec. 11, 1902, issue, the Los Angeles Daily Times reported that a protest to the city health office revealed a “shocking violation of a city ordinance in the Chinese burying ground on Boyle Heights and exposed nauseating outrages of public health and decency.”

After Evergreen Cemetery reacquired the land in the 1960s, its owners considered removing the twin kilns and the altar to provide space for more graves.

Randall Bloch, a local history buff, learned of the plan a few years ago while researching historical cemeteries. Bloch contacted the Chinese Historical Society, beginning the campaign to preserve the shrine.

On Aug. 31, 1990, the city designated it a historic cultural monument. Lengthy negotiations with the cemetery owners followed.

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Members of the Chinese Historical Society plan to raise money to build a retaining wall and decorative fence to protect the shrine.

“We intend to do restorative work and protect the integrity of the monument,” said Bloch--who, like a third of the society’s members, is not Chinese. “We need to realize that by celebrating our cultural uniqueness we do not contradict the idea of (different ethnic groups) living in harmony.”


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