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Ceremony Marks Rebirth for Chinese Burial Shrine : ‘A lot of people used to come to celebrate with food and burn paper money. It meant a lot to them.’

It was cold and gloomy at the city’s oldest cemetery but there was excitement in the damp morning air. For Chinese American community leaders, scholars and city officials, this was a much-awaited event, dedicated to restoring a century-old Chinese shrine that had almost been demolished five years ago.

Because of the rain, you could only see the top of the shrine at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. Above the muddy rainwater stood two 12-foot tall twin kilns, connected by a stone altar. For 80 years, Chinese residents had come to the shrine to burn incense and place flowers in honor of those buried in graves nearby.

At those kilns, in accordance to Chinese custom, they also set clothes and paper money afire so their deceased loved ones would have plenty to wear and spend in the next world.

With speeches, poetry and flowers, the group Thursday remembered Los Angeles’ first Chinese settlers who, in an era of blatant discrimination, were often scorned and ridiculed as “celestials” and “heathens.” Praises came not only from Chinese, but also Anglos, Jews and Latinos. If the dead could hear, they would have been pleased.

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“I am proud to have served America during World War II,” said James Gee, who stood erect like a soldier and whose voice trembled with emotion.

After bowing and setting down a bouquet of yellow and white chrysanthemums, Gee read poetry in

Cantonese. It was a eulogy to the Chinese pioneers, men like his own great-great-uncle, who had come to California in the 19th Century to help build the transcontinental railroad.

As Gee recited poetry and a graceful giant pepper tree towered over the scene at the shrine, you could easily imagine homesick immigrants coming to this corner of the cemetery a century ago to carry out the ancient Chinese rituals. To the Chinese, honoring their ancestors was the highest duty.

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The founders of the city’s old Chinatown, which was demolished to make way for Union Station in the 1930s, built the shrine in the 1880s. They called it simply “Precious Burners” with an inscription in Chinese reading: “Your spirits live with us.”

On the first day of spring according to the lunar calendar, people would flock to the shrine to remember their ancestors. “A lot of people used to come to celebrate with food and burn paper money,” said Ernesto Saucedo, a caretaker at Evergreen for more than three decades. “It meant a lot to them.”

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Then, in the late 1960s, the caretaker said, people stopped coming--a period coinciding with the passing of the older generation and wider dispersal of Chinese residents across Los Angeles. And, the shrine fell into disrepair, forgotten in the far eastern corner of the graveyard until a member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California stumbled across it in the 1970s.

“This shrine belongs to the people of Los Angeles,” Irvin Lai, president of the local Chinese Historical Society, said at the ceremony. “We are preserving American history for all people to enjoy and study.”

When the restoration is completed in two years, there will be roasted pigs and wine to celebrate the occasion, Lai promised. The historical society waged a five-year campaign to save the oldest evidence of Chinese life in Los Angeles.

As soon as the rain-soaked grounds dry out, crews will construct a retaining wall, wrought-iron fence, a row of steps and a gate. Then, the careful work to restore the edifice to its original condition will start. It’s a two-year, $60,000 project.

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Thus far, the historical society has raised $25,000, including a $8,750 grant from the city’s cultural affairs department. Lai said he doesn’t foresee any problem in reaching the goal because of communitywide interest in the project.

“We’re going to be with you all the way,” said Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the cultural affairs department. He said most people are so busy trying to “maintain mainstream history” that they ignore the rest. “This is a wonderful attempt to change that,” he said.

The shrine was built at the edge of a five-acre parcel that Evergreen’s owners gave to the city to bury the poor. It had been slated for demolition in 1990, when the historical society, alerted by local history buff Randall Bloch, sprang into action and got the city to declare it a historic landmark. Two years later, the group bought the land around the shrine for $14,000 from Evergreen owners. Since then, the 117-year-old graveyard has been purchased by a Chinese American funeral company.

The great-grandfather of Evergreen’s new director, Glen Wong, was the caretaker of the old Chinese cemetery on Evergreen’s grounds.

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Although much of the record of early Chinese settlement in the area has been lost, buried in the Union Station construction project, experts say Los Angeles had a significant Chinese community in the 19th Century.

Like other early settlers, Chinese were attracted to California by the Gold Rush. Construction of railroads brought other tens of thousands of Chinese to “Gold Mountain,” the name the early Chinese gave to the state.

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By 1882, when anti-Chinese agitation was at its peak with the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, there were more than 100,000 Chinese in America. At the turn of the century, an estimated 3,000 Chinese lived in Los Angeles--many of them farmers.

For Chinese Americans, the shrine is their only direct link to the first generation, many of whose residences and businesses in old Chinatown were destroyed without compensation because of Union Station.

Lai, a third-generation Chinese American, said he hopes the monument will help younger Chinese Americans who are “floating around searching for their identity.”


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