New Life for an Old Shrine : Restoration of Boyle Heights altar is fitting memorial to Los Angeles’ Chinese settlers
The traditional Chinese New Year’s greeting, “Gung hay fat choy,” will echo in Chinese American communities across the nation Tuesday as the year of the boar arrives. Celebrations will include colorful parades, dragon and lion dancers and special foods.
In Los Angeles, the new year provides an opportunity to review the often overlooked history of a community that dates back more than a century. Much of the record of the first Chinese settlement has been lost, buried when that Chinatown was razed to make way for Union Station in the 1930s.
The oldest surviving reference to the Chinese presence is a shrine at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. This month the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, after a five-year struggle to save the shrine, began restoration of the stone altar, built by Chinese immigrants in 1888 to venerate deceased family members.
An even greater legacy than the shrine are the early immigrants’ descendants, like James Gee, a veteran of World War II, whose great-great uncle came to California in the 19th Century to help build the transcontinental railroad. And Glen Wong, the new director of the Evergreen Cemetery, whose great-grandfather was the caretaker of the cemetery’s old Chinese section, where the shrine stands. These two were among those at a ceremony this month marking the restoration project.
Ceremony participants remembered Los Angeles’ Chinese settlers with speeches, poetry and flowers. Their ancestors, scorned as “heathens,” suffered much at the hands of American society. Even in death they were the target of discrimination. Chinese were confined to a part of Evergreen Cemetery otherwise set aside for indigents; the indigents were buried free but there was a $10 charge for Chinese.
That, unfortunately, is an undeniable part of Los Angeles history. The Chinese shrine has been designated as a city historical monument, a fitting tribute to hard-working immigrants who helped a small pueblo become a major world metropolis.