The Chinese characters are barely visible etched into the headstones and burial bricks. The markers are cracked and missing pieces that would have completed a name or hometown. The artifacts leave an enticing but ultimately elusive clue to the fledgling Chinese community that existed in Los Angeles more than 100 years ago.
The markers were discovered in 2005 by construction workers in Boyle Heights building an extension of the Gold Line commuter rail. Now, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is hoping to find distant relatives to claim the artifacts and skeletal remains of 128 people found at the site near Lorena and 1st streets.
The campaign launched last month is up against incredible odds to find anyone related to the interred -- some of whom were buried as long ago as 1885. Compounding the problem is that local historians believe the graves belonged to Chinese sojourners who were probably just as anonymous when they walked the streets of Chinatown as their remains are today.
Many used fake names and had no children because laws at the time prevented Chinese women from immigrating to the United States -- federal policy aimed at eradicating the Chinese population in America.
Historians believe the site may be that of a lost potter’s field for Chinese that became obscured by development sometime after the 1920s. Chinese were not allowed to be buried among whites in the adjacent Evergreen Cemetery.
“There’s a history to be told, but the picture is incomplete,” said Yvette Robles, MTA community relations manager.
Robles said the MTA has run advertisements in Chinese media, both locally and abroad, announcing the discovery and asking readers and listeners to contact the MTA if they think they may have had relatives buried in the area. Images of the finds can be viewed online at metro.net/projects_programs/eastside/postcards.htm.
“I get a report once a week with five to seven communications through this effort,” Robles said, adding, “Nothing concrete.”
One person in the United States called with a credible lead, prompting further review by the MTA, but Robles declined to elaborate.
Officials at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn., the umbrella organization for the dozens of family groups that have existed in and around downtown Chinatown since the 1800s, said they have not located any next of kin among their members despite an exhaustive check of records.
“We recognized some of the names on the markers and contacted some of the family associations here, but unfortunately, they couldn’t find any descendants,” said Michael Cheung, president of the group. “A lot of these people, that long ago, would have been dug up and shipped back to China. It’s just very hard to trace anyone, especially from 100 years ago.”
Some people have called in response to the ads to ask for information on their own family lineage, hoping it might tie in to the recent discoveries. Others have called to suggest an archeologist to hire, Robles said.
Altogether, eight Chinese headstones and 14 burial bricks were found between two and six feet underground. They were scattered among the remains of the 128 bodies, though none of the remains could be linked to any particular marker, MTA officials said.
Diggers also found 28 empty graves. Historians believe the remains once contained there were disinterred because it was common practice for families to ask that their relatives be returned to China for burial.
Through examination of the bone structure, archeologists were able to determine that 19 of the remains were Asian, 15 were of European descent and 11 were of mixed origin. The remaining 83 were too damaged to determine ethnicity.
Three headstones found at the site appeared to belong to people of European descent: Anna Ludemann, T.E. Buzbee and Willie E., a 6-year-old who died in 1883.
Officials have county records listing the names of many people believed to have been buried in the area but are struggling to determine where their graves are.
“They’re scattered all over the place,” said Carl Ripaldi, environmental specialist for the MTA. “There’s no Rosetta Stone.”
Translators hired by the MTA were able to decipher some of the Chinese markers. Some revealed full names and villages that the deceased originated from, such as the headstone for Chew Cheong Jiu, whose yellowing and chipped rectangular headstone said he was from Wing On in Hoi Yap, an antiquated name for what would later be called Hoi Ping County in Southern China. Some of the earliest Chinese settlers in Los Angeles were known to have been from that region of China, historians say.
Other markers are not nearly as revealing. One simply has the Chinese character for the name Mu. One burial brick reads Yuen Lung, which could either be the name of the deceased or the name of a town in Hong Kong near the mainland Chinese border.
The MTA said it would continue its efforts to find relatives until the end of summer before reinterring the remains and artifacts, most likely at Evergreen Cemetery, with a memorial service and installation of a monument.
Some Chinese community leaders are applauding the MTA for trying to find next of kin, especially after the initial discovery of the bones sparked controversy. Some accused the agency of stalling the announcement for months to avoid delaying the $898-million project to extend the Gold Line.
Leaders of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California say they should have been involved in the archeology work earlier and accuse the MTA of mishandling some of the discoveries. The agency has denied the allegations.
County Supervisor Mike Antonovich called for an investigation last year, which is close to being finalized.
“At least the MTA is doing something,” Cheung, president of the benevolent association, said. “I don’t think they will find any family, but we appreciate it.”
Irvin Lai of the historical society and one of the most vocal critics of the MTA’s handling of the situation, said he hoped the remains and artifacts would not be rushed back into the ground. He laments that no major academic institution has volunteered to conduct a study.
“We have very little history of these sojourners in Southern California,” he said. “We need a lot of study. We need a professional person. We want to know how they lived, because we have very little records. Most just died and were thrown into graves.”