Chinese laborers finally rest in peace

An unsavory chapter of local history was closed Saturday with the dedication of a memorial wall and meditation garden to honor the Chinese laborers and others whose forgotten graves were excavated during construction of the Metro Gold Line’s Eastside extension.

The somber ceremony included a traditional Chinese blessing and multifaith prayers for the recently reinterred remains of people who had been buried in a potter’s field adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

After years of sometimes tense negotiations involving the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Los Angeles County, the remains were moved to a burial site in the cemetery near an existing Chinese shrine.

A curving, low-slung commemorative wall was dedicated Saturday, finally ending the relocation saga of the ancestors of many in the local Chinese American community.

Gordon Hom, president of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, said the ceremony provided some closure on painful reminders of a time when family members had few civil rights.

“There has been discrimination,” Hom said. “But instead of harping on it, we’ve tried to prove people wrong. The same for this situation. It’s taken time, but it’s been resolved.”

More than five years ago, the MTA discovered 174 burial sites with remains of what were indigent Angelenos and Chinese workers. The ethnicity of the laborers was determined through forensic analysis and a trove of artifacts buried with them, including coins, buttons, jade and porcelain.

The historic items were the subject of some disagreement in the Chinese American community. Older people wanted to honor the tradition of including money, a teapot or rice bowl in the grave with their loved one. The sentiment among the younger generation was that the objects were invaluable because of their history and for educational purposes.

According to Daisy Ma, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance — who buried her father’s beloved mah-jongg set with him — the matter was settled by the MTA, which placed the artifacts in the recently dug graves.

She too doesn’t dwell on the frustration of how her ancestors were treated.

“Life is too short to carry that around,” she said. “At least we got them off the streets and out of potter’s field.”

The burial site has one piece of unfinished business: The gravestones for some of the plots have not been put in place because of a mix-up with carving the Chinese characters.

No big deal, Ma said. “I turn it around and see the positive: We’re finally in there.”