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Custody dispute over history

Advisory panel wants to rebury bones MTA crews found. Some Chinese Americans want to study them.

January 24, 2008|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

The hundreds of brittle bones were buried in a forgotten cemetery with intricate ceramics, jade jewelry and opium pipes. They were the last earthly possessions of what could be dozens of Chinese workers too poor to have been buried back in China and too little-known to merit headstones. Some more than a century old, they offer an irresistible window into a dark chapter in Los Angeles' history.

The bones and artifacts remained deep below Boyle Heights until three years ago, when workers digging the subway tunnel for the Gold Line rail extension uncovered them. The discovery thrilled Chinese American historians because it was one of the few involving the earliest generations of Chinese immigrants who came to California to help build the railroads and perform other menial tasks.

But now, the items are at the center of an emotional custody dispute.

Historians and some local elected officials say they should be carefully preserved and studied in order to build a better narrative of how early Chinese immigrants lived in America.

But a local citizens' committee established to advise the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on the find believes the most respectful thing to do is rebury the 128 sets of remains as soon as possible. The MTA's board of directors will have the final say in the coming months.

The issue has touched a nerve in the Chinese community, in part because of a desire to better understand the lives of so-called Chinese sojourners, male immigrants who in 19th century California could not vote, marry or be buried at local cemeteries and who lacked many basic rights, including the right to own property.

"It would be further dehumanizing for them to be buried without any attempt to identify them," said Judy Chu, vice chairwoman of the state Board of Equalization. "They died alone without family to comfort them and make sure their time on this Earth meant something."

Officials at the MTA defended the work of its Review Advisory Committee, formed in 1995 to handle community issues surrounding the rail line extension, and the Ad Hoc Sub Committee, formed two years ago to discuss what to do with the remains and artifacts.

Committee members want to rebury the remains at nearby Evergreen Ceremony with a memorial, saying that would amount to the dignified burial that eluded them so many years ago.

"I put myself in their situation," said Renee Chavez, chairwoman of the ad hoc panel and a member of the advisory committee. "What would my family have wanted? No. 1, they would not have wanted to be disinterred. But it happened. But we can provide the honor and respect they were denied."

Committee meetings were tense at times after some Chinese Americans, saying they believed they were poorly represented on the panels, said their concerns were ignored.

Of the 11 representatives on the ad hoc group, two were Chinese American and one, not of Chinese descent, was a board member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. None of the 13 members of the advisory committee was Chinese American.

Leading the charge to have the remains identified and the artifacts housed at an academic institution is Mike Ten, a South Pasadena city councilman whose family's roots in Chinatown date to the 1900s.

"I'm really fighting for my grandparents and their generation," Ten said

He's trying to raise $100,000 to pay for Cal State Los Angeles to take samples of the remains before they undergo DNA analysis, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more.

Cal State L.A. said it would donate a laboratory to curate the remains, but only if public fundraising can cover expenses.

Though Ten praised the citizens' committees for arranging for plots at Evergreen Cemetery, he said he does not believe they grasped the importance of the findings to the Chinese American community.

"They're tired of dealing with it," Ten said. "These are regular citizens dealing with a very sensitive issue. They're trying to stay away from the controversy. But an opportunity for history like this only comes every generation. This is our chance to capture it."

When the MTA announced discovery of the remains, Chinese American groups accused the agency of trying to downplay the discoveries for fear of further delaying the $898-million extension, which is scheduled to be completed in 2009. The MTA had been criticized by Eastside residents for years for not delivering the new line sooner.

Since then, an archaeology firm hired by the MTA has excavated and cataloged the remains from the site where they were discovered, at the corner of 1st and Lorena streets. Grave markers and headstones with Chinese characters believed to correspond to some of the remains were found nearby.

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