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The site where Chinese laborers were interred, their graves later forgotten, gets a memorial

Transit agency builds a memorial at Evergreen Cemetery and will rebury remains that were excavated during Gold Line Eastside Extension.

March 09, 2010|By Ching-Ching Ni
  • Relatives of Yee Hay, who died in 1916, from left, Jean Woo, Marie Chung Louie, Lillian Chung Wong and Loretta Lee, pose with monument to Chinese laborers.
Relatives of Yee Hay, who died in 1916, from left, Jean Woo, Marie Chung Louie,… (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times )

Lillian Chung Wong, 98, remembers visiting the potter's field outside Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights when she was a child to pay her respects to her grandfather, a railroad worker.

"We used to come every year to bring flowers to his grave," said Chung Wong, who is now a great-grandmother.

Then one day her family showed up for a visit and found nothing, not even the grave markers.

"There was no grass . . . just cement," Chung Wong said. "So we stopped coming."

On Monday morning, Chung Wong and her 84-year-old "baby sister" Marie Chung Louise stood once again on the spot where they believe their ancestor is buried and witnessed something they had not been sure they would live to see.

They had come for the unveiling of a memorial wall to commemorate the Chinese laborers who toiled on the Western frontier and died in segregated and forgotten graves.

The Chinese graves in Boyle Heights were discovered five years ago, during construction of the Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension.

The early Chinese immigrants who helped build California were forbidden to marry or own property. They were barred from Evergreen Cemetery, the oldest secular burial ground still operating in Los Angeles.

So when Chung Wong's grandfather Yee Hay died in 1916, his body was relegated to the nearby potter's field -- where indigents were buried for free and Chinese had to pay $10, about $195 in today's money.

The Chinese burial ground later became the site of a crematory and at some point all the grave markers were removed.

Until they were rediscovered in 2005, the exact location of the Chinese graves was lost to history.

"I'm sorry the early immigrants . . . were denied their civil rights and denied a decent burial," Ara Najarian, chairman of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said at the unveiling ceremony. "I'm glad we're finally honoring them by righting the wrong."

In all, the MTA discovered 174 burial sites as well as many artifacts -- including buttons, Chinese porcelain, glasses, rice bowls, jade, coins and opium pipes.

All the bones and artifacts will now be reinterred inside Evergreen Cemetery. The process, which will take several months, will start the first week in April, the MTA says.

The MTA spent $2 million on the project -- on excavation, archaeological research, DNA analysis, construction of the memorial wall and the purchase of burial plots and coffins, said Carl Ripaldi, principal environmental specialist with the MTA.

Members of the local Chinese community look forward to the end of the story.

"It's been too long for these remains to be out there in some laboratory," said Daisy Ma, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. "We do not want to wait any longer. We want closure."

The community has, however, expressed a desire to make educational use of what was learned when the grave sites were dug up. The MTA has promised to document the large collection of objects buried with the bodies and provide records to the Fowler Museum at UCLA. They have also had replicas made of some of the artifacts to give to the Chinese Historical Society and the Chinese Benevolent Assn.

About 1,400 Chinese were believed to have been buried in the potter's field. But despite an outreach effort, the MTA was unable to identify any living relatives of the Chinese whose remains were uncovered during the digging for the Gold Line extension.

Angi Ma Wong, a daughter-in-law of Lillian Chung Wong, believes Yee Hay's remains are still deep in the ground, near the new memorial. She believes bodies were buried in layers and that his grave is several layers down.

"This is the ultimate insult. Once the Chinese were buried, they should never have been disturbed in any way," said Ma Wong, who was hired by the MTA as a feng shui consultant to make sure the memorial and new grave sites followed proper Chinese burial protocol.

But many who came to the unveiling said the MTA had done its best, given the circumstances.

"I am satisfied they did something halfway proper for those graves they exhumed," said Irvin Lai, 82, a longtime member of the Chinese Historical Society. "We don't agree to let them dig up the graves in the first place, but this is the second best thing they can do, the proper handling of the remains."

For her part, Chung Wong spoke of possible return visits.

"I am very happy they made it so nice," she said. "I'd like to bring my other relatives and friends to see this."

chingching.ni@latimes.com

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