Historic cemetery unearthed near L.A.

Chinese burial ground a reminder of nearly forgotten period

? They could not marry, they could not own property, and they performed the most undesirable jobs: ditch diggers, canal builders, house boys. They were banned from most shops and public institutions and were the target of racist violence that went unpunished.

Los Angeles was home to an estimated 10,000 Chinese in the late 19th century – almost all men who came to America to work on the railroads and ended up in desperate straits, crowded into a filthy Chinese ghetto near what is now Union Station.

The recent discovery by a new generation of railway workers building the extension of a subway has unearthed this dark but largely forgotten period in Los Angeles history.

Last summer, workers found the skeletal remains of 108 people just outside the Evergreen Cemetery, one of the city’s oldest and grandest burial sites.

A few weeks ago, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, or MTA, told a community review board, which includes members of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, that the agency’s archaeological study found that the majority of the remains were of Asian descent.

Three-quarters of them were adults and most were male. The finding supports the belief among Chinese American historians that the bones belonged to Chinese male sojourners who died a century ago at a time when immigration laws sought to reduce the Chinese population by prohibiting Chinese women from entering the United States.

The workers also found rice bowls, jade bracelets, Chinese burial bricks, Asian coins and opium pipes.

Irvin Lai, of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, looks over the site of a subway expansion where remains from an old Chinese cemetery were found. Lai says the Metropolitan Transit Authority should rebury the bodies at Evergreen Cemetery, one of the area's oldest and grandest burial sites.

Racial intolerance

The discovery has generated excitement within the Chinese American community, along with concern about the way the MTA has handled the find.

Irvin Lai, one of the historical society’s longest-serving members, said the remains belonged to men who lived at a time when Chinese were relegated to the lowest rung of society.

“They treated the Chinese just as bad when they were dead. They were treated like animals,” said Lai, 78, who grew up in the pre-civil rights era and said the memory of being denied service at barbershops or restaurants because of his ethnicity still stings.

In the late 19th century, racial intolerance toward the Chinese was particularly heightened because some whites believed the Chinese were taking jobs away from them.

Members of the historical society say they believe the excavation site is part of a Chinese cemetery that disappeared sometime after the 1920s, when development obscured most of the graves’ whereabouts. It dates from 1877, when the owners of the nearby Evergreen Cemetery gave the city five acres in which to bury indigents.

Chinese were not permitted to be buried in Evergreen Cemetery, where some of the city’s most prominent early families were interred. Chinese were given a corner of the city’s potter field next to the indigents. But unlike the white indigents, who were buried at no charge, the Chinese had to pay $10 to be buried, a substantial fee for that era, Lai said.

Transferred or forgotten

Lai said he found what could be the last official acknowledgment of the Chinese cemetery at the Los Angeles County Hall of Records. The document, dated June 19, 1923, is from the superintendent of the county Department of Charities, Norman Martin, to the secretary of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Chan Kai Sing.

Martin wrote that the potter’s field where the Chinese were buried was badly crowded. “Recently your people established a new Chinese cemetery on East 1st Street, and it would be highly desirable if the bodies buried in the county cemetery could be transferred to your new location,” he said.

Martin said he wanted the chamber to move the remains and offered compensation of $2 per body even after acknowledging that each grave cost the Chinese $10.

The letter said there were 902 Chinese buried in the vicinity of the latest MTA excavation site, at Lorena and First streets.