San Diego Chinese Cemetery


Chinese Immigrants in San Diego

May 27th, 1892: San Diego Chinese boy, age 6, buried in a Chinese cemetery (graveyard). This was a common occurrence for the time; any Chinese who died were recorded in a ledger from the Johnson-Saum and Knobel Mortuary. No names, no family references… nothing. Entries such as these point to a different, darker time in American history. A period when laws were put in place to restrict Chinese immigration into the US (mainly California), their civil rights, and enact segregation.

Throughout most of the 19th century, China was plagued with economic turmoil as a direct result of the Opium Wars with Great Britain. During this tumultuous time, there were a series of floods and droughts, which destroyed the Northern agricultural base in China. Couple that with the Taiping rebellion and a country that was heavily in debt while its people starved… China wasn’t looking good.

Chinese farmers and laborers had learned of Gold being found in California in 1842, and the need for hardworking laborers to help build railroads and work various mines proved an attractive draw. It is estimated in 1852 that 21,000 Chinese immigrants – mostly men – came to the West to dig for gold and to help build the railroads. In doing so, they hoped to return to China as wealthy men.

Western States Anti Chinese Immigration Movement

Chinese labor was heavily sought after by railroad builders and mining contractors. For example, the Chinese were paid considerably less than their counterparts and actually had to pay taxes in order to mine. They also worked harder and faster as they tended not to drink alcohol, which increased their productivity. It is estimated that one out of every 10 Californians were Chinese during the height of the gold rush. This unbalance leads to racially charged violence. White miners and the Chinese clashed and rioting took place in several states though most of it was centered in California.

The rioting negatively impacted production. Anglo lawmakers whose constituency was with the disgruntled workers intervened. They enacted a series of highly discriminatory laws directly impacting Chinese immigrants and their civil rights. An 1854 Supreme Court Case ruling, People v. Hall, effectively said Chinese immigrants had no legal right to testify in any court, thus removing a voice for Chinese victims of racial violence and inequality. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 further suspended Chinese immigration for ten years and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization.

California congressman Thomas J. Geary wrote a bill known as The Geary Act that went into effect on May 5, 1892. The bill extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for an additional ten years and also required Chinese residents in the U.S. to carry special documentation known as “Chinese Partnership Papers.” Any Chinese found not carrying their papers were either jailed, forced into unpaid hard labor, or deported.

The Birth of San Diego’s China Town

San Diego late era Chinatown view Third Street courtesy San Diego Chinese Historical Society & Museum and San Diego History Center.
San Diego’s late-era Chinatown views Third Street courtesy of San Diego Chinese Historical Society & Museum and San Diego History Center.

Early Chinese immigrants found themselves segregated, without any civil rights, and at risk of physical harm by other settlers. The result was the creation of “Chinatowns” or “Stingaree.” China towns became the social and economic epicenter for Chinese settlers. San Diego’s China Town is intertwined with the infamous Gaslamp Quarter red light district. It was an eight-block area between Market Street and J Street to the north and south and Second Avenue and Sixth Avenue to the west and east.

The area was basically lawless and open for almost any vice money could afford. Gambling, opium dens, Illegal lotteries, and everything in between. The only exception was Chinese prostitution, as very few Chinese women were in America during those times. The illegal activities negatively impacted both Chinese and American residents. One of many examples was Mon Lee who died June 17 1904, of a morphine overdose. He was buried at San Diego’s Chinese Graveyard.

Despite the tight-knit culture of the Chinese in China Town, it wasn’t always peaceful. Internal conflict among the Chinese inhabitants did occur. One such case involved a despondent Chinese cook Ah Foy. Foy had worked at Paine’s station in Poway and had made a “murderous attack upon the owner.” While held at the old county jail he hung himself from the window grating. He was found with a will which, when translated, pointed to him being badly treated by his fellow Chinese which drove him to madness. Ah Foy died May 5th, 1876 from suicide and was buried at San Diego’s Chinese cemetery.

Chinese Burial Rites Further Divide Pioneers

Racism and segregation against the Chinese weren’t limited to just the living. Chinese burial customs were not understood by their Anglo neighbors and were seen as heathen rituals in direct rebellion against Christianity. 19th Century Chinese burials in America usually involved coins either put in the mouth of the decedent or in the coffin. Chinese were burying their dead in both traditional and non-traditional clothing as long as any metal buttons were removed prior to burial. Chinese felt the presence of metal could hold spirits captive on Earth. Vessels of food and drink were also buried with the body, to give sustenance on their journey. Additionally, the physical relationship of burials with respect to hills and waterways was important to ward off negative spirits that could hinder the dead on their journey.

San Diego Segregated Chinese Cemetery

Chinese burials in San Diego were segregated and occurred outside Mt. Hope Cemetery in an area denoted as “Chinese Graveyard” on mortuary, medical examiner, and newspaper records. Several other records indicate an alternate location for very early Chinese burials as “on the hill” which might be a reference to Presidio Hill versus Mt. Hope.

There were however some exceptions to segregated burials for Chinese decedents. One such case was that of Hea Quack who died on February 11, 1895. In this case Quack was a member of the First Congregational Church which was located at Fourth and Date St. The church was a member of The Christian Endeavor Society and was referred to as an “Inter-racial, Inter-denominational and Inter-national fellowship.” Rev Newton presided over the funeral and burial inside the grounds of Mt. Hope cemetery.

At least 15 more burials of Chinese inside Mt. Hope were listed in San Diego’s pre-1905 death index. While the average Chinese person could never hope to be buried in Mt. Hope, the more financially, spiritually and/or intellectually connected you were within the Anglo community increased your chances of being accepted as a “Mt. Hope burial.” The Chinese graveyard eventually became incorporated into Mt. Hope grounds and segregated burials were finally ruled illegal under San Diego law in 1960.

Chinese Bodies Exhumed Mount Hope Cemetery -San Diego Union June 3, 1913 Fair Use
San Diego Chinese Cemetery Bodies Exhumed Mount Hope Cemetery -San Diego Union June 3, 1913 Fair Use

San Diego Chinese Cemetery Bodies Exhumed

The indignity of a proper burial in a foreign land weighed heavily in the hearts of San Diego’s Chinese community and abroad in China. There were also concerns the spirit of the deceased would not have a proper journey under those circumstances. Ah Quinn, a local pioneer, was the richest Chinese person in San Diego in those times. He was often referred to as the unofficial mayor of San Diego’s Chinatown. Quinn had built strong ties with San Diego pioneers. One befriended pioneer was George Marston who invited Quin to move to San Diego and direct the employment of Chinese labor to help build the railroads.

Quinn, along with other charitable groups such as the San Diego Chinese Society helped finance the removal and shipping of Chinese buried in San Diego back to China. Many Chinese groups in Western regions of the United States did similarly. This practice of shipping bodies back to China continued until the communist party took control of China and the new regime refused the dead.

San Diego’s Chinese Remains Returned to China

Exhuming Chinese Remains For The Voyage Home

Disinterment and shipping costs per body needed to be negotiated between San Diego’s county board of health and the Chinese colony. A final price of 15 dollars per body was agreed to. Laws prohibited exhuming a body less than 5 years in the ground. On June 2, 1913, the process of exhuming 85 bodies from the Chinese cemetery adjoining Mt. hope took place. Of the bodies, 28 were older than 50 years of age and one was a child. The earliest burial was December 24, 1887, and the last was June 23, 1905. 90 additional Chinese bodies were exhumed near Mt. Hope cemetery and sent back to China on June 21, 1931. It is unknown how many Chinese were exhumed in total between 1887 and 1960 in San Diego

Mexican laborers and two appointed Chinese representatives of the community removed the remains. The Chinese workers deliberately set to work getting rid of the more or less decomposed flesh, scraping the bones, drying them, then gathering them in bunches, carefully tied, wrapped, and placed into individual wooden boxes. The names of the deceased were transcribed onto the boxes. Where multiple family remains were found they separated the bones into individual sealed tin containers and then placed them into a single wooden box. The boxes were then shipped to San Francisco to be taken by boat back to China. Virtually all Chinese remains that were returned to China went through the Tung Wah Hospital 東華醫院 for distribution to family or storage at Tung Wah Coffin Home (converted hotel) in China. Unclaimed remains were graciously taken by charity cemeteries.

San Diego Chinese Cemetery Qingming Festival
San Diego Chinese Cemetery Qingming Festival

San Diego Chinese Cemetery Qingming Festival

The Qingming festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day in English, is a traditional Chinese festival honoring the dead. Some Chinese still make the annual visit to their section of Mount Hope to celebrate the place of their ancestors, and those to come. The observation includes pouring tea and wine over the grass, lighting incense, and burning money to pay their way through the afterlife. Despite the atrocious treatment of the Chinese, many of these people chose to settle here and become a part of the community. San Diego would not be what it is without their contributions, their sacrifices, and their commitment to building a better city for all San Diegans.

Bibliography and References

Burial records collection Johnson-Saum and Kobel Mortuary Leaves and Saplings
Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (CINARC) website
San Diego Union Various Dates 1887-1984
San Diego Chinese Memorial Museum
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada Tue, Oct 02, 1973 · Page 39 Miami, Florida Sun, Nov 29, 1981 · Page 28

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