Friday, January 10, 2014

Mistakes of Modernization: Destroying History for the Sake of a Lawn Mower

By 1850 Chinese workers were arriving in America, drawn like the rest of the forty-niners by gold fever—in the case of the Chinese, by the lure of mythical Gum Sham, the Mountain of Gold. After achieving little success finding the mountain through indentured servitude, those immigrants of mostly Canton extraction fanned out to other fields of labor. According to the PBS.org transcription of the episode of American Experience called  “Workers of the Central Pacific Railroad,” there were jobs enough for 4,000 men on that stretch of the Pacific railway, but the contractor could only retain about 800 at a time. After 50 Chinese proved their worth as hard workers, the Central Pacific went on to hire 12,000 Chinese in 1868.

After an economic depression in the U.S. led to fewer opportunities for Chinese immigrants, in the 1870s the prolific salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest spawned a canning industry that employed more than 4,000 Chinese by 1881. Most Chinese laborers were bachelors, and the Chinese tended to live off by themselves in “Chinatowns.”

Chinese exclusion laws in the 1880s and ‘90s choked off the flow of Chinese immigrants. Despite the infamous Chinese Massacre in Rock Springs in 1885, Wyoming, some Chinese remained in the Union Pacific coal mines. By the

1920s, those old bachelors still alive in the U.S. wanted to go home. In 1925 the Rock Springs United Mine Workers local gave a farewell banquet for nine retired Chinese. Two officials accompanied them on the train to San Francisco, where they boarded a ship so they could fulfill their wish to die at home. Four additional Wyoming Chinese returned to China in 1927.

According to Judy Nelson of the Pacific Northwest Forum, there were four main reasons the Chinese wanted to return to their homeland for burial.

1. Piety and the fear of offending the spirits.
2. Duty to provide a proper burial and to care for the burial site.
3. Fear of condemnation by society by not providing a proper burial for dead relatives.
4. In a foreign place, the fear that no one would see to their burial and care of the burial site after death.

The U.S. Chinese cemeteries of those days were a temporary solution, as the Chinese expected their bones to be dug up eventually and the bones returned home. I remember reading several accounts of dead Chinese cannery workers being packed in a fetal position in a barrel for shipment home.

The practice of the Chinese going home after death ceased in 1936 with the closure of the borders of the so-called “Middle Kingdom.” Those who remained in the U.S. after that time were forced to accept burial here. Below is a picture of the Rock Springs cemetery in the late 1800s. The Chinese cemetery would have been just outside the picture on the far right.

Picture of Rock Springs municipal cemetery, c. 1890.
Image courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum

Here are two fascinating pictures of the Rock Springs cemetery’s Chinese section, taken in the 1970s. I remember the fences and some lilac bushes. 

Picture of Chinese section of Rock Springs municipal cemetery, c. 1970.
Image courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum
Picture of Chinese graves in the Rock Springs municipal cemetery, c. 1970.
Image courtesy of Sweetwater County Historical Museum

At that time, modern family plots were enclosed by low concrete walls, many covered in gravel, and still cared for by families.

Somewhere about the 1970s or 1980s, it became a national mania to tear down old cemeteries and plant them all in a boring, rolling field of sod with some headstones sticking up like loose teeth in mossy gums. It is sad to revisit the charming old Rock Springs cemetery in pictures and then to compare it to today’s park-like burial ground where people jog and walk their dogs. Americans are noted for having little history and no culture. The sad truth is that we are too eager to erase any traces of the history and culture we do have.

Luckily, there is help for those trying to hang on to historic buildings, but it needs to be acted upon in the next few days. This is the text of a recent email from the Alliance for Historic Wyoming:

Does your historic building need a little help but you're not sure where to start?

The Alliance for Historic Wyoming is pleased to announce that we will be accepting applications for the Historic Architecture Assistance Fund in 2014!  Thanks to a grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund and a partnership with the Wyoming Main Street Program and Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office, our first grant round will close next week on Wednesday, January 15.  Be sure to download your application and send it in today.  Applications will be accepted electronically or by mail. 

All owners of historic buildings are eligible for these grants, including private property owners, nonprofit corporations, and government entities.  The grants connect applicants with preservation architects and engineers who help building owners to develop a plan for rehabilitation that both honors the building's past and meets the owner's future needs.   

Some works consulted for this post:
  • Klein, Maury. Union Pacific: The Rebirth, 1894-1969. New York: Doubleday, 1989. Print.
  • "The Chinese in California, 1850-1925." - Collection Connections. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Jan. 2014.
  • "The Final Journey Home: Chinese Burial Practices in Spokane." The Pacific Northwest Forum
  • Volume VI, Number 1, Pages 70-76 Winter-Spring, 1993, Nelson.
  • Workers of the Central Pacific Railroad. American Experience: TV's Most-watched History Series. PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 08 Jan. 2014.