Honor for the Forgotten

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Marie (Chung) Louie closes her eyes in reflection during a moment of silence to the memories of immigrants including her grandfather Charlie Yee Hay, whose remains were unearthed in 2005 during the construction of the Gold Line Eastside Extension. A memorial to the immigrants was unveiled on Monday morning in the southeastern section of Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By GWEN MURANAKA
RAFU ENGLISH EDITOR

Away from my village and away from my wells
With no home to return
Across the oceans and across the seas
Shifting beneath someone’s fence

It was fitting that words expressing the despair and hope of poor Chinese immigrants, were read on Monday at the dedication of a memorial wall for the men whose remains were unearthed near Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

Members of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, who campaigned for the proper remembrance of the immigrants buried in the potters field, celebrate at the new memorial wall with Councilmember Jose Huizar. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“This day is a long time coming and it is so significant that those early immigrants that suffered so many indignities in life, now through interment will not have to suffer indignities in death,” said Rep. Judy Chu.

The burial sites of immigrants dating back to the 1880s were unearthed in 2005 during the construction of the Metro Gold Line Eastside Extension. Many of the deceased were Chinese immigrant laborers who were denied burial in Evergreen Cemetery. Moreover, their friends and family had to pay $10 just to bury them in a potter’s field for paupers.

“They pay 10 dollars, everybody else didn’t pay anything. You can see the sentiment of the time,” said Irvin Lai of the Chinese Historical Society, who read the Sojourner’s Poem. “After four years time debating how we’re going to do this to give the deceased a respectful reburial. Because they didn’t ask to come here, they were just forced out of their graves.”

Archeologists found approximately 174 burial sites and countless artifacts such as buttons, coffin hardware, Chinese and American artifacts, clothing items, combs, glasses, Chinese porcelain, opium pipes, and other pieces, some dating back about a century.

The remains and artifacts will be reburied inside Evergreen Cemetery next to the historic Chinese Shrine. Evergreen, which is also the burial site of many early Japanese pioneers as well as Nisei soldiers, is the city’s oldest secular cemetery established in 1877. At its inception, the cemetery dedicated land outside their gates as a public cemetery for indigent residents. Between 1877 and 1924, approximately 13,000 residents were buried in the potter’s field.

“It was very, very troubling to unearth the remains of so many people, it was unbelievable that we were disturbing a burial site. Of course, we knew we had to stop right away and start the process of trying to figure out how we were going to handle the situation,” stated Supervisor Gloria Molina.

Lillian (Chung) Wong, left, and Loretta Lee pose in front of the memorial. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Metro also sought surviving families of the immigrants and a few were among attendees at the ceremony. On Monday, the family of Charlie Hay Yee attended the dedication ceremony, including granddaughters Lillian (Chung) Wong and Marie (Chung) Louie.

“This is wonderful that they finally have him back in the Evergreen Cemetery because that is where he belongs,” said Lillian.

Louie, a member of the Chinese Historical Society, remembered visiting Yee’s gravesite as a young child. Hay was a cook who lived in Ventura’s China Alley beginning in the early 1880s. He and his wife, Chan Shee, had five children. They eventually moved to Los Angeles where Charlie Yee Hay died in 1916, and was buried near the Evergreen Cemetery.

According to the Yee family, the mortuary informed them that the gravesite could not be on the hillside but only on lower ground where all the Chinese were buried. The family bought a headstone for the grave and had regular visits to the site. Around 1936 the headstone was removed without consent from the Yee family. The whereabouts of the headstone and the remains of Charlie Yee Hay remained a mystery for the Yee family.

“My mother drove here on Memorial Day and we’d always visit grandpa’s grave in the late 1930s and’40s. And they didn’t have grass, it was just dirt,” said Louie.

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