Chinese Gravestones at Mount Hope Cemetery Fall Apart

Mount Hope Cemetery in Dorchester, Mass. Photo by Learner Liu / BU News Service

By Learner Liu
BU News Service

At the far end of Mount Hope Cemetery in Dorchester, hundreds of eroded, discolored tombstones with barely identifiable Chinese characters sit, slanting on the recently mowed grass — a quiet tribute to the tough times the early Chinese immigrants buried there endured.

About a hundred yards away from the three Chinese grave sections, rows of granite tombstones stand erect with English names and tributes carved on them. Some of them have American flags beside them, others are decorated with flowers or pinwheels.

“Totally different,” said University of Massachusetts Boston Asian American Studies professor Peter Kiang in a low voice. He was driving on the narrow lanes in the cemetery, followed by three cars of his students on a Thursday afternoon last October.

For the past 25 years, Kiang has taken UMass Boston Asian American Studies students to Mount Hope Cemetery once a year. In an article titled “Asian American Studies Praxis and the Educational Power of Boston’s Public Chinese Burial Grounds,” Kiang was quoted saying the cemetery has the densest Chinese immigrant burial area in New England and therefore is a valuable place for studying historical conditions of Chinese Americans.

But more importantly, he wanted his students, many of whom had Asian origins, to pay respect to those Chinese-American ancestors and learn about the historical inequality after death.

“There’s incense here, so, you can take as much as you want. … The smoke of the incense communicates the spiritual world,” Kiang said beside a cement memorial altar with Chinese dedications, encouraging his students to offer incense to the dead. He then pointed out the three Chinese burial sites for them.

Following his finger to one of the places, there was one brand-new marble gravestone with a black and white photo of a Chinese elder. The stone was surrounded by tens of dirty gray fellows, most of which were partly broken but still struggled to stand straight. Some unlucky ones had already fallen down and been covered by dirt and twigs.

Then the students dispersed. They stopped by different graves, bowed to the dead and placed incense in front of tombstones. Some of them, including Minh Phan, tried to sweep the dirt away and read the information on the stones.

“Seeing a couple of them destroyed is really disheartening,” Phan said, walking on the grass between two lines of graves, complaining that people may even tread on those covered-up tombstones. “It doesn’t look like people are buried here and that kind of makes me angry.”

Then he stopped, looking at a reclining tombstone.

“Is it disrespect to touch it?” Phan asked.

Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE), the organization which built the memorial altar in the cemetery in 2007, has been trying to track down the families whose graves have started to disappear since it was founded in 1992. According to CHSNE’s website, the organization was working with the Parks Department Cemetery Division to connect decedents and build a bilingual database documenting information on those gravestones. CHSNE could not replace them until a thorough investigation to find families failed.

CHSNE’s managing director, Susan Chinsen, said each year a handful of people found their ancestors in the cemetery through the organization. Still, most of the 1,500 graves in Mount Hope remained in disrepair, forming a sharp contrast to all other sections in the public cemetery.

“You definitely see the separation between the Chinese ones and the ones over there,” said Thien Nguyen, another of Kiang’s student. “They are very clean and kept nice. If the tombstones are already on the floor, they are going to be covered up. Five years from now this is going to be completely covered up by grass.”

For Kiang, such a contrast also represented racial inequality in history.

“More importantly, though, the city’s obvious neglect of the public cemetery’s Chinese section mirrored the unequal levels of quality, care and attention throughout the city’s racially segregated streets, schools, and neighborhoods,” Kiang said. “By the 1980s, hundreds of the Chinese gravestones had eroded or been broken and displaced due to vandalism and institutional disregard as well as the cumulative effects of harsh winter weather in Boston and the low-cost, poor quality of materials originally used for the stones.”

50 minutes later, he led his students back to their cars. They drove around the cemetery to observe other sections and finally returned to the Chinese memorial. He pointed to an erect, well preserved tombstone beside the memorial and told his students during the field trip last year a student found her ancestor here.

“Students on the first trip there in 1993 said it was so meaningful that I had to do it again, so we have continued to do it year after year,” Kiang said.

Before they left, Kiang placed three sticks of incense on the memorial altar. Behind their cars, smoke floated in front of the four big Chinese characters reading “remember those who came before you.”

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