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UMass Boston students learn history as they honor early Chinese immigrants to Boston

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  November 21, 2012 03:13 PM

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UMass students at Mount Hope.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

UMass Boston students placed incense on the graves of early Chinese immigrants in Mount Hope Cemetery.

At the far end of a cemetery in Mattapan lie the graves of 1,500 early Chinese immigrants who came to Boston, labored, and died, often with no family nearby and no money to send them home for burial.

It’s quiet in this corner of the city’s public 125-acre Mount Hope Cemetery. The Chinese are spread over three sections that circle a potter’s field, where the city’s indigent are buried in unmarked graves. Nearby, a row of neat, white, nearly identical houses is visible just over the fence on Mount Calvary Road.

Most of the immigrant gravestones are small and weathered. Both Chinese script and Roman letters present the basic information: name and date of death, sometimes a date of birth, but sometimes not. Often those who buried these men — and most are men, who came to this country to work without wives or children — didn’t know when they were born.

Dong Chun Ton, March 20, 1958.

Chin Fook, May 2, 1958.

Ng Guy Yell, May 18, 1958.

Quan Yin, May 16, 1958.

The dates of death fall mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, though some date back to the Great Depression. Dates of birth, when they’re present, begin in the 19th century, but many don’t go much further.

Among these laborers, the average age at death was 42.

The most common occupation was laundry worker.

The most common cause of death was tuberculosis.

Some graves have been upgraded with newer, larger stones, and some are well-tended, but on a recent Monday most were covered with twigs and fallen leaves.

“These stones here weren’t given any attention. They were neglected,” said Alex Woo, 19.

“Just the thought of people passing away and there not being any respect for them is sad.”

Woo was explaining that the conditions here once were worse, and how his grandfather, Davis Woo, led an effort to clean and beautify the Chinese immigrant sections of Mount Hope.

“They knew that earlier Chinese immigrants were buried here, and they wanted them to be recognized,” Alex Woo said.

In the late 1980s, years before Alex was born, Davis Woo began an effort to honor these pioneering Chinese Americans that led to the founding of the Chinese Historical Society of New England and later to the construction of a Chinese Immigrant Memorial at the cemetery.

On this day, Alex visited the cemetery for the first time alongside 13 other students from UMass Boston as part of a class taught by Peter Kiang, director of the university’s Asian American Studies Program.

The students were mostly born in the United States, but their ancestors came from China, Korea, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

The group arrived in a small convey of cars and emerged quietly, reverently, dressed in t-shirts, hoodies, and light sweaters. After brief instructions from Kiang, they dispersed around the cemetery to honor the dead.

At each grave in the Chinese section, a student faced the stone, bowed three times, and placed lit incense upon the grave. This ritual is a typical act of ancestor veneration found in several Asian cultures, Kiang said, that honors the dead while sending a message through the incense smoke to the spirit world.

Kiang said students in this upper-level class were conversant with Asian American history, but many students in introductory courses know little beyond stories from their own families.

For 20 years, Kiang has been bringing students to Mount Hope, though he told this group that the first time he did so, he questioned the value of the visit until one student spoke to him.

Sophia had survived the Cambodian genocide of 1975 – 1979, but her mother had been among the 20 percent of that country’s population who were killed.

Because she had never known what became of her mother’s body, Kiang said, Sophia never had a site where she could go to mourn. But visiting Mount Hope, Sophia told Kiang, she felt close to her mother and able to communicate with her spirit.

On that recent Monday, Stanley La was also visiting Mount Hope for the first time, though his grandmother is buried in nearby Forest Hills Cemetery — a grand, private cemetery with its own lake, where e. e. cummings and Eugene O’Neill are buried.

“It’s definitely a different angle in seeing things, because over there everything is well groomed,” said La, 24. “Seeing over here, it’s not as taken care of.”

La said the visit made him think about the early Asian American immigrants to this country and the hardships they endured.

“It’s kind of like a smack in the face, how they’re often forgotten,” La said.

To see more images from the students’ visit to Mount Hope, click here.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Mattapan on Twitter: @YourMattapan.

Alex Woo.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Alex Woo, 19, placed incense on a grave. Woo’s grandfather was a major figure in the founding of the Chinese Historical Society of New England and the erection of a Chinese Immigrant Memorial in Mount Hope Cemetery.

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