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Burial Ground Holds Chinese American History, Memories PDF Print E-mail
By Les Mahler
Lodi News-Sentinel (Lodi, CA)
June 19, 2003

 

FRENCH CAMP -- If you stand quietly among the rows of graves at the county's Chinese cemetery, on any given morning you can hear a rooster crowing from the farm down the road, the whistle of a train in the far-off distance and the rush of trucks and cars on Interstate 5.

Off Manthey Road, on the graveyard's outside perimeter, is a guy parked in his camper advertising his skill at fixing Citizens Band radios.

As life rushes by, you are standing near history.

The names on the headstones often seem foreign, the writings strange and some of the faces reflections of a time when race tagged you as different or unwelcome.

But the headstones also remind a visitor that those buried here faced the same problems we do now.

There's Marietta Tiny Wong.

Her headstone simply reads: January 14, 1939. Aged 1 year.

Or Sandra Yiu, 1960-1961.

Or other headstones mark the names of those who served their country: Ki S Wong, Pvt. Btry C, 1898 to 1968.

There was a time when being Chinese in San Joaquin County meant you really didn't have a final resting spot or you couldn't be buried in just any cemetery.

And so you hoped that your loved ones would send you back home to China.

Ask Kiyoshi Morodomi. He's been the gardener at the cemetery since July 2002.

Morodomi will point you to the back rows, where some of the oldest graves are, he said.

It's also pauper row, said 75-year-old Conrad Mar, an unofficial historian for the cemetery.

"That's where those who couldn't afford it, or the families couldn't afford it, are buried," he said.

Some of the pauper headstones have only numbers and a letter etched on them.

In the old days, that was the way to keep track of who they were.

All that's changed now, Mar said. The Chinese Benevolent Association keeps careful records based on row and plot number.

Up from pauper's row is where you'll find the headstones but no urns. That's because years ago the bodies were exhumed and sent back to China.

"There are just a few of them around now," Morodomi said.

Mar said that relatives would come in and exhume the urns without permission, sending them back to China as part of family tradition and honor.

What's left now are only the holes and a name on a headstone written in Chinese.

The practice was stopped mostly because Mar informed them it was against the law. It's also because the newer generation doesn't believe in the tradition anymore -- especially after they find out how much it costs to ship a loved one back to China, he said. Wealthy families still do it, and one did as recently as five years ago, Mar said.

"The father died first, so they shipped him back to China," he said. "Then the mother died and she was sent back to China, too."

Next to the pauper's section is the mass grave of urns of those who once hoped to be sent back to China, but war with Japan kept them here.

Sending back to China the bones of loved ones comes from an old Chinese tradition and also a sense of fear.

It was also about a relative in China taking care of their grave. In 19th Century California, few thought that would happen here. Morodomi said today the deceased don't need to worry about unattended burial sites.

Relatives celebrate twice a year, he said, once in April and once in October.

"One couple came down from San Luis Obispo," he said. "They brought a rake, a hose and cleaned the headstone. And it wasn't her father, it was her uncle."

The crowd can get up to 1,400 people.

Some plots have oranges, which are food offerings for the deceased. And those chimneys in the front and back? For burning clothes and fake money, Morodomi said, based on a Chinese tradition that faded now.

The Chinese cemetery was built in 1927 when the Stockton Chinese Benevolent Society bought the 10 acres on the corners of Manthey and Mathews roads.

Before that, the Chinese were buried in the Stockton Rural Cemetery, away from the white folks.

The land at the Stockton Rural Cemetery was donated by Charles Webber, Mar said. The practice of exhuming bodies disturbed Stockton residents, which led to the Chinese cemetery's creation. Today, business at the cemetery is good, at $825 a plot. Other cemetery plots cost thousands of dollars.

Mar, Moromodi and other volunteers take care of the place, keeping it a nice place to be buried, Mar said.

One day, Mar hopes to take photographs or etchings of the headstones of those buried in the pauper section and try to find their relatives.

After all, there's always that one chance.

"We had a fourth-generation Chinese couple here find a relative in the pauper's section," he said.

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