Asian American studies praxis and the educational power of Boston's public Chinese burial grounds.

Author:Kiang, Peter Nien-chu

I think that Mount Hope has symbolized for many people how the Chinese have been treated here in America--ignored and relegated to the back, not cared for by others, not considered important to others ... the community needs a place where they can honor their predecessors and their ancestors. By getting this memorial built, I feel that I am helping to honor my grandparents and other ancestors, and that we are helping people remember, and honor, their history. The most inspiring has been seeing how important this project is to various groups of people--the elders who remember those who are buried there, and the younger generation, who were born long after the people were buried in Mount Hope, but who are moved by what they see there.

--Deborah Dong, former CHSNE president and cochair of the Mount Hope Cemetery Chinese Immigrant Memorial Project

This article explores the educational significance of the historic Chinese immigrant burial grounds located within Mount Hope Cemetery--Boston's public cemetery. (1) Approximately 1,500 gravestones, most of which are marked principally with Chinese characters displaying names and village origins from Taishan, are clustered in three contiguous sections near the cemetery's southwestern edge. (2) With stones showing years of death primarily from the 1930s through 1960s and years of birth dating back as early as the 1860s, the Mount Hope Chinese burial grounds constitute a site of deep social, cultural, historical, and spiritual meaning for Boston's Chinese community. As such, it has represented a foundational motivation for establishing and sustaining the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE) during the past quarter century, while also serving as a signature focus of curriculum, pedagogy, and student- and community-engaged historical documentation led by the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. (3) Drawing on specific examples, this article introduces selected educational strategies that have engaged student, community, and public involvement with Mount Hope, ranging from ongoing field trips to documentary research and archival database digitization to video production and K-12 curriculum development.


Boston operates three public cemeteries for city residents, particularly those who cannot afford more expensive, private burials. Mount Hope is the largest of the city's cemeteries with 125 acres that include burial plots for veterans since the Civil War and the oldest, most dense Chinese immigrant burial area in the New England region.

By 1900, funeral ceremonies connecting Boston Chinatown with Mount Hope Cemetery were already in active practice. In his authoritative article about the infamous immigration raid in Boston Chinatown on October 11, 1903--arguably the single most important date in Chinatown's civic history--historian Scott Wong references front-page local newspaper coverage by the Boston Daily Globe and Boston Herald describing the opportunistic circumstances prior to the raid as a large funeral procession moved from Chinatown to Mount Hope Cemetery where three thousand community members gathered to witness and participate in the rituals and burial of Wong Yak Chong, a local laundry owner and member of Hip Sing Tong. Wong explains:

With a large number of Chinese from surrounding areas and an indeterminate number from other cities present in Chinatown, the evening of the funeral proved to be an opportune time to conduct a sweep of the community. A force of about fifty local police and over twenty federal and state authorities conducted the raid. (4)

Though serving as the backdrop to the more dramatic story of the immigration raid through which nearly 250 Chinese were arrested, Wong's recounting of such detailed press coverage clarifies the significance of Mount Hope as a physical public space accessed and valued by Boston's Chinese community as early as 1903.

Indeed, city records show significant purchase of "Chinese mortuary deeds" from 1912 through 1937, reflecting the spatial consolidation of the Chinese sections in the cemetery. (5) The organized purchase and active sale of public cemetery plots within a particular section of the cemetery literally as well as symbolically grounded the racialized segregation of Boston's Chinese immigrants after death. At the same time, this concentration of Chinese-owned burial plots ensured continuing linguistic familiarity and cultural convenience for the Chinese community's traditional family associations and merchant leaders through the umbrella Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, who mediated the burial arrangements on behalf of the deceased. Much like the dual reality of Boston Chinatown itself, the formation, development, and maintenance of Chinese burial grounds at Mount Hope represented both a reality of segregated racial inequality on public land, together with an undeniable sociocultural assertion of critical mass through a well-organized system for business transaction facilitated by a community structure of merchants and traditional, transnational regional- and clan-based associations. For those with access to such resources and networks, this also included a system of disinterment and trans-Pacific shipping of the bones of the deceased for family reclamation and reburial in ancestral settings. (6)

Maintaining the Chinese burial grounds in Boston became more difficult across the decades, however, due to both the declining role of the family associations for younger generations and the limited numbers of direct family relations caring for spirits and ancestors associated with the deceased. 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. 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. Motivated by the poor conditions and disgrace of the burial grounds, a core group of Chinatown leaders convened by Davis Woo and David S. Y. Wong initiated a modest but visionary effort in 1989 to reclaim the Chinese burial grounds as a community responsibility. Over time, they worked with the Boston Parks and Recreation Department to clean up broken bottles and trash littering the grounds. Misplaced tombstones were reset in their foundations and aluminum markers were installed to mark the correct locations of displaced gravestones. These grassroots, voluntary efforts became the genesis of the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE), which was officially founded in 1992 with the overarching mission to document, preserve, and promote the history of Chinese immigration and legacy in New England, and with the specific charge to restore the historic Chinese burial grounds at Boston's Mount Hope Cemetery.

CHSNE's role, first in addressing city and community neglect of the burial grounds and later in leading all aspects of a comprehensive campaign to design, finance, construct, and secure a contemporary-themed memorial site in honor of Boston's Chinese immigrants, is documented more fully in CHSNE newsletters and other publications. (7) The public dedication of a new Chinese immigrant memorial site at the burial grounds during the "clear-bright" seasonal time of the Qingming Festival in March 2007 stands as one of the signature moments for CHSNE and its community constituencies. (8)


Although the historical and cultural significance of the Chinese burial grounds at Mount Hope Cemetery have been most directly relevant to family members and local community associations, the educational power of the site has also been compelling, particularly through critical contributions by the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston--the city's public university. Innovative student- and community-centered curricular and pedagogical commitments in Asian American Studies at UMass Boston have been well documented in other publications throughout the past three decades. (9) Overarching programmatic goals in Asian American Studies (AsAmSt) have included

* Facilitating socioculturally responsive and academically relevant learning communities that support student persistence, mentoring, and connection at our urban, working-class, commuter university

* Documenting significant issues, needs, and interventions in local Asian American communities and on campus, recognizing that our own students and alumni are themselves members and participants within local neighborhoods, workplaces, and community-based institutions

* Building research and development capacities in local Asian American communities through connecting ethnic studies perspectives, interdisciplinary methodologies, and analytic frameworks with student and alumni diasporic social networks and cultural and linguistic knowledge

* Producing and preserving original collections of locally relevant source materials, such as oral histories, digital stories, spoken word performances, directories, maps, and photo, video, and print archives

Within this larger programmatic framework, defining how to engage educationally with the Chinese burial grounds at Mount Hope has been an important, long-term priority in Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, as the following examples illustrate.


Responding to the community mobilization by David Wong, Davis Woo, and the fledgling CHSNE to pay more attention to Mount Hope, students in the fall 1993 Boston's Asian American Communities course made the initial AsAmSt field trip to walk among the...

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