Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Portland's Old Chinese Burial Grounds

Lone Fir Cemetery in Portland, Oregon

We tend to whitewash history, viewing the past as an era of innocence. Portland was no different from many places, formed by people eager to better their lives, often at the expense of others. All the greed and cruelty in the world today was around long before Portland was born.The building that once stood on the southwest corner of the cemetery was built in 1952 by Multnomah County. Prior to that time, this was Block 14 of Lone Fir Cemetery. This section was set aside for Chinese immigrants, and referred to as the Old Chinese Burial Ground. Chinese have been in Portland since 1850 and were integral in the building of the city. They performed much of the most brutal work building railroads, mining, and in Portland also built the seawall, the original sewer system and chopped the stumps out of the roads after the ancient fir trees were cut. They chopped firewood and ran laundries and grew produce for the entire town.
According to Chinese custom, immigrants were buried here for a short time, with their bones later dug up and returned to China, to be reunited with their ancestors. This went on for a time, until the County wanted the land for use as a maintenance yard for the highway department. In 1948, this block was excavated with a bulldozer. All remains found were packed off to China and the building was built shortly thereafter.
In January of 2004, Multnomah County held a hearing, planning to sell the property as surplus, to the highest bidder, presumably for a high-rise condo/business establishment. Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery was able to notify community members and packed the hearing room with 150 people. Over the course of the next six months, information was gathered which indicated that intact burials might well exist beneath the asphalt here.
Records at the Oregon Historical Society and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) showed that not all of the Chinese buried here were meant to be returned to China, and had probably been left when the excavation occurred in 1948. County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey commissioned an archaeological investigation. Using ground-penetrating radar for a preliminary test, several anomalies were identified. In January 2005, a team of archaeologists found two intact burials. At this point, it became clear that this land, still classified as a cemetery and a historical landmark, could not be sold for commercial development. The County recognized its civic duty to remove the building and repatriate it with the rest of Lone Fir Cemetery.
In 2007, the building was removed; the ground was leveled and returned to grass. Multnomah County and the City of Portland of Portland collaborated to complete the project and then deeded Block 14 over to Metro, which manages the rest of Lone Fir Cemetery.
In 2008, the Block 14 Work Group comprised. Coordinated by Metro, the work group comprises representatives from Friends of Lone Fir, CCBA, Buckman Neighborhood Association and other community groups. Lango Hansen Landscape Architects is leading efforts to create a memorial to honor the Chinese who helped build Portland. With more than 130 of Dr. Hawthorne’s patients buried nearby, a memorial to the asylum patients who died without family, and were given a decent burial by the good doctor, has also been designed. Creating an entrance to the cemetery that reflects its original look and feel as well as an interpretive area that shares the history of Portland through a timeline of Lone Fir Cemetery, are also a part of the plans being considered. These enhancements to the cemetery will elevate its significance to Portland. Like many great cities around the world that encourage the community and visitors from around the world to learn about its oldest cemeteries, Portland will do the same with Lone Fir.

Founded in 2000, Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery is an all volunteer, 501(c) 3 organization dedicated to education, preservation and restoration efforts for the cemetery. With its first burial dating back to 1846, Lone Fir is the oldest cemetery in the Portland area and the largest of 14 pioneer cemeteries managed by Metro regional government. Through fundraising events, monument repair workshops, clean up days and historic tours, Friends of Lone Fir strives to raise dollars and awareness to overcome the inevitable deterioration that many of America’s oldest cemeteries face. Metro still coordinates burials nearly every week in the cemetery, and Friends of Lone Fir seeks to honor the deceased and their survivors through encouraging community involvement in this treasured greenspace. Lone Fir Cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places and was named one of the top 10 cemeteries in the world to visit by National Geographic Traveler Magazine..

Come Together Home  

Discover the remains of early Chinese immigrants, and their extraordinary final journey from Portland to Hong Kong. Block 14 in Lone Fir Cemetery, the first Chinese burial ground in Portland—and site of as many as 1,500 burials—now stands as a fenced off void of gravel after most of the remains were exhumed and shipped back to China in 1928 & 1949. Sixty years later, Director Ivy Lin follows the footsteps of the missing 1949 shipment in an extraordinary journey from Portland to Hong Kong.
Film review from Aaron Mesh of Willamette Week, 07/21/2010:
"Portland documentarian Ivy Lin has a patient, naturalistic eye for the boarded-over and fenced-off bits of the city;s history; her camera is an unflashy reservoir of lost places. As in her first movie (Knowing All of You Like I Do, which chronicled the shuttering of Northwest 23rd Avenue's Music Millenium), she has a direct narrative to propel her along: The story of Chinese railroad workers buried at the edge of Lone Fir Cemetery, the removal of their bones when the Multnomah County decided to build a warehouse, the traditional (and desired) shipment of those remains back to China, and the now-confirmed possibility that not every body was dug up when they were supposed to be. She gets strong assistance—and most of the hard reporting—from Brent Walth of the Oregonian, who is an excellent storyteller. Lin's eventual journey to Hong Kong doesn't quite get to where the bodies are buried, but the mystery slides smoothly into an understanding that when it comes to honoring the dead, it's the thought—any thought—that counts. Her movie should, at the very least, leave smug Portlanders a little uneasy about the city's liberal inheritance."

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