Lone Fir Cemetery is one of the oldest continuously operating cemeteries in Portland. It also serves as a painful reminder of the racist and exclusionary treatment of Chinese immigrants who first arrived in Oregon in the mid-1800s, working as miners, merchants and laborers. From the 1860s to the 1920s, roughly 2,800 Chinese immigrants were buried in a section of Lone Fir known as Block 14. Ledgers were used to record the names of many of the people who were buried there, so that the remains could be dug up and the bones sent to China for reburial in ancestral villages and towns. By the late 1940s, Multnomah County officials claimed that all remains at Block 14 had been repatriated. But they hadn’t, according to an archaeological survey commissioned by the county in 2005 which found evidence of human remains at the site.
Today, Block 14 is a bare field with no permanent reminder of its history or significance to the Chinese American community. But Metro, the Tri-County regional government agency which owns the cemetery, is attempting to change that by using a voter-approved parks bond to build a memorial to honor the memory of people buried at Block 14. The project will also honor former patients from the state’s first psychiatric hospital, the Oregon Hospital for the Insane, nearly 200 of whom were buried at Lone Fir. Hannah Erickson, a communications specialist at Metro Parks and Nature, and Helen Ying, president of the Lone Fir Cemetery Foundation, join us to discuss the history of Block 14 and the two design proposals for the memorial.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Lone Fir Cemetery is one of the oldest continuously-operating cemeteries in Portland. It also serves as a painful reminder of the racist and exclusionary treatment of Chinese immigrants who first arrived in Oregon in the mid-1800s, working as miners, merchants and other laborers. From the 1860s to the 1920s, roughly 2,800 Chinese immigrants were buried in a section of Lone Fir now known as Block 14. By the late 1940s, Multnomah County officials said that all remains at Block 14 had been repatriated but they hadn’t according to an archaeological survey. Today, Block 14 is a bare field with no permanent reminder of its history or its significance, but that’s going to change. Metro, the regional government agency that now owns a cemetery, is going to use a voter approved parks bond to build a memorial. Hannah Erickson is a communications specialist at Metro Parks and Nature. Helen Ying is the president of the Lone Fir Cemetery Foundation. They both join me now. It’s great to have you both on the show.
Hannah Erickson: Hi
Helen Ying: Thank you.
Miller: Hannah, first. So this cemetery is known for many things, including the burial site for Portland, mayors and Oregon, governors, people whose names are on the streets that a lot of us used all the time. How did it also become a burial site for many, many members of Portland’s Chinese community?
Erickson: Well, it’s a little hard to tell. We have commissioned quite a bit of historical research, but we’ve never found any actual papers that show the contract of when the Southwestern corner of the cemetery became a Chinese cemetery. But we know that by the 1880s, it was well established as the Chinese section of Lone Fir Cemetery. There’s a lot of rumors and legends about how it came to be, that it was owned by a railroad company and that they were burying their Chinese employees there. That turned out not to be the case when we dug into the research while we were doing due diligence on this project.
Miller: What was typically the process for returning the remains of people who have been buried there for reburial in China?
Erickson: Yes. According to cultural traditions, bodies would be buried in the Chinese cemetery and then after a period of time, often many years, the bones would be disinterred and they would be cleaned by someone who was a specialist in this and then placed in a metal box that also had the person’s name and their home village and family on it. And then those remains would be returned to their ancestral burial plot in China so that they could be tended by family
Miller: Helen, you grew up in Portland. How much did you hear about what we now call Block 14?
Ying: So Dave, I actually had not heard anything about Block 14 until probably in the 2000s.
Miller: How do you explain that? I mean, this is a hugely significant piece of Portland history and Chinese American history in Portland. But it wasn’t talked about.
Ying: No, I think this is a prime example of the buried history,
Ying: Literally. And now that it’s come to light and as I learned about this more and more, it just helps to see the possibilities of unearthing even more history in other ways. The reason I say that, Dave, is because recently when I went and did some more research about the ledger…
Miller: Can you actually describe the ledgers that you looked at?
Ying: Yes. So the ledgers are like records of the members who were individuals who were buried there. And I want to just tell you a little bit about lying to your earlier question about how these ledgers were discovered again. So again, as Hannah mentioned, burials of Chinese individuals started way back in the late 1800s. And the last burial was probably like in 1927, 1928. So think about the time of what the society was like for the people living here. And the Oregon Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) was founded like other similar organizations around the country because there is nobody looking after them, right? And so they had to turn to each other because of the discrimination that was going on. And for the men and women and children who were here, not very many women and children in that case…
Miller: Because of federal law.
Ying: Yeah, because of federal laws. And so yet, they kept a ledger. But then these two books were just stored in the basement of the building of CCBA in Old Town Chinatown. And it was found by accident, Dave. Chinese language school was one of the services that CCBA offered and Rebecca Lui was the principal for this program for over 15 years. I just recently asked her about it and she told me, “Helen, I found these two ledgers while I was in the basement searching for teaching materials for the Chinese language school.” She came upon it and she didn’t know what they were. And then, in 2007-ish or earlier, when this information came to light, she put the two and two together.
Miller: And found out this is information about the people who were buried there?
Miller: Hannah, what have you learned over the years, at Metro or maybe Multnomah County before you, from archaeological surveys about human remains that are still at this site?
Erickson: Well, Dave, Block 14 has been designated as a historic site by the state. And so we’re very limited in what we’re allowed to talk about when it comes to archaeological findings; however, we do know from those ledgers and from other research that has been done that there are probably still bodies in this site.
Miller: I appreciate that there are rules about what you can talk about. It’s almost like posthumous HIPAA or something, where you can’t tell us everything about what has been unearthed or the information that’s been unearthed. But how has the basic fact that there are human remains still there, affected the way you have thought about and planned for a possible memorial?
Erickson: It’s definitely changed things because we need to be very cautious about the way that we plan our building so that we are not building permanent structures on top of places that are likely places where bodies might be. We’re trying to minimize the prospect of people walking over graves.
Miller: So that’s why the two design proposals, I guess, that were released recently…I forget the names. One is a grove and it’s a lot of beautiful Ginko trees that will turn beautiful yellow colors around now, I suppose if they were planted, as opposed to buildings. And the other is more of a kind of prairie hill and they both have some structures but not in the center, more on the outskirts of the plot. How were these chosen? And, Helen, I’m wondering if you can describe how they were chosen and also what you felt when you looked at these design proposals.
Ying: Yes, so maybe I could just go back a little bit about how these designs came to be.
Miller: Yes, please.
Ying: So the Lone Fir Foundation has been an organizer, champion for funding as well as getting the public and the community members to be involved right in this process. And so when Metro finally had the funding designated for this project, they put out the request for proposal and the Lone Fir Cemetery Foundation wanted to make sure that we had a voice in helping to choose the designers and it was like the stars aligned for us.
First of all, Michael Yun, who is the lead designer in this project, he’s Chinese American, he’s from Detroit where Vincent Chin was killed, and he was a child at the time. So he experienced what that was like. So he understands the impact of discrimination, the impact of being marginalized. And then along that line, Metro has organized outreach and opportunities for the community to give feedback and provide perspectives. And I think Michael and his team have put together all of the information they gathered, along with the restrictions of where…
Miller: Don’t build here.
Ying: Yeah. So I think right now the design is conceptual and is in the beginning phase and as you know that right now, Metro is continuing to gather input from the communities, not just the Chinese American communities, but communities at large, as well as the communities representing the mental health impacted members.
Miller: Let me actually remind folks that Metro is accepting public comment for these two designs and the survey is open through November 28th at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/LoneFirGarden.
Hannah, Helen mentioned just now the mental health aspect of this. My understanding is that some of the people who were buried at Lone Fir, I guess at a different place, not Block 14 but not far away, were once patients or residents at what was known as the Oregon Hospital for the Insane. Is the idea to somehow memorialize both of these marginalized communities in the same place. We’re talking about very different populations, very different histories?
Ying: Right, we definitely are, though they do share a history of being marginalized and excluded in different ways. The research that we had to do in order to begin this project, brought to light some information that went against what had been commonly held beliefs about the area. And one was this idea that patients from the Oregon Hospital for the Insane had been buried in or near Block 14. But as we went forward with our research – and actually you can find a copy of our research into the Oregon Hospital for the Insane patient burials at loan for cemetery on our website at that https://www.oregonmetro.gov/public-projects/honoring-untold-stories-lone-fir-cemetery website – we discovered that that was not true that patients had not been, were highly unlikely to have been buried in Block 14 and were instead in a different block.
So that has changed a little bit the view of what this memorial is. But the thing is that there’s a section of what is currently Block 14, that was never actually part of the Chinese cemetery. And so that westernmost portion is being designed with the idea that it will be a welcome space where we can tell the history of the cemetery, we can tell the history of the Chinese and Chinese American people who were buried in Block 14 and we can tell the history of the OHI patients, and the history of other marginalized communities because we are aware that with a cemetery as old and as complicated as Lone Fir Cemetery, we are likely to uncover more stories going forward.
Miller: Helen, before we say goodbye, whatever the ultimate design is that’s chosen, I’m wondering just what you want visitors to come away with or to experience when they’re there.
Ying: Well, first of all is to honor and pay respect to those who are still buried there and those who have been buried there and hadn’t gone unnoticed. Second, is to learn and contemplate while they’re there in the past, as well as the current experiences. And then to be informed of how we could act to make our future even better as a whole, as a people of this country.
Miller: Helen Ying and Hannah Erickson. Thanks very much.
Erickson: Thank you.
Miller: Helen Ying is the president of the Lone Fir Tree Cemetery Foundation. Hannah Erickson is a communications specialist with Metro Parks and Nature.
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