Monday, October 2, 2017

Rediscovered Shrine Underscores Cycles of Erasure

Did you see yesterday's front page article on the prospect of rediscovering a shrine or altar in an historic Chinese quarter of the Pioneer Cemetery?

That's really something.

It will be very interesting to see what information and history emerges. How good will the sources be? If there are no extant first-person accounts from actual users, accounts that may not be in English, it will be difficult to say very much about it. Retrieving the history from anglo sources is tricky, or even impossible. At best we will have a dim, second-order approximation; at worst, an anglo fabrication or stereotype.

Lee Way, May 9th, 1913
Here's a discussion of it or something like it filtered through the anglo editorial process. It's not possible to say for sure that this refers to the structure discussed in the paper, but this is likely a similar structure and set of burial rites:
DRIVE AWAY DEVIL WHEN LEE WAY IS BURIED
Lee Way, Chinese, was buried in Odd Fellows cemetery yesterday afternoon. Incense was burned and fireworks displayed, following the usual Chinese custom. Lee died in poverty and a collection was taken to give him the proper burial. His little effects were placed in the cemetery furnace and burned, after the burial services.
In addition to the lack of real detail, note also the tone. It is detached amusement about a strange foreigner who does not have to be taken very seriously or with close attention, and who is not regarded as very important.

Apparently knowledge of the shrine was lost for a couple of generations, then "rediscovered" in 1953 and 1963, and lost again. Now another two generations later, there is a third or four round of rediscovery.

This history is important and very much worth celebrating, documenting, and mourning.

It's also worth considering the disregard that led to the repeated cycles of loss and "rediscovery." It must be said that it takes a certain amount of effort to repeatedly "forget" about things like this. The neglect has to be more than a little intentional. Even if it is more by omission than commission, it remains a deliberate act of erasure.

In the winter of 1903, Council condemned Chinatown as a "nuisance" and reports even used the word "exterminate" to describe the slum-clearing. There is a horrible rhetoric of vermin here.

Desire to Erase Chinatown, Jan 21st, 1903

Nuisance, January 28th, 1903

Update, February 4th, 1903
It's not clear whether the clearing happened all at once or if it was more gradual, but it is certainly true that many of the buildings today we celebrate as part of the historic district are masonry buildings with different owners, and they replaced the wood buildings of the Chinatown. After the initial dispossession of indigenous peoples during pre-urban settlement, this might be Salem's original urban "gentrification" with displacement. It was very much intentional.

I'm not sure we take seriously enough the direct or indirect government action here to erase a community, however ramshackle or blighted or unsanitary it might have seemed.

This is an important ingredient in the cycle of forgetting and memory on the shrine.

More personally, death notices and obituaries in the paper tell us more about the possible nature of the shrine, but also disclose more of the characteristic racism. Though all are brief, some accounts dismiss or erase any interiority and subjectivity of survivors and the person who died. (I don't know how useful it would be to transcribe these, but you can see for yourself in several death notices over the years.)

Infant Sun, May 29th, 1893

Chung, June 5th, 1894

Yick Way, October 12th, 1896

Toy Sam, November 22nd, 1898
(The "Chinese Free Masons" sounds like an interesting group and may be worth more research.)

Ah Lum, January 24th, 1910
Hopefully more history will emerge from all the research. Our online history article, "Salem's Chinese Americans," draws heavily on Ben Maxwell's previous article from mid-century in Marion County History, and though that is closer to our sources in time, it shares too many of the usual biases. Maybe it will be possible to recover a better history. The shrine is not just a curiosity, but is part of a story that needs to be closer to the center of a history of Salem.

No comments: