COLUMN: Search for Salem’s Chinatown unearths cemetery shrine

Salem residents celebrate Qing Ming on April 3, 2021 at Pioneer Cemetery (Courtesy photo)

Editor’s note: This column is the first in a regular feature from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. If you have any feedback or would like to participate, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected]

In 2017, as part of an effort to better understand the history of some of Salem’s underrepresented communities, the City of Salem’s Historic Landmarks Commission decided to learn more about Salem’s Chinese community. As a city staff member working with the commission, I began researching.

Ben Maxwell, one of Salem’s local reporters and photographers, had written one of the only histories I could find: “The Chinese in Salem,” published by the Marion County Historical Society in 1961. Maxwell confirmed that Salem did, in fact, have a Chinatown located in our downtown, but I was not able to find any buildings that still remained downtown from this community. 

A newspaper article published in 1963, “Shrine Uncovered in Pioneer Cemetery,” provided the first clue that there could be a Chinese Shrine in our Pioneer cemetery. In the picture accompanying the text, Charles Gale, former City of Salem Parks and Recreation director, kneeled near a stone centered on a concrete slab at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery (formerly the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows Rural Cemetery). The stone, made of what looked like marble, had Chinese characters engraved on the face. Was it a grave? A memorial? Why was it covered with debris? Was it still in the cemetery now, almost sixty years later?  

Charles Gale at Pioneer Cemetery in 1963 (Courtesy/Willamette Heritage Center)

This article ultimately led to a collaborative public archaeology project at the cemetery and brought me as far as China. It led us to unearth a much larger story below the surface, from quite literally under the dirt. We discovered the remains of a funerary table, similar to community shrines in their home villages in China right here in Salem. This shrine was used during the Qing Ming festival in the late 1800s, which is the Chinese traditional day for honoring the dead and cleaning headstones.

While Salem’s Chinatown has been lost, this shrine remains, a testament to the connection these early Chinese immigrants retained to their home villages in China and serves as evidence of the Chinese traditions they practiced here in Salem at a time when they were experiencing discrimination and exclusion.

Our landmark commission established an advisory committee in 2017 to assist with this project, with members from Salem’s Chinese community, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the Hoy Yin Association, Friends of the Pioneer Cemetery, Willamette University, the Willamette Heritage Center and other interested historians. This committee made a decision to reinstate the Qing Ming festival in Salem in 2018.

At the first celebration, the names of those Chinese still buried in the cemetery were read by elders from Salem’s Chinese community and Salem’s mayor attended and read a proclamation which called upon the residents of Salem to join in recognizing this Chinese custom with thousands of years of history, confirming that the City of Salem has been a home to the Chinese community since the city’s foundation. 

The third annual Qing Ming Festival was celebrated at Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery on April 3, 2021. On April 24, Portland Chinatown Museum will hold a free virtual webinar discussing this history. More information and a link to register is available on the museum website.

Kimberli Fitzgerald is the Historic Preservation Officer and City Archaeologist for the City of Salem. Contact her at [email protected] or 503-540-2397.

BE PART OF OUR TEAM FOR SALEM’S BENEFIT: Accurate local information is vital for any community and that’s harder to come by in this day of “anyone can post anything” to social media. People in communities without trained journalists working for them don’t have accurate, trusted information. Help Salem avoid that fate – join in putting fuel in the tank of Salem Reporter to keep it growing, going strong. Here’s how:

SUBSCRIBE: A monthly digital subscription starts at $5 a month.

GIFT: Give someone you know a subscription.

ONE-TIME PAYMENT: Contribute any amount and you support giving the people of Salem local news otherwise missing. (You can also mail your contribution: Salem Reporter, 72585 Middle Fork Lane, Bates OR 97817)