Event at Pioneer Cemetery on Saturday honors Salem’s Chinese community

The fifth annual public ceremony to honor the Chinese dead is scheduled for Saturday, April 1, at Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery.

The Qingming Festival was started after the discovery in 2018 of the remnants a Chinese shrine at the cemetery, which is at the corner of Southeast Commercial and Hoyt Streets.

The city in a press release described the festival as “a traditional Chinese event associated with honoring ancestors and celebrating the return of spring” that is also known as Tomb Sweeping Day.

“Traditionally, family members clean the tombs of their ancestors and make offerings of tea, wine, and food. Families then burn paper, which represents money that the spirits can use in the afterlife. This ensures the ancestors have enough food and money for the coming year,” the city’s statement said.

Mayor Chris Hoy will speak as well as representatives of Salem’s Chinese community. An outdoor open house at the shrine is scheduled to start at 11:30 a.m. and run for an hour.

People are invited to place flowers or joss sticks, a type of incense used in Chinese rituals.

Remnants of a funerary table were found at the cemetery as volunteers embarked on a project to research and document the history of Chinese in Salem. The archeological excavation recovered a cement slab with a raised section and a marble tablet with a Chinese inscription, later translated to mean “To the Tomb of an Unknown Friend.”

A report published in 2021 in the Oregon Historical Quarterly said that 32 people of Chinese descent remain buried in Pioneer Cemetery.

“Of these, ten have known headstones, and the remaining twenty-two have locations that are unknown within the cemetery,” the report said.

In its statement, the city said, “There are likely some women and children still buried in the Chinese section of the cemetery, as well as some men whose families may not have had the means to return their remains to China.”

Partners in the project include the city, Friends of the Pioneer Cemetery, Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, CCBA Portland, Willamette University, the city Chinese Shrine Advisory Committee, Rick Hilts and City View Cemetery, Raymond Lin and the Hoy Yin Association.

CONTACT Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].

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Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.