Holding a single joss stick putting out wisps of incense, they stood before the shrine to Chinese ancestors at Pioneer Cemetery.
Reverently, they bowed and then moved away. They planted a single smoking joss stick into the ground at the shrine.
Next to the shrine, others tossed paper into flames burning in a small fire pit. One man peeled open a pack of fake $100 bills, spilling them into the fire. By the ceremony, the paper represented money to use in the afterlife.
And once again, for the Chinese, ancestors had been provided for – and wishes for their protection made.
The fifth Qingming Festival in Salem took place on a far edge of the south Salem cemetery on Saturday, April 1. An estimated 75 people navigated tombstones to reach the scene.
The Chinese ritual occurs around the globe this time of year.
For the Salem ceremony, those attending endured a steady cold rain as the event got underway.
As if on cue, the rain stopped, the clouds scattered and the sun came out as the ritual itself began.
Mayor Chris Hoy opened with the solemn sweeping of the small concrete shrine for an event also known as Broom Sweeping Day.
After short remarks, Hoy read aloud a city proclamation, citing “thousands of years of history” and how Chinese have been in Salem since its founding.
The crowd listened attentively, shielded by heavy raincoats and a bouquet of umbrellas.
Four speakers representing Chinese organizations addressed the crowd in both English and Cantonese.
“I often think about how to pay respects to our ancestors,” Ying said.
He talked about the 50,000 Chinese who came to the country to work on building the continental railroad, earning 50 cents a day for dangerous work. He talked about the 20,000 Chinese who served in the U.S. military during World War II, though thousands had been denied citizenship.
Another speaker talked of the future. Barry Bai, a retired state entomologist, told of coming to the country 38 years ago and to Salem 10 years after that.
“I encourage you all to be involved to and to be activists,” he said.
He said he hoped China and the U.S. could reconcile their differences.
“Let’s work on commonality,” he said. “Let’s do our part.”
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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.