Qingming Festival returns to celebrate Salem’s Chinese ancestors, history and community

Dr. Russell Low was surprised to see his grandfather’s obituary in the newspaper.

Low Sun Fook, who died in 1925, was known to the Salem community as Hop Lee, after the business he owned. His obituary that year was long, his grandson said.

“There was a front page obituary to this man – on the front page – a Chinese laundryman. And somehow he was a beloved figure in Salem,” Low said.

This week, Salem’s sixth annual Qingming Festival will celebrate and share the history of the local Chinese American community. The spring festival, which is celebrated by Chinese people across the world, includes cleaning graves and leaving offerings of food. This year, Low will discuss his grandfather’s life at two book signings.

In 2017 an archaeological investigation uncovered a concrete slab at Salem Pioneer Cemetery, used a century ago when Qingming was celebrated regularly in the Salem-Keizer area. The translated inscription reads “To the Tomb of an Unknown Friend,” according to the city website, which said it was likely used for offerings to family members and people who died and did not have family in the area.

The city of Salem reinstated the festival in 2018, and each year since has led to more discoveries and community building.

Low, whose family’s weddings, baptisms and business ventures regularly made the local news in the 20th century, will be coming up to Salem from California for the first time in two decades for the event.

“It’s time to bring this story back to where it began. Back to Salem,” he said. “It will be sort of a homecoming, and I think hopefully a celebration for the Salem community as well as my family.”

On Thursday, April 4, he’ll do a book signing and discussion of “A Willow Tree Becomes a Forest: The Story of Hop Lee,” the culmination of thirty years of research into his family history. The event starts at 6 p.m. at the Willamette Heritage Center, 1313 Mill St. S.E.

On Friday at 3 p.m. there will be a Qingming Celebration at Low Sun Fook’s tombstone at Claggett Cemetery, 398 Bolf Terrace Rd. N., Keizer. It’s the annual celebration’s first Keizer event. Low said it will be the first time his gravesite will be swept in at least 20 years, since the death of Fook’s son who lived nearby.

Low will have another book signing in Keizer at 6 p.m. Friday, at the Keizer Cultural Center, 980 Chemawa Rd. N.E.

The Qingming celebration at Salem Pioneer Cemetery will be at 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 6, accessible by the entrance at the corner of South Hoyt Street and South Skopil Avenue.

Low first started researching his family history in the early 1990s, wanting to build a family tree for his son. When he first read Fook’s obituary, he wanted to learn about how such a recognition was possible in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese laborers from coming to the U.S. for a decade.

“He lived there from 1882, perhaps, until late 1925. It did not make any sense that the Chinese should have that relationship with the community of Salem. But he did, and I really wanted to understand how that came to be,” he said. To him, the records showed something that went beyond tolerance into mutual affection and lasting relationships.

Fook was a prominent business owner, starting in laundry and expanding to poultry and hop farming. The newspapers reported when he brought his wife home to Salem from San Francisco and it reported on family graduations and birthdays, Low said.

“If you were to go to any other city in the West, and look through the newspapers, you would not find anything like that. Zero. But in Salem, it’s exactly what was going on, they were part of the community,” he said.

Some negative things still happened, he said, but the positivity within the relationships are rare and worth celebrating.

Salem’s city archaeologist Kimberli Fitzgerald said that Salem was uniquely successful among cities of its size in building relationships between white and Chinese communities. Several key families, under the leadership of George Lai Sun, pushed back against the racist laws of the time. 

People born in China could not own property in Oregon until 1943. This made the community reliant on landlords, who neglected properties that the city would then condemn. Low’s grandfather married an American-born Chinese woman, Ah Kee Hong, who could own land.

Kylie Pine, Willamette Heritage Center curator, said that the average worker may have felt less accepted at the time, and the historic newspaper articles are filled with racist language. But at the same time, Salem residents also knew when Lunar New Year was and the community held a party downtown with fireworks.

“It’s part of the fabric of the city of Salem,” she said. 

In the years since uncovering the altar at Salem Pioneer Cemetery, the local historians worked with the community to research about Salem’s historical Chinese community, and published an article in Oregon Historical Quarterly. Much of that history was shown in a 2022 Willamette Heritage Center exhibit.

Pine said that downtown Salem has been working to designate downtown alleyways with names, including a new sign designating George Lai Sun Alley between Liberty and High Street. Lai Sun was known as the unofficial “Mayor of Chinatown” and lived along Ferry Street, near the current Salem Printing & Blueprint shop.

Fitzgerald said that as an archaeologist, she enjoys seeing the funerary table being used again as it once was during Qingming. She also said it has made an impact to have the mayor participate every year, and to acknowledge during the event that the city of Salem caused harm to the Chinese community.

“For me, it’s about relationship building and being able to talk to people in Salem’s Chinese community. Being able to help that community feel more connected to Salem is why I do what I do,” she said.

Pine said the Qingming event is one of her favorite things about Salem.

“We’ve patterned the celebration off of what we know was happening there 100 years ago. And I think there’s very few opportunities in our world today to kind of connect with some of those stories,” she said. “It’s almost like reclaiming the space for its original intended purpose, and making sure those stories aren’t lost.”

Low, who will be flying in with several family members, said he likely won’t have time to make the traditional offering of boiled chicken.

“I might buy a roast chicken, maybe make some tacos or something,” he said, and laughed. 

He said he’s looking forward to telling his family’s story, and he hopes that it resonates.

“The reality of his relationship and the relationship of many of the Chinese in the Salem community is very rich and very personal,” he said. “It’s something that should be celebrated not just by our family but by Salem.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.