Concordia Chinese Cemetery: Pagoda Project
By Maribel Santoyo
Posted on March 15, 2004
It's Lent season in the Southwest, and a cold and boisterous wind has blown over the entire region, kicking up some of the worst dust storms on this side of the Rio Grande. Last year's palm fronds have already been burned to ash and smeared onto the foreheads of local churchgoers. Now, somewhere behind the walls of a hidden section of the city, a Pagoda is about to be erected.
In El Paso there is a place where history is documented not so much by vaults of information but by acres and acres of epitaphs. This place is Concordia cemetery, the last remaining evidence of early frontier life in the Chihuahuan desert region. It is also the final resting place for some of the earliest documented colonies of immigrants to arrive at the turn of the century, including the Chinese who arrived from Canton in 1881 to construct the Southern Pacific Railroad.
"It's something interesting about certain ethnic groups-the Chinese being one of them they were hard laborers and the most self-sufficient in El Paso's history," said Dr. Edward Staski, a regional archaeologist whose findings during a nationally publicized excavation in 1984, led him and a crew from California to uncover what were early remnants of a Chinatown that existed in downtown El Paso near the Cortez Hotel.
Today, the isolated Texas Historical landmark, has pretty much met its capacity at 65,000 individual graves with enough of a population to inhabit the entire state of Vermont. But the cemetery, even with all its gunslingers, shady ladies, and war heroes, cannot compare with the rich history and culture that this colorful group of people brought with them from their homeland during the Qing (Ching) Dynasty.
Early accounts of funerals at Concordia, say much about the Chinese and their perception of death as well as their celebration of it, which made them much more similar to their Mexican counterparts than most thought. Only, their funerals were accompanied by a procession, and sometimes followed with a long dragon snaking its way through the streets.
"The Chinese section of the cemetery includes the graves of early railroad workers who chose to stay in El Paso after helping the railroads reach the city from California," said Monica Wong, member of The El Paso Chinese Benevolent Society (CBS), the local organization raising funds to beautify the cemetery, "In the early 40s, Chinese population in El Paso was close to 3000 Chinese men here with no family. Some 90 percent were single men."
The CBS happens to be the organization behind the Chinese Cemetery Pagoda Project, which is a mission dedicated to raising funds to construct a Pagoda monument inside the cemetery in honor of El Paso's early Chinese community that toiled to build much of the intercontinental railroad-a booming industry largely responsible for the development of the southwest in the early 1900s.
It was around this time that the Wright Brothers lifted-off at Kitty Hawk; Ferdinand von Zeppelin launched the first zeppelin; and the movie "A Trip to the Moon" by Georges Meliés, was a blockbuster hit at silent movie theaters.
But plans for renovation began more than ten years ago when the Concordia Heritage Society began meeting to discuss the cleanup and maintenance of some of the various historical sites at the cemetery. Finally, after a long and patient wait, the society expects the first phase of the construction to begin in the next upcoming months. The monument, which will stand about 14 ft. tall and 18 ft. wide, says CBS director Maureen Lam, will carry the shape of a traditional pagoda and will have engraved on it, a copy of the original contract the Chinese community signed for the land, in 1886.
According to the1900s U.S. Census, local historian Anna Fahy says, the steadily growing Chinese colony in downtown El Paso was probably the largest in Texas. Soon Chinese immigrants began dying due to various causes and they had no place to be buried. It was then that a lady by the name of Mrs. Benancia Leahy, donated the lot to the Chinese. The transaction, according to official documents, was made for $100, but the actual donation was made earlier in 1881.
"They arrived here with gunslingers, gamblers, entrepreneurs, cattle drivers, and people of every imaginable characteristic to capitalize on the business that they perceived the railroads were going to bring," says Fahy, who has studied and researched the history of Chinese Americans in the region for eight years now.
Benny Wong, a committee director of the Chinese Benevolent Society, confirms that there are five historical cemeteries in Texas, which include those in San Antonio, Houston, Galveston, and Fort Worth. But El Paso's is historically documented as the oldest.
The inscription posted in Chinese characters on the wrought iron gates outside the entrance of the cemetery reads: "El Paso Cemetery of the Unknown Chinese Friends." Much of that statement is true to the current state of the cemetery, says Monica Wong.
"If you go into the cemetery, to the right side there were supposed to be 800 graves. Now you hardly see any markers," she says. "These had the special grave markers with Chinese inscriptions and people just took them."
And though it's been a slow year for the dead at Concordia, last January, Mr. Wong got a call reporting that behind the Warren Inn, a piece of a grave maker was found, which they suspected was from the cemetery. According to an estimate, some of these grave markers cost families up to $400 apiece. Due to the repeated vandalism, the local Chinese community has gotten into the practice of using large horizontal, concrete slabs as memorial plaques in place of the more traditional upright monuments, so that they won't be stolen.
"It's hard to document how many people were actually were there, if you look at the present list there's like 22 people from the 800 that were once estimated to be here, but then you start identifying newspaper clippings, obituaries, and announcements that say 'buried in Concordia'," said Ana Fehy. "Much has been documented and is still in the process of being documented that's just all part of what this restoration is about."
The prominent historic names buried there are of the Chew, Wong, Chin, and Chung clans that comprised the earlier tongs, which were composed of relatives from the same village. These organizations were similar to American Fraternal organizations in that they ran the community and supervised various affairs as elders. Some of these were also some of the earlier settlers who organized workers in Kwangdung province (Canton). These men served as recruiters who gathered men from the Chinese villages to come to the United States to work, said Benny Wong.
A very interesting area of research, also unique to this region, includes a group of Chinese who settled in Juarez, spoke Spanish very fluently, and took on Mexican names. Eighth Court of Appeals judge David Wellington Chew, a second-generation Chinese of the Chew family, can also trace his ancestry to Mexico.
"My grandfather's name was Yee Wing Chew, and he emigrated directly from China to Mexico, right at the turn of the century and their first four children were born in Juárez including my father," he said. "My grandmother was kind of the honorary consul for the republic of China in Mexico, she was very politically active and when she began helping the community in El Paso, she was very insistent on not having a Chinatown in El Paso she thought it would be better if everybody spread out so she made an effort to decentralize the Chinese community to avoid what was in San Francisco or L.A."
And though Chinatown as a recognizable neighborhood was essentially established around 1880, according to Dr. Edward Staski, it was gone by 1920. Now, the only remaining vestiges of the early Chinese presence in our city is enclosed in a cemetery where grave markers in the oldest part of the cemetery are broken, randomly strewn about the site, or stolen altogether says the CBS.
More recent graves may contain further detailed information about the deceased, but the name of the individual is still engraved in Chinese. At least one child is buried there. You know this by looking at the remains of a tattered bunny rabbit stuffed toy, which the vandals apparently felt enough decency not to take from its locality. Another gravesite indicates in Chinese characters, that a woman and her child were drowned when they were swimming across the Rio Grande to El Paso.
CBS committee directors Maureen Lam and Seam Chow, do point out that the Concordia Heritage Association has assumed the responsibility of cleaning up the place on a frequent basis, and that the cemetery has occasionally encountered security problems due to infrequent looters, but not nearly as bad as in the past.
"To my knowledge, (vandalism) is not an issue anymore," said Chow.
In an early local publication, local Historian Dena Hirsch, referred to Concordia Cemetery as "a collection of privately owned, publicly owned, and non-owned burial lands" consisting of 54 acres. Thus, no one organization or person accepts full responsibility of maintaining Concordia, which is why the Chinese Benevolent Society has taken it upon itself to raise these funds.
"We've been (fundraising) since last November now we're going to try to beautify the place and plant some trees," said Benny Wong with a beautiful enthusiasm.
The CBS has only met 40 percent of its goal to at least build the base of the structure. But much is still needed for its completion, and for the restoration of the damaged gravesites, as well as for the landscaping of the barren land.
They are now asking for help from the community as well as from outside sources, says Chow.
"The pagoda represents a place for the Chinese community to go and pay respect to its ancestors a resting place," said Lam. "We also want everybody to get involved in making this a (statewide) attraction that the city can be proud of, which is why we are asking all members of the community to help us fund the preservation of the Chinese cemetery."
And though historians and archaeologist can argue at length over whether or not, a legitimate Chinatown really existed in the Downtown area around the vicinity where Mills St. (formerly Louis St.), Stanton, El Paso, and S. Overland St. collide, imagine if you will, a downtown where one almost felt like they had entered an entirely different world.
In an editorial once published in The El Paso Herald Post back in 1977, a reader named Leola Freeman documented what is still probably one of the most vivid and endearing recollections of the Chinese in El Paso. A community that merits so much more respect:
"As a small child walking up Oregon Street we used to pass a laundry across the street was a store that sold wonderful birdlike Chinese kites and firecrackers, and transparent fish made of cellophane that when placed on a warm palm, they curled up and wriggled as though alive. When sent by my mother to buy something, I used to peek curiously into the dim interiors of the shacks that served as dwellings. I could see figures propped against the wall smoking long-stemmed pipes Dreams were of the land they would buy when they returned to China and their families they were the best of neighbors I sincerely hope that in Chinese Heaven, a few celestial acres have been reserved for our old neighbors."
* * *
Please help preserve the memory and multicultural heritage of El Paso. The Chinese Benevolent Society is a nonprofit organization. If you would like to make a donation, make your check payable to:CBS: Special Project, Pagoda. Chinese Benevolent Society of El Paso, P.O. Box 971866, El Paso, TX 79997
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