19th Century Chinese Memorial Shrine

The Chinese shrine in Evergreen Cemetery was built in 1888 by the people of Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown. It consists of two 12-foot-high kilns or “burners,” a central altar platform, and a common memorial stone, or stele, inscribed with Chinese characters. The monument is approximately 1,000 square feet in size.
At funeral ceremonies, Los Angeles’ Chinese American pioneers burned gold and silver paper–symbolizing money–and the deceased’s personal effects and favorite clothing in the Shrine’s burners. This was believed to encourage a safe transit to the next life, or afterlife, and the well-being and abundance of the departed. Elaborate presentations of foods such as whole roast pig, poultry, fruits, potable spirits, and joss sticks were also placed on the altar at burial and during seasonal rites and festivals such as Ch’ing Ming (Chinese Memorial Day), and Ch’ung-Yang Chieh (Hungry Ghosts or All Souls’ Day).

Nationally renowned archaeologist Roberta Greenwood’s firm is often retained to assess the effects of proposed construction work on sensitive historic sites. In 1989, during Metro Rail subway tunneling beneath Union Station, the Greenwood firm was commissioned by the City to conduct limited archaeological excavations at the site of Old Chinatown which was razed in the 1930’s to build the train station. In a letter to the City Cultural Heritage Commission supporting the Shrine’s preservation, Ms. Greenwood wrote:

“. . . [E]ven with all the research which has been done, I was not aware that this deeply symbolic architecture survived. This unique monument is the last and only standing structure which survives to commemorate the lives of the Chinese in Los Angeles in the 1880’s . . . .”

The early historical record of the Shrine is sketchy. Most vexing of questions is simply: Who built it? Was it the Ning Yung Association, who organized the evacuation of the Chinese cemetery in Evergreen Cemetery in 1937? Was it the Jan Ying Association, who celebrated Chi’ng Ming there until ingress from First Street was denied after 1965? Was it, as Dr. Paul Chace has suggested, the Wee Leong Hiu Kuan Association? To date, there is no definitive answer.

The Shrine stands on land with an interesting history. In the late 1870’s, Evergreen Cemetery’s founders, requiring a zoning change to operate a cemetery within city limits, offered the City an adjacent 9-acre parcel of the proposed cemetery to use as an indigent graveyard or “Potters Field.” The City Council welcomed the arrangement, and the Los Angeles Cemetery Association dba Evergreen Cemetery was incorporated on August 23, 1877.

When the new City Cemetery began operating, the Chinese community adapted a section to its own use and erected the Shrine in September of 1888. Ownership of the indigent cemetery passed from the City to the County of Los Angeles in 1917, and, in 1924, with burial space there exhausted, the County began to cremate its indigent deceased. The Chinese community responded by opening a new cemetery in the Belvedere Gardens district of East Los Angeles in 1922, which is still operating at First Street and Eastern Avenue.

In 1937, many remaining burials in the Chinese section of the County Cemetery were returned to China in a joint effort between the Ning Yung, Yin Hoi and Kwong Chow Associations. However, Ch’ing Ming, where families visit ancestors’ tombs, clean the grave, and lay out a feast or picnic; along with Ch’ung-Yang Chieh, Hungry Ghosts’ Day or All Souls’ Day, continued at the Shrine until approximately 1965. In 1964, Evergreen Cemetery purchased back from the County most of the 9-acre strip it gave the City as an enticement in 1877. Evergreen prepared the newly recovered parcel for burials by covering it with 8 feet of compacted soil, but fortunately left the Chinese shrine untouched. Thus, it has survived to this day.

Newspaper accounts of local Chinese funerals and processions to the Evergreen shrine appeared frequently during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A Los Angeles Times piece from August, 1888 recounts an incident that may have triggered the Shrine’s construction one month hence, in September of 1888:

“[They] repaired to the graveyard at an early hour with all manner of Chinese delicacies . . . besides a great amount of prayer papers to be burned to keep out the devils. Heretofore, when [they] have had this annual feast or celebration, they have taken precautions against the fire from these piles of paper spreading. This year, this was omitted from some oversight. Some of the residents became alarmed, lest there should be a grass fire and reported the case to police headquarters. Officer Berry was sent out, and compelled them to extinguish their fires, after which they were allowed to finish their exercises. They finally concluded, and it will be another year before the ghosts are again fed.”

An item appearing in the Los Angeles Daily Times in 1905 gave this lyrical account:

“Uncommon homage was paid to the leader of the Hop Sing Tong. Lighted candles of various colors stood on one side [and] clusters of flowers made of coral. A group of soldiers of the Chinese Reform Association, under command of General Homer Lea, appeared as escort. The parade started for the Chinese Cemetery which adjoins Evergreen Cemetery on East First Street. There were 50 carriages in line. Two beautiful Chinese lanterns were among the articles tossed into the furnace.”

It is generally agreed that the 1888 Shrine is the oldest Chinese American structure in Los Angeles. It is also one of few Los Angeles city monuments recognizing the history and contributions of Chinese Americans. Conferral of historic status and the monument’s restoration enjoyed strong support from government officials, preservationists and scholars of Chinese American history. Photos and text on the Shrine have appeared in at least 8 books on Los Angeles history and guides to Southern California historic sites. In 1998, the project was honored with a Governor’s Historic Preservation Award. Two City of Los Angeles historic plaques, one in English, and the first ever in Chinese, are embedded in concrete at the foot of the monument.

The Chinese Historical Society may soon incorporate visits to the Shrine in its walking tours of Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Ch’ing Ming (Chinese memorial day) has again been celebrated at the site, though the Shrine’s burners are sealed permanently and will not be reactivated, for safety reasons. We strongly encourage the public to visit the monument which is in the southeast corner of Evergreen Cemetery, at 204 N. Evergreen Avenue (Evergreen Avenue and First Street) in Boyle Heights.

Designation as a City Monument

On July 25, 1990, the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission visited the 19th Century Los Angeles Chinese Cemetery Shrine, a little-known historic site that would soon enjoy wider recognition. Having learned of its imminent demolition, members of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California acted to protect the Shrine, at least temporarily, by filing papers nominating it for historic status. Commission members, the press, and others present were surprised that, though deteriorated, an artifact of 19th century Chinese American culture had survived essentially untouched in its original location. Dr. Amarjit S. Marwah, Commission President, told the Los Angeles Times: “I would definitely favor preserving this site. Los Angeles is a very young city – and this is a very old piece of history.” On August 31, 1990, the City Council, acting upon the Commission’s recommendation, designated the 19th Century Los Angeles Chinese Cemetery Shrine Historic-Cultural Monument No. 486.

Acquisition of the Shrine by the Chinese Historical Society 

Even after historical designation, the former owner of Evergreen Cemetery showed no sympathy for efforts to protect the memorial and the Shrine’s further decline and deterioration seemed a certainty. When the Society attempted to purchase the monument, the owner demanded a price far greater than that of comparable land in the same cemetery. Evergreen Cemetery then demanded the Shrine be stripped of its historic designation and removed from the list of city monuments as a condition of its purchase. Finally, after lengthy negotiations, the cemetery reduced its asking price, and, on September 17, 1992, the Society purchased the monument and surrounding land for $14,000. The day the Society assumed the Shrine’s ownership, President Irvin Lai said in a Los Angeles Times interview: “This is a milestone for our community. The monument shows that the Chinese have roots here and that we contributed to the building of the West.”

In 1993, Evergreen Cemetery was purchased by a Chinese American funeral company. The cemetery’s current owners support the Chinese Historical Society’s efforts to conserve the Shrine. Mr. Glen Wong, Evergreen’s current manager, is a great-grandson of Mr. Wong Han Cept, caretaker of the original Chinese cemetery once located within Evergreen Cemetery’s borders.

The Preservation Project

After the acquisition, the Society conceived a two-phase plan to restore the Shrine and began raising funds. Phase One, enclosing and defining the monument, was completed in June of 1995 and secured the site with a retaining wall, wrought-iron fence, a row of steps and a gate. The first phase was funded by the contributions of over one hundred members of the Chinese Historical Society and a grant from the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Phase Two involved refurbishing and reinforcing the structural elements and was completed in June of 1997. Phase Two was also partially funded through a City grant. Notably, City grant monies for the project were the first ever given to restore a Los Angeles monument. Chief Architect for both project phases was Barton Choy of Choy and Associates, a Los Angeles architectural firm with several historic renovations to its credit and deep roots in the local community.

A groundbreaking ceremony to launch Phase One–site definition work–was held on January 12, 1995. Present were City Councilman Richard Alatorre, Adolfo Nodal of the Department of Cultural Affairs, and several political representatives. Mr. Nodal assured the Chinese Historical Society: “We’re going to be with you all the way.” Phase One’s completion was celebrated on June 3, 1995 with speeches and a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. A four-foot-wide red bow was draped across the new, wrought-iron gate and pots of yellow chrysanthemums were placed on new columns enclosing the monument. A retaining wall and wrought-iron fence now protected the memorial. In his thoughtful keynote address, Dr. Munson Kwok stated: “These pieces of stone bond us to our pasts.”

About 100 people gathered on June 28, 1997 to mark completion of Phase Two: complete restoration of the Shrine’s structural elements. A feast of Chinese delicacies was served, including a whole roast pig and dim sum (Chinese tea cakes). The monument’s century-old brickwork had been painstakingly restored and a new center stone was in place that is a meticulous re-creation of the original. Archaeologist Roberta Greenwood, a specialist in Chinese American archaelogical sites, delivered the keynote speech. Suellen Cheng, curator of the Los Angeles Chinese American Museum, spoke on the ceremonies once held at the Shrine and their significance. UCLA historian Dr. Leonard Pitt stressed the importance of preserving landmarks and reminders of the City’s past. Antonio Villaraigosa–then state assembly majority leader and now Los Angeles Mayor–was present and immediately petitioned the California Legislature for a resolution praising the project.