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A day at the cemeteries

A couple days ago, I met up with a few like-minded individuals at a cluster of cemeteries in Colma, California, which is a town that goes by the slogan “It’s great to be alive in Colma.” Supposedly there are about 2,000 residents in this town and 2 million buried there, what a hoot. Why so many dead people? Well, nearby San Francisco decided they would no longer have dead bodies buried within city limits once upon a time over 100 years ago, and so the existing cemeteries moved their internments out to the ‘burbs that are Colma, and a slew of new cemetery land was established.

We chose three cemeteries to visit, each having a different variety of Chinese headstones on display.

First up was Woodlawn, which is not exclusively Chinese but sure is popular for a lot of Chinese families. Woodlawn is well maintained, looks like a mini castle upon arrival, and has an office onsite where staff can be found for help (or to sell you a plot). Woodlawn is interesting as a sort of pan-Chinese resource. It contains burials of Chinese with many different backgrounds, Cantonese and non-Cantonese, Vietnamese-Chinese, and various other backgrounds different than what you might see at an older or Chinese region-specific cemetery. These different headstones gave us an opportunity to see the many different transliterations or Romanizations of a single Chinese surname character. Depending on the background of the deceased and his/her family, a character can be pronounced and spelled using the English alphabet in ways that are not mutually understandable or even recognizable. You can also view a map of Woodlawn here.

Next was the new Hoisan cemetery, known as Hoy Sun Memorial Cemetery. They don’t have a website, but their map is here, and you’ll recognize this cemetery from the lions guarding the Chinese gate entrance. This is a relatively new cemetery, established in the 1980s, after plots at the original/old Hoisan cemetery (next on our list) were sold out. Hoisan is a place, a county/very large “city” in Guangdong, China, known in pinyin/standard Mandarin romanization as “Taishan” but I prefer “Hoisan” because that is how Hoisanese dialect speakers actually pronounce it. Accordingly, this cemetery is home to Taishanese folks who have immigrated and carried out their lives in the U.S., and the descendents of these immigrants.  This cemetery is organized by surname, which is helpful and interesting, and is well maintained since they still have many plots to sell. What is interesting here and at other Chinese burial locations is that you can see evidence of how Chinese Americans have endured a history of complicated and discouraging immigration policies. The history of Chinese entering the U.S. illegally using “paper names” is evident when reading headstones. You will find the English names and Chinese names as written in characters are sometimes completely mismatched. That is because many people have kept and passed down their paper names, and never changed them, but the entire Chinese-speaking and Chinese-literate community will know them by their true Chinese names, and both can be read on headstones. Yet another reason headstones are such good clues when researching genealogy as complicated as that of Chinese Americans; Chinese people don’t just have nicknames, they can have entire alternate identities that can yield a very interesting research adventure. There is currently a new building being built near the entrance of Hoy Sun Memorial, which I am unsure of what it will be used for, either office or crypt. For now, the office is located in San Francisco’s Chinatown HERE.

Finally, my personal favorite, the original Hoy Sun Ning Yung cemetery, located HERE. This is a very old cemetery. It is different than the two above, in that it is very hilly (old Chinese folks believe in the power of Feng Shui and placement of the deceased up on a mountain), and there are many old tombstones that are inscribed in Chinese only. I believe there are still internments being made here if a plot was purchased back before they were sold out, but for the most part this cemetery is full, and is run down in a sense. It feels more like an old creepy cemetery, with more unique, varied, colorless headstones than many other places. It is surrounded by very tall trees and it is secluded behind a cul-de-sac. To me, it’s a historic place and represents some the earlier Chinese American local history. There are some people that visit their great-great-grandfathers here; many people don’t have any clue of who their great-great-grandfathers are, much less where they are buried. This reflects the essence of what the Ching Ming festival is all about. Ching Ming is an event that happens every year amongst the Chinese community. It involves gathering your relatives up and going out to your family’s grave sites. You clean the tombstones, remove weeds or overgrowth, place fresh flowers, and for many people, offer food and drinks to your deceased ancestors. You may burn incense, say a prayer, or light firecrackers as well. Everyone does this a little differently. This ritual is what keeps ancestors remembered and revered in Chinese families, and is part of why headstones are so detailed for us. We look at them all the time. At least once or twice annually. They are there for every generation of descendents to see, read, and understand. If not for Ching Ming, many Chinese headstones would be insignificant, overgrown, or otherwise forgotten after a cemetery has been filled up. The office for this cemetery is the same as Hoy Sun Memorial above.


3 responses »

  1. Stephanie Hardy

    I really enjoyed learning more about these cemeteries. Older cemeteries are such wonderful treasure troves for genealogy, and I like the old, overgrown ones best.

  2. I engaged in ancestor worship at the old
    hoisan cemetery today. Both my mom and dad are buried there. Maybe it’s because I am old, but I don’t understand why people say it is creepy. It is a little unkempt but feels sweet because it is very small. There seem to be quite a few different surnames there and I, for one, will be using the Chinese characters to locate my ancestral village for the roots trip. Thanks for your write-up.


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