Mount Hope Cemetery is quickly becoming one of my favorites. In a city full of beautiful and famous burying grounds (Mt. Auburn, Granary, Copp’s Hill, Forest Hills), Mount Hope is generally overshadowed and forgotten, but there’s no better cemetery to get a feel for the shape and scope of the last 150+ years of the city’s history.
On my last visit there, I came across a small section, at the far end of the cemetery, that I’d never seen before: a Chinese burying ground. Many of the stones were broken or fallen, and landscaping work needed to be done, but it was a beautiful small spot that spoke to an interesting past.
Chinese immigration to Boston can be traced to the 1870s, not long after Chinese immigrants began arriving in large numbers in California – first to take part in the Gold Rush of the 1840s and 1850s, and later to build the western portion of the transcontinental railroad. Almost as soon as the railroad was complete, however, Chinese immigrants found themselves at the center of a debate over their presence in their new home; while many in industry saw Chinese labor in the west and eventually the north as a cheap alternative, new nativist movements heavily opposed Chinese presence in the country. This culminated in the 1882* Chinese Exclusion Act, severely limiting new Chinese immigration. By then, some Chinese immigrants had begun to find work in the east, and many settled in what is today Boston’s Chinatown. The community was not large in the first decades of the 1900s, though there are some records that underline their presence and treatment: here, for example, are listings from the 1918 Boston Death Record showing Chinese immigrants who died during the city’s influenza epidemic. Note that their names are followed by the designation “yellow”.
By then, Mount Hope was the main municipal cemetery in Boston. It was also the burial place for Boston’s poor, homeless, and indigent populations, meaning that many Chinese immigrants in the early years wound up there, buried in its unmarked indigent lot (a section of which can be seen below).
By the 1930s, as Chinese immigrants and their children had begun establishing themselves and building some wealth, a marked section of Mount Hope was set aside for Chinese-American burials (there is some discussion I’ve seen that this was a choice by the community, but others – including the Chinese Historical Society – asserts that it was segregated by the cemetery or public officials). The oldest burials I saw were from the early 1950s, and most of the section I looked at was from the 50s and 60s, but some sources say there were earlier burials there. Today, the section remains, though in need of some repair. There have been efforts to do so; a new temple was built to replace the crumbling old one in the 1990s, and a memorial to Boston’s Chinese immigrants was placed in front of it – a nice contemplative spot that serves as a gateway to the grounds. Photos of stones, as well as the memorial and temple, are below.