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BOOK EXAMINES RITUALS. Pictured is the funeral of Li Po Tai as published in Morning Call, March 23, 1893.

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #18 (May 2, 2006), page 18.

What happens after

Chinese American Death Rituals: Respecting the Ancestors

Edited by Sue Fawn Chung and Priscilla Wegars

AltaMira, 2005

Paperback, 307 pages, $34.95

By Josephine Bridges

While a number of monographs, dissertations, and books describe funeral rites and burial customs in China, only two publications address "Chinese American funerary rituals and cemeteries." Of these two, Chinese American Death Rituals is the more recent and comprehensive, a work that its editors anticipate will "stimulate additional scholarship in this emerging field of inquiry."

Composed of eight chapters by ten authors — among them anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, and librarians — Chinese American Death Rituals covers funeral practices from Nevada to Hawai’i, and from the mid-1800s to present times. Light reading it’s not, but it is a brand-new look at our history, and at times it sneaks up on the reader and positively enthralls. Not bad for a scholarly volume.

The first chapter, by Wendy L. Rouse, is an overview of death rituals both in China and in California, including the importance of fengshui and post-funeral ceremonies, as well as the difficulties encountered by Chinese in California who wanted to exhume and ship bones back to China. "At the height of discriminatory practices against the Chinese," the author writes, "Californians began adopting laws designed to further restrict traditional burial practices. Calling the Chinese hazardous to public health, many towns forced them to bury their dead away from the common burying ground."

In "On Dying American: Cantonese Rites for Death and Ghost-Spirits in an American City," Paul G. Chace describes a diversity of rites performed in Marysville, a mining city in California. These include not only rituals for death and ghost-spirits, but also for birth, marriage, temple rededication, an annual temple festival known as "Bomb Day," Chinese New Year, and Qingming, also known as the Pure Brightness Festival.

Wendy L. Rouse documents archaeological excavations, with maps of excavation sites and photographs of artifacts found in grave pits, at two Chinese cemeteries in Virginiatown, California in the book’s third chapter, concluding that "Chinese immigrants continued to face racial discrimination even into death."

Sue Fawn Chung, Fred P. Frampton, and Timothy W. Murphy collaborated on "Venerate These Bones: Chinese American Funerary and Burial Practices as seen in Carlin, Elko County, Nevada," where, ten years ago, "thirteen coffins were uncovered in a long-forgotten Chinese cemetery." Archaeological evidence suggests that "the Chinese in the American West took aspects of the East and West with them into the afterworld."

The fifth chapter, which focuses on Chinese cemeteries in Idaho and eastern Oregon, is the work of Terry Abraham and Priscilla Wegars. The authors describe grave and burial markers as well as funerary structures, and conclude that "the funerary remains of the West’s Chinese residents persist, both in the documentation and in the landscape. Once overgrown and overlooked, these monuments are now visible reminders of the history of the Chinese in the interior Northwest."

"Remembering Ancestors in Hawai’i" is a study in contrasts. "What is remarkable about these Chinese Hawaiian cemeteries is the individuality of their character," authors Sue Fawn Chung and Reiko Neizman write. "No two are alike in the types of rituals performed or types or sizes of markers used." Qingming, a ceremony in which the dead are remembered and their graves tended, is still celebrated in some of these cemeteries, yet development threatens others; in one case "a mall surrounds a single grave."

Linda Sue Crowder begins the seventh chapter with a vivid description of the music of a brass band and a vintage Cadillac convertible holding a large portrait framed with flowers. This is San Francisco’s Chinatown, "the only Chinatown in North America whose streets, on a regular and frequent basis, continue to have extensive funeral processions." The author titled her last section "Conclusions: Endurance and Perpetuation," and here she points out the many factors contributing to a cultural practice that shows every indication of a thriving future.

"Old Rituals in New Lands: Bringing the Ancestors to America" carries this volume to a close. Detailing a movement among contemporary Chinese Americans to disinter ancestors buried in China and bring them to America —where it is easier and in some cases the only possible way for their descendants to perform post-funeral rituals — author Roberta S. Greenwood describes a significant contrast to the Euro-American concern with the burial ground: "The physical remains and the traditions of honor are important, not the place of interment."

Chinese American Death Rituals will be of special interest to the many members of this community who watched history unfold last year beneath the S.E. Morrison Property, where remains of Chinese ancestors were discovered in what used to be a corner of Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery. Perhaps this segment of our local history will become a chapter in the next work on this fascinating subject.

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