Chinese migrants living in California in the late 1800s often arranged to have their bones sent back to their ancestral villages after death.
Now, a new art exhibit in San Francisco’s Chinatown explores the roots of bone repatriation.
For San Francisco artist Summer Mei Ling Lee, it all started earlier this year when she stared into an empty, dilapidated box.
“When I was confronted by that box, I was really hit with an ineffable moment,” remembers Summer. “I just became very emotional, and I thought, this what I have to do an art project on.”
Back in the late 19th century this very box traveled probably from North America to Hong Kong. But there’s a lot about it that we probably don’t know. It likely once held the bones of a man who left Southern China for work, but wanted to buried back in his ancestral village. Maybe those bones got claimed by his family. Maybe they were vandalized. All that was clear was the name inscribed on the inside of the box.
It was enough to make Summer cry.
“There was this mystery of how did this all happen, and all the different conditions that needed to come together for this particular story to come into being,” says Summer. “And also that this story — like the bone box itself — is very fragile.”
Summer is a third generation Bay Area resident, and the descendant of Chinese immigrants. When she saw the bone box she was in Hong Kong, visiting Tung Wah Hospital, which commissioned her to make an art piece about its history.
The bone boxes’ passage
Since 1872, the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals has provided medical aid to the poor. And early in its existence, the hospital facilitated the repatriation of Chinese immigrants’ bones back to their homeland after they died. It was an effort to observe cultural death rituals, like second burials.
“When a person dies there is a first burial,” explains Summer. “Then after a period of seven to ten years they take up the body clean the bones and then arrange the bones into an urn which then gets buried into an ancestral site.”
In the late 1800s, Chinese laborers living in the Bay Area often arranged to have their recovered bones sent in “bone boxes” back to China.
These bone boxes often had a layover in Hong Kong, where they were kept in Tung Wah Hospital’s Coffin Home. The hospital advertised in local Chinese newspapers, alerting families to come get their loved one’s remains. Some of them made it back home to their villages, and others stayed put.
“They still hold about 200 bone boxes that have been there some for almost 200 years that have been stuck in transit,” says Summer. “They are literally holding a bunch of bone boxes that are still questioning, ‘Will I go home.’ And the truth is that the bone boxes will never go home.”
Summer is struck that even all these years later, the hospital plays the role of the family and remembers the dead.
“Every day the caretaker lights incense to them as offerings that you would provide to your family,” she recounts.
She was so moved by this gesture that she scooped up the ashes leftover from the incense the caretaker had burned in the coffin home and brought them back home back to San Francisco with her.
Those ashes eventually ended up in her installation, “Requiem,” on display at the Chinese Cultural Center.
The installation is dimly lit. Voices murmur in both English and Chinese as you enter. I’m encouraged to use a flashlight to illuminate the faint murals painted on the walls, murals made from that same ash Summer collected. These murals depict an imagined journey of these bone boxes.
Filmy gauze hangs from the ceiling and animated birds float across the walls. At the center of the exhibit, one bone box from Tung Wah Hospital sits on an illuminated pedestal, an empty chair placed in front of it:
“You have to contemplate the idea that there was a lot of suffering in this box,” says Summer. “But there was also a heroic story of an organization that wanted to honor and keep alive this spirit in these boxes ... It's sort of this embedded duty, to take care of those in the afterlife. But that they did it for non-family members I think is the miracle of this story.”
Creating new structures of support
The Chinese Exclusion Act and other subsequent anti-Chinese laws not only banned entry for new immigrants — they also erased the possibility of family life for Chinese people who were already here.
They couldn’t bring their existing families over, and there was little opportunity to create new ones.
San Francisco Chinatown in the late 19th century was a bachelor town, and anti-miscegenation laws outlawed Chinese men from marrying outside their race. But the diasporic Chinese community created new, adaptive structures, like family associations.
“The family association always took on the role of the family if someone didn't have a family here,” says David Lei, a longtime San Francisco resident and informal historian on all things Chinatown. “[It] served a very important function, which in recent years have been taken over by the nonprofits.”
Family made these associations different from benevolent societies and from the tongs, other influential bodies that shaped the governance of Chinatown.
“These are people with the same last name, or people coming from the same district or county,” says Lei. “Which is normally the same dialect group.”
David is part of the Lee family association, one of the oldest and most powerful in San Francisco. Decades ago, soon after his family immigrated, the association helped David’s dad find a job.
“I was told as a kid if I got in trouble anywhere in the world just go to a Lee family association,” David says. “They'll get me a ticket back home or feed me because we are all related.”
When Chinese migrants arrived in the 1800s in San Francisco, they took a similar path: Checking into the association aligned with their last names, and paying dues.
The associations provided opportunities at a time when Chinese were facing extreme discrimination
“Landlords would just say we don’t rent to Chinese people. So whenever the group found a place to rent willingly to Chinese, they would tell others ... when there's a job opening they would refer to other clan members,” David explains. “And this is self-protection.”
These associations helped orchestrate the bone-repatriation process, corresponding with Tung Wah hospital in Hong Kong to make sure the boxes got on the boats.
Today, even though the practice of second burial is gone, the associations still provide burial services for their due-paying members. David remembers what it was like, helping bury the older members who died and didn’t have family here to take care of them.
“Almost every other weekend I was asked to be a pallbearer because they didn't have enough people to carry the casket,” he says. “They gave me twenty dollars.”
David agrees to show me the Lee family association. When we meet, he walks fast, clearly familiar with every nook and cranny of the neighborhood.
I end up chasing him down Chinatown’s narrow streets till we stop at an unassuming door.
On the first floor is the association’s credit union, where David worked in his late 20s. We wind up the stairs where a dozen or so seniors are reading newspapers or playing mahjongg.
The walls are lined with black and white photos of generations of Lees. David cracks a smile and points to a picture of his dad, asking nearby members which snapshots are their parents.
In a grand room on the top floor, the family altar fills a whole wall. A long wooden table faces it. David tells me this is where the family association meets. He jokes that members are less likely to argue, here in the presence of their ancestors.
Ding Lee, another member of the association, busts out a genealogy chart that maps his family a thousand years back.
Most of Ding and David’s family is buried in China and Taiwan — but not everybody.
“The bones are coming back the other way,” David tells me. “I brought my ancestors’ bones here to America.”
“Eventually we would like to do some business right here,” Ding adds. “We are advertising in China because we have a huge columbarium house over here. We are building a house to store all the bones and ash.”
Both Ding and David have done reverse bone repatriations, bringing their ancestors remains here to the United States. They’re getting older, and it’s getting harder to fly back halfway around the world for annual holidays like Qing Ming, where you sweep the ancestors’ graves and make offerings as a sign of respect.
An obligation to remember
For David, it’s important to keep up the rituals that have been passed through his family for generations. But he doesn’t do it for the sake of just doing it. Like his research into Chinatown, he has a scholarly approach that makes him investigate the very why of the matter.
So he read about it. And he thought about it. And to him, the way that Chinese families mark death — it just makes sense. It makes a hard thing easier.
“As I get old, I think about death. I don't think I fear death. I fear that no one will remember me, or what I did, that my life was meaningless and no one would know,” David reflects. “But the Chinese solved this with these rituals and beliefs, of veneration ... there's an obligation to remember.”
An obligation to remember. That phrase rattles around in my head all day long and makes me think about that empty, torn-up bone box in the middle of Summer Lee’s exhibit.
“If you are remembered, you still exist,” she tells me. “And I think ... we are right on the edge, the fragile edge, of remembering these people.”
To be in a bone box meant having no family here. It meant travelling across the ocean to be united, at least in death, with the family you left behind.
The people whose bones were in those boxes — they were forever searching for home, torn between two countries.
But at least they’re not forgotten. In their continued, collective remembrance, their stories are made indelible. They’re woven into a safety net of mourning.
“This is a wonderful thing,” David tells me. “This is our spiritual immortality.”
“Requiem” will be on display until December 23rd at the Chinese Culture Center.