Winston Ho 何嶸.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
Departments of History and Asian Languages and Cultures
2016 Apr. 4. (updated 2020 Jun. 2).
[The Chinese Society Tomb at Cypress Grove Cemetery. Winston Ho, 2010.]
The Chinese Society Tomb at Cypress Grove Cemetery was built in July of 1904 by the Chinese American community in New Orleans. It is also known as the Soon On Tong Vault, the Chinese Mausoleum, and the Chinese Cemetery.
The Chinese first settled in Louisiana in significant numbers after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, during Reconstruction following the U.S. Civil War. By the 1890s, a small Chinatown 唐人街 had developed at the end of Tulane Avenue, and the Chinese could be found throughout the city, working as merchants, shopkeepers, shrimpers, and laundrymen. The Chinese also built a Chinese Society Tomb in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, which is still there today, although it is a typical New Orleans multi-vault tomb, with no marking to indicate its Chinese history. The New Orleans Chinatown was demolished by the WPA in 1937.
During this period, most Chinese in Louisiana were Cantonese-speakers from the Seiyap region 四邑 or “Four Counties” of central Guangdong province, in South China. They were the sojourners 留客, fathers and sons who worked in North America, but left their wives and younger children behind in China. They called North America Gamsan 金山, “Gold Mountain,” a land of opportunity, but also a distant, alien, and dangerous country. The sojourners sent their income back to their families, and they would travel to Guangdong province every few years, only to return to their businesses and jobs in Louisiana. They hoped to return home after they died (樹高千丈，葉落歸根 “A tree may grow a thousand feet high, but the leaves return to their roots”).
[The Chinese Society Tomb at Cypress Grove Cemetery (Soon On Tong Vault). 1904. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection ( http://www.usgulfcoaststatesgeotourism.com/content/chinese-tomb-at-cypress-grove/gulC753F6E5631D23168 ).]
Thus, the Chinese commissioned the construction of this tomb in Cypress Grove Cemetery in 1904 originally for temporary interments. The deceased could be interred here for many months, until the family could make arrangements for the construction of a permanent tomb, and for the transportation of the remains back to China. An entire industry once existed to exhume and package the bones, move the remains across North America to San Francisco, across the Pacific Ocean to Hong Kong, and then the towns and villages of China.
Although this tomb features Chinese writing and other Chinese characteristics, there were no Chinese tomb builders in Louisiana, so the Chinese hired local tomb builders. As such, the Cypress Grove Tomb is very different from tombs in China, or even Chinese tombs in other U.S. cities. Instead, it resembles other society tombs in New Orleans, with features such as cast-iron fencing and a barrel-vaulted central chamber, easily found at other tombs in Cypress Grove cemetery.
[Tomb of Hom Sang. Winston Ho, 2010.]
By the 1940s, most Chinese men had moved their wives and children to New Orleans, and with the Communist Revolution in Mainland China in October of 1949, the return of remains to Guangdong province became impossible. So in the winter of that year, the Cypress Grove Tomb was extensively renovated and designated as a site for permanent burials. The Chinese Society Tomb continued to serve the Chinese community until 1991, when the last interment was made. Today, most Chinese are buried in multi-vault family tombs, such as the neighboring Hom family tomb, identical to the tombs of other immigrant families who call New Orleans home.
[Title Plaque. Winston Ho, 2010.]
The four Chinese characters inscribed on the plaque near the top of the tomb, when read from right to left, are 中華義坆 “the Chinese Tomb.” Beneath this inscription is a date in English, “July 19, 1904.”
Though barely visible from the ground, there are two additional columns of Chinese characters on the right and left of the plaque. Both columns are dates. When this tomb was built, all of the inscriptions were painted, and flecks of black paint are still visible inside the characters.
The column on the right, from top to bottom, reads 中歷光緒三拾年孟夏六月吉日立 “By the Chinese Calendar, dedicated on this propitious day of the 30th Year of the Emperor Guangxu, in summer, in the sixth month.” This date corresponds to July of 1904.
On the left, the characters read 西歷一千玖百零四年七月十九号 “By the Western Calendar, the year 1904, the seventh month, the 19th day.”
Above the main plaque, there is a second plaque, which reads in English “Chinese Cemetery.” Beneath these words is another barely visible row of Chinese characters, which read 一千九百四十九年冬日重修 “Restored in the Winter of 1949.”
[Title Plaque. Leonard Huber, 1904. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection.]
Notice that this second plaque did not exist when the tomb was originally built in 1904. Instead, the words “Soon On Tong” appears at the top of the main plaque. The Soon On Tong Association was the organization that originally commissioned the tomb. During the restoration in 1949, “Song On Tong” was apparently removed from the tomb and replaced by the horizontal bar that appears in its place, while the second plaque was added above it.
[Altar with Offering Burner. Winston Ho, 2010]
Inside the tomb, to the right of the altar 祭壇 , there is an offering burner 金爐, a common feature in traditional Chinese tombs. This furnace-like structure is used for the burning of sacrificial offerings, especially paper spirit money 金紙, which may be spent by the deceased in the next world. The offering burner is connected to a chimney-like structure behind the tomb. There are also the remains of a cast-iron fence behind the tomb.
[Spirit Tablet. Winston Ho, 2010.]
The altar is likewise used for sacrificial offerings and incense. Behind the altar, there is a spirit tablet 神位 with four characters, 先友坆墓, which may be translated as “Tomb of friends past.” It is a dedication by the friends and relatives of the deceased, who are separated from their families back in China.
[Vault 5, Tomb of Hom Neing-foo 廣東台山泉譚迎富??. Winston Ho, 2010.]
The only other inscriptions inside the tomb are Western letters and numerals marking the individual vaults. However, a few vaults are covered with handwritten names in Chinese characters, marking the location of individual interments. These handwritten names are decades old and very delicate. At one time, the vaults were covered with such writing, but weather and time has erased most of them.
Ho, Winston. “The Chinese Tomb at Cypress Grove.” Clio’s Quill, vol. 13 (2011), p. 31-51.
Huber, Leonard, and the Friends of the Cabildo. “New Orleans Cemeteries: A Brief History.” New Orleans Architecture: The Cemeteries. Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican Publishing, 1996 (originally published in 1974). Pages 27-32. [The Chinese Society Tomb is the “Soon On Tong Vault” on page 30.]
The WPA Writers Project. “Cemeteries.” New Orleans City Guide. New Orleans, Louisiana: Garrett County Press, 2009 (originally published in 1938). Pages 201-202. [The Chinese Society Tomb is the “Chinese Mausoleum” on page 202. Also, New Orleans Chinatown is mentioned on page 364 as part of “Motor Tour 3,” where it is described as the “Chinese Center” on Tulane Avenue near South Rampart Street.]
Firemen’s Charitable & Benevolent Association, Cypress Grove Cemetery Official Website. http://www.greenwoodnola.com/cypress-grove/
Chung, Sue Fawn (editor), Wegars, Priscilla (editor), and All. Chinese American Death Rituals: Respecting the Ancestors. Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press, 2005. Pages 1-17.