Beyond the manicured, lush lawn of Forestvale Cemetery lies a weedy field of grasses and prickly pear cactus with a few tombstones -- some of them broken. On the nearby ground are pottery and glass shards and a mound of bricks that was once a funerary burner.
This is China Row, where more than 200 Chinese people from Helena and surrounding towns were buried between 1890 and 1955.
Some of the bodies were exhumed from the graves and shipped back to China.
Most of those buried here lie in unmarked graves, according to historians and archaeologists.
Among them were 41-year-old Yut Quay, a gardener who died of gangrene Dec. 18, 1900; China Baby Kee, 2 months old, who died of flu; and Lee Sing, 44, who was killed in a railroad accident in 1904.
Some worked as placer miners, cooks, merchants, laborers, housewives and laundrymen, and at least one was a rancher.
Others remain nameless and are listed on burial records as just “Chinaman.”
The almost forgotten graves are one of the few reminders of what was once a vibrant, active community in Helena.
Coming to America
In 1870, Chinese made up 22 percent, or one in five, of Helena’s residents, according to Christopher Merritt, an archaeologist with the Utah State Division of State History, who wrote his dissertation on the Chinese in Montana, “The Coming Man from Canton, Chinese Experience in Montana (1862-1943).”
And Chinese immigrants made up more than 10 percent of the territory’s population at that time.
Forestvale was one of the major Chinese cemeteries in Montana, Merritt said. The others were in Philipsburg and Mount Moriah in Butte.
An important and rare feature at Forestvale was the brick funerary burner, said Merritt, which is now just a heap of bricks, either from neglect or vandalism.
“It was really a fixture of China Row,” he said. Merritt located hundreds of artifacts there, including buttons, fragments of pottery and glass. Clothes and items of the deceased were burned in the burner at the funeral to send them into the afterlife, so the deceased’s spirit would not wander hungry or cold.
Patricia Bik, a former deputy state historic preservation officer with the Montana Historical Society, wrote a report in 1993, when Forestvale Cemetery and China Row were nominated for listing with the National Register of Historic Places.
On this past Tuesday morning, she walked the area, which has deteriorated further since her report was written. “These are crude crockery used for storing food items,” she said of one fragment she found in the grass. “There would have been offerings left at the site,” as part of the burial ceremony. Typically they included traditional foods and drinks.
About 5 million Chinese left homeland China in the late 19th century, wrote Bik in her report. Largely from Guangdong Province near Canton, they were driven to leave home by famine and civil war, which would eventually kill 20 million people in that province, according to MHS historian Ellen Baumler.
The major spur to come to the United States was the California gold strike of 1848, wrote Bik.
When the Chinese miners came, many expected to stay but a few years and then go home.
But because of a number of circumstances -- low wages, discrimination and hostile and discriminating legislation -- many would never make enough money to return home.
“All too often the millennial dream of good fortune receded into an ever-long future,” with the sojourners sending money home to a wife and children, she wrote.
A series of discriminatory laws prevented wives and children from joining the men. Among them were the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1888 Scott Act.
Then in 1892, the Geary Act required alien Chinese laborers to be photographed and obtain certificates of residence. “Between 1924 to 1930, no Chinese wives legally entered the United States,” wrote Bik.
As a result of these laws, many Chinese men lived out their lives here as lonely bachelors.
Anti-miscegenation laws outlawed interracial marriages in many states, including Montana.
The Chinese faced intense discrimination, said Bik, including in Helena, where in 1892 a meeting was held to urge employers to dismiss their Chinese help. In some towns, Chinese miners were attacked or burned out.
Under the Geary Act, local law enforcement from 1901 to 1906 rounded up more than 100 Chinese men, holding them for deportation.
Community in Helena
From the 1870s on, a vibrant Chinese community in Helena lived and owned businesses near the south end of what is now Last Chance Gulch, Park Avenue, Cutler and State streets.
All these buildings were bulldozed by the Helena Urban Renewal Program, removing any historic sites indicating the Chinese presence here except for the Yee Wau Cabin at 300 S. Park Ave. It was associated with the Yee Wau brothers who owned a grocery store on South Main Street.
“So many of them were stranded in the United States,” said Bik. ”China Row itself is a sad example,” referring to the mostly unmaintained area that’s excluded from the rest of the cemetery.
Those who walk the five-row area of China Row may see depressions in the soil.
Some of these are believed to be the result of where bones of the deceased were exhumed and shipped back to China.
In Chinese traditions, it was really important to have their bones close to relatives, said Merritt. “If you don’t have people to make offerings after death, you exist in limbo.
“When the Chinese arrived, many of them bought insurance to get their bones shipped back to China,” said Baumler. “Bone collectors would make big sweeps through an area.”
In fact, grave markers with names of the deceased and their place of birth would be logical places for bone pickers to find the bones of those who had paid a fee to be returned to China, said Merritt. But the bone pickers looked for specific deceased.
Merritt knows that at least 13 Chinese men from the county poor farm were buried in China Row and would not have had the money for their bones to be shipped home.
“The story is that people think all of the Chinese were disinterred. That rarely happened,” Merritt said.
Inclusion in Forestvale Cemetery
“I always thought they (China Row) should be included in the Forestvale Cemetery fence,” he said. “I broached it with them (the cemetery board) in 2008-2009 that we could get a grant to fence it. They just denied it is an active part of the cemetery and didn't see the need for the expense.”
Likewise, Bik has spoken out about China Row: “The fence at Forestvale Cemetery, which excludes China Row from the maintained part of the cemetery, is a modern day reminder of the xenophobia of European Americans.”
But things may be changing. A few years from now, China Row could get some long-awaited attention.
Richelle Depew, a member of the Forestvale Cemetery Preservation Board, said a fence for China Row is “in our game plan in 2016.”
“It would be something quite simple, not a chain link fence,” she said. “We’re thinking of a nice fence,” and putting in a nice, more natural style path with maybe a historic monument. “We don’t want that area forgotten. We do want to do something.”
The preservation board is always welcoming informational input and new members, she said.