For China’s Gold Rush Prospectors, ‘Bone Scraping’ Was the Last Way Home

2 min
Richard Yue's ancestors came to California seeking a better life. At first, they may have intended to make their fortune and return to China. But over time, they set down roots and helped establish a Chinese community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

During the Gold Rush, thousands of Chinese prospectors came to California looking to "hit pay dirt," and then head home rich. But like so many miners with the same ambition, most Chinese immigrants ended up in less shiny pursuits -- like railroads, restaurants and retail. They sent money back to the home country when they could, and planned to return eventually.

So what happened when they died in California?

Richard Yue owns the Chinese cemetery in Auburn, where his great-grandfather’s bones still lie buried in a terra-cotta pot.

"Unfortunately, somebody popped open the lid of it and stole the skull out of it, but the bones are in there," Yue says.

His ancestors didn’t expect their remains to stay in California. But given the long, expensive boat trip between San Francisco and China in the 19th century, it made more sense to bury the bodies in shallow graves for approximately seven years, and let the perishable flesh decompose first.

You'd have to go looking for Auburn's Chinese cemetery, located as it far off the main drag. Many Chinese communities during the Gold Rush did not have their own cemeteries. Others had several, each dedication to different families coming from different regions of China.
Many Chinese communities during the Gold Rush did not have their own cemeteries. Others had several, each dedication to different families coming from different regions of China. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

In the case of those buried in Auburn, most of the bones were headed back to a particular region of southwestern Guangdong known as Toishan, or Taishan today.

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Yue explains that when enough time had passed, the deceased's relatives would contact one of a handful of companies in San Francisco that did bone scraping.

"[They] would come here and exhume the bones and clean them and arrange them very carefully into tin boxes or into crocks. Then they would take them to San Francisco and have them shipped back to their home village to be buried with their ancestors," Yue says.

What remains of the remains of Richard Yue's great-grandfather, Chong You. Under this cap lies a terra cotta jar with Chong You's bones, minus the skull (stolen by vandals).
What remains of the remains of Richard Yue's great-grandfather, Chong You. Under this cap lies a terra cotta jar with Chong You's bones, minus the skull (stolen by vandals). (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

"Funerary rites are a wonderful lens to understand and view a culture," says Linda Sun Crowder. A cultural anthropologist who teaches at Cal State Fullerton, she's also one of the state’s foremost experts on the practice of Chinese “bone scraping.”

Crowder says the bones are believed to harness powerful energy. "Every Chinese wants to be buried together with their ancestors, so that all the combined energy from these bones will help to fortify the family and bring good fortune."

Even the lowliest laborer would contract -- or his family association would contract for him -- bone scraping in the event of his death. While it was common for many fortune hunters to presume their stay in California would be temporary, the Chinese had strong reasons to doubt they could set down roots.

Anti-Chinese sentiment was rife in 19th century America, peaking in 1882 with the federal establishment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, suspending all immigration of Chinese laborers. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. It would not be repealed until 1943.

Richard Yue's ancestors came to California seeking a better life. At first, they may have intended to make their fortune and return to China. But over time, they set down roots and helped establish a Chinese community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
Richard Yue's ancestors came to California seeking a better life. At first, they may have intended to make their fortune and return to China. But over time, they set down roots and helped establish a Chinese community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. (Photo: Courtesy of Richard Yue)

Bone scraping in the U.S. lasted until the 1950s, in large part because Communist China then was closed off from the rest of the world.

Nowadays, Crowder says, there’s a reverse trend in effect.

"Since many Chinese are now living overseas, they want to, again, keep their family together, and they are bringing remains out of China over to America ... wherever they are making their new home," Crowder says.

"Wherever" means all over the world.

Terry Abraham of the University of Idaho has compiled an impressively long list of Chinese cemeteries outside China.

Today, you can still find Gold Rush-era Chinese cemeteries, or Chinese sections of cemeteries, all over California. Among the altars and stone grave markers you’ll find a number of shallow depressions in the grass-covered earth: the last evidence here of the Chinese whose bones made it back to China.

Many of California's historic Chinese cemeteries are in need of restoration. History buff groups like E Clampus Vitus are working to support that effort, providing clean up crews and plaques explaining the importance of these sites for all.
Many of California's historic Chinese cemeteries are in need of restoration. History buff groups like E Clampus Vitus are working to support that effort, providing cleanup crews and plaques explaining the importance of these sites for all. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

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