Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
The remains of an altar at the Borden Chinese Cemetery on Avenue 12 sit, scattered after a car crashed into it July 26.
Fate has struck a cruel blow to a unique part of Madera’s history. The Borden Chinese Cemetery’s ancient altar is lying in pieces, the victim of a single-vehicle accident.
Along with seven tombstones and two memorial plaques, the altar was the only remaining tangible evidence that the 19th century town of Borden ever had a Chinatown.
The altar’s demise came at about 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, July 26, when an unnamed driver lost
control of his car and smashed into the shrine.
According to Manuel Guillen, operations supervisor for Madera Irrigation District, the driver was traveling east on Avenue 12, fell asleep and hit the cement altar head-on. He was airlifted to a Fresno hospital.
The age of the altar is a matter of some speculation, but the majority opinion sets its construction circa 1930. There is, however, no doubt about the age of the cemetery itself. The first interment in that little plot on the corner of Road 28 1/2 and Avenue 12 took place in February of 1890, when Borden merchant Man Wah Chan died and was buried there.
In August of the next year, Man Wah’s partner, Yee Chung, purchased the lot, which measures 150 feet by 250 feet, for $200, and it became officially the Borden Chinese Cemetery.
In May 1898, Chung sold it to the Jung Wah Company, a Chinese benevolent society whose purpose was to care for the burial grounds of their countrymen. Over the next three decades, dozens of Chinese burials took place in the Borden cemetery.
Old newspapers record accounts of scores of Chinese burials there. They were generally all conducted along the same lines. A funeral procession began at the home of the deceased and proceeded to the cemetery behind the hearse and someone carrying a banner.
After that came a wagon carrying a Chinese band, “designed to frighten the devil away.” The musicians beat on tom-toms and blew on “squeaky” clarinets continuously. Then came the carriages of professional mourners.
After the internment, the usual offering of chickens was left for the benefit of the departed in the next life.
By 1930, the altar was constructed so that proper rituals with incense, tea, and chickens could be conducted. The food was left on the altar for the deceased, but old timers tell stories of hobos leaving the boxcars of the Southern Pacific to enjoy what was left of the burial ceremony.
Many Maderans will remember how a group of sixth graders from James Monroe School became interested in the Borden Chinese Cemetery 25 years ago. They researched the history of the Chinese of Madera and wrote a book entitled, “The Forgotten Field; The Forgotten People.” Then they unveiled their work in a ceremony at the cemetery.
Among the large crowd that day were the Consul General of the Peoples Republic of China, March Fong Eu; then the California Secretary of State, Albert Chang, the President of the Chinese Historical Society of America. and dozens of Madera’s leading citizens.
The whole affair tugged at the heartstrings of the adult world. It made national news, including page six in the front section of the New York Times and lengthy coverage by CNN.
In what was at the time considered to be a footnote to the project, but later proved to be pivotal, film maker Loni Ding, made a documentary about the project and in an astounding revelation discovered that one of those tombstones at the Borden Chinese Cemetery marked the grave of Woo See Nam who had descendants still alive in China.
With very little coaxing, Loni took her crew to China and found the 81 year-old son of Woo See Nam. She also found his grandchildren, and great grandchildren. They had a reunion of sorts in which the family in China received a plaque containing a photograph of their ancestor’s tombstone. It was the first time they had seen his grave.
Thus it was that the curiosity of school kids prompted the preservation of a cemetery and a greatly expanded understanding of the Chinese experience in Madera. Finally the forgotten people were remembered.
Now the question is, will this continue to be true? After that heap of cement is hauled away, will Maderans continue to think that those dry, old bones at the Borden Chinese Cemetery are still worth honoring?