Yee Chung, shown here in the center, was the dean of the Chinese community in Borden. He arranged for the burial of his friend, Man Wah Chan, in the Borden Chinese Cemetery and then purchased the site to ensure its preservation as a Chinese burial ground. (Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society
For the past few days, ever since the altar at the Borden Chinese Cemetery was demolished in an accident, I have been thinking back on some of the stories I have heard and read about that tiny burial plot just across the road from the Madera Irrigation District offices. One of the most memorable ones has to do with an internment there in 1890.
That was the year Borden Chinese merchant Man Wah Chan was buried, but it took a while for his dust to settle peacefully.
Man Wah came to this area seeking gold, and when the placer mining in the foothills gave out, he moved to the upper Fresno River to operate a trading post. Endowed with unusual business acumen, the Chinese merchant established himself financially through his merchandising.
In 1872, the Southern Pacific laid its tracks south through the San Joaquin Valley, creating scores of fledgling railroad towns in its wake. When Leland Stanford founded Borden near what is now Avenue 12 and State Route 99, Man Wah decided it was time to leave the foothills and give the flatlands a try. He opened a dry goods store in Borden from whence he served the growing Anglo and Chinese populations.
In the years that followed, the Chinese merchant expanded his business to include four stores in what is now Madera County but was then part of Fresno County. His place in local history should have been secure even without the bizarre turn of events that surrounded his death.
On Jan. 20, 1890, Man Wah Chan passed on to his eternal reward from his home in Borden’s Chinatown. He was laid to rest in the Borden Chinese Cemetery “with all the ceremony attendant in the case of so prominent a Chinaman…”
The food for the spirit of the departed was placed near the grave, and the family retired to its home to deal with the details of settling his considerable estate. There was, however, a fly in the buttermilk; Man Wah Chan had died intestate. He had left no last will and testament.
Man Wah’s brother promptly rode to Fresno where he conferred with S.J. Hinds, the family attorney. Hinds contacted the Fresno County coroner, who in turn quickly consulted his own attorney, F. H. Short. At issue was Man Wah’s legacy. Who could best administer the estate until the final distribution?
Short contended that Man Wah’s family was not competent and that the Fresno County coroner should be given special letters of administration allowing him immediate but temporary control of the estate. After all, Short argued, someone had to look after the interests of the deceased merchant’s family.
At that point, some of the citizens of Madera got riled up over this intrusion from south of the San Joaquin River. Elmer Cox, at the time an official of the Madera Flume and Trading Company, made a counter-proposal to Short’s application. Cox petitioned the court that he be appointed administrator of the estate, and in this he was supported by Ah Yee, the widow of Man Wah Chan.
The court took the matter under advisement and promised a speedy decision. Unfortunately, it wasn’t speedy enough. At 2 p.m. on Feb. 3, 1890, Ah Yee died. Immediately some folks cried foul play. Wild stories circulated that the widow Chan, who was an invalid, had been forced to mourn over her husband’s death by being held over his corpse for hours.
Others alleged that Ah Yee had been poisoned.
Immediately a contingent of officials invaded Borden to get at the heart of the matter. The coroner sent his deputy, accompanied by two physicians, to perform an autopsy. In addition to the medical men, scores of interested lawyers and newspapermen followed.
When the party arrived in Borden, they found things in a “wild state of confusion. Folks were at a loss to know why so many had swooped down upon it at once.” Each member of the Fresno group was eyed with suspicion.
The deputy coroner decided to hold an inquest and autopsy concurrently, whereupon the family of Man Wah and Ah Yee protested vigorously. So strident were they that assistance from the constable’s office was sought.
While Fresno doctors Maupin and Pedlar performed the autopsy under the protection of the law, the inquest proceeded under the watchful eyes of the deputy coroner.
Man Wah’s brother, after being pushed into the room where the testimony was being given, asserted that Ah Yee had never indicated she was ever in physical distress. In addition, a servant girl of the deceased merchant testified that Ah Yee had grieved to the point of exhaustion and had taken no nourishment during the time between her husband’s death and her own demise.
The allegations of foul play were further weakened by the report of the autopsy, which was performed next door. Dr. Maupin revealed that Ah Yee had died of a “lack of vitality.” He stated while a “slight congestion of the lungs was present, no evidence of violence or corrosive poisons was found.”
With that, the matter was closed. The family of Man Wah and Ah Yee prevailed. Cox was made the administrator of the estate, and it was distributed according to the law.
For years the memory of Man Wah Chan was affected by the turmoil surrounding his passing and that of his wife. The circus that resulted from the attempts to administer his estate eclipsed the very real contributions he made to local history.
Today he lies almost forgotten beneath the cracked soil of the Borden Chinese Cemetery.