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Preserving the memory of a forgotten people

Madera County Historical Society

Frank Tuck is shown here, second from the left. Assisting him in the 1966 unveiling of the new plaque commemorating the Borden Chinese Cemetery are Gim Woo, far right, and three members of E Clampus Vitus.


When fate struck that cruel blow to the Borden Chinese Cemetery in July 2016, and its altar was destroyed in a single auto accident, my mind jumped back almost 30 years — to April 1992 — when a group of local residents from various walks of life joined a hundred or so school children to pay their respects to the Chinese pioneers of Madera County. The observance took place at that same old Chinese Cemetery. The tribute was dubbed, “The Forgotten Field, the Forgotten People.”

A treasure trove of new information was presented to the community that day by the student historians. They had performed a title search to determine when the Chinese acquired the property for a burial ground. They had scrutinized census reports to discover the demographic patterns of the Chinese in what is now Madera County. Scores of death certificates and mortuary records gave many of the particulars of some of the forgotten people who had been laid to rest in that cemetery. Never before had the Borden Chinese Cemetery been investigated with such fruitful results.

This is not to say, however, that there were none who knew about the cemetery. Area farmers like Aubry Baker had taken it upon themselves to rid the site of weeds and debris. Joe Inami often visited one of the graves to pay homage to an old Chinese gentleman who had “been like a father to him.” Indeed, there had been a handful of individuals who had kept the site from falling into the absolute abyss of oblivion.

As these events of that April morning unfolded, with all of the attendant publicity, one very interested person stood quietly in the wings and watched. He was 83-year-old Frank Tuck, the “venerable dean of the Chinese community in Fresno.” Tuck had become interested in the Borden Chnese Cemetery when, as a little boy his father pointed it out to him every time they traveled past the Borden railroad station. The elder Tuck kept alive the memory of the Chinese, who had been interred in the 150 x 250 foot lot on the corner of Avenue 12 and Road 28 1/4, with repetitive reminders never to forget that sacred spot.

This history lesson took well with Frank Tuck, and it should have. He descended from a true Fresno County pioneer and was the recipient of a wealth of lore on the Chinese experience in Fresno and Madera Counties. His grandfather, Ah Kitt, immigrated to the Millerton area from China to pan for gold. Forsaking that hit-and-miss endeavor, the Chinese gentleman entered into partnership with Jeff Shannon in the blacksmith business. Unlike most of his countrymen, Kitt’s memory was kept alive, and his grandson never lost his drive to preserve his cultural heritage.

Although he became involved in a plethora of community activities, Frank Tuck never forgot the Borden Chinese Cemetery. He never forgot those trips up and down the Valley with his father, during which he was constantly reminded of the existence of the burial site as they passed the old Borden depot. As the years rolled on, Frank developed a concern for the cemetery; by the 1960s, that concern had developed into a passion.

Frank Tuck was determined that the Borden Chinese Cemetery would never be forgotten, so he lobbied the Jim Savage chapter of E Clampus Vitus to memorialize the site with a plaque. On Oct. 30, 1966, Tuck’s vision for the Borden Chinese memorial materialized. A new altar was built to replace the one that had originally stood in the middle of the bright, red enclosure. Fixed to that altar was Tuck’s memorial, which read in part, “Many originally buried here have been removed to the home land of their ancestors. Many still sleep here in the home land of their descendants.” Tuck left the place that day convinced that, having done his duty, the significance of the Borden Chinese Cemetery would always be remembered. He was wrong.

No one knows for sure when the vandals came. It was probably in the 1970s. When they did strike, however, Tuck’s plaque was the first victim. It was ripped from the altar and hauled away. The altar was then turned sideways, as the thieves apparently searched underneath in hopes of finding a cache of valuables. Frank Tuck’s dream was thwarted, but only temporarily.

Through the sleuthing of the students from James Monroe School, a new focus was turned toward the old cemetery, and on Oct. 3, 1992, their findings were synthesized into a published work. Once again, the public gathered at the Borden Chinese Cemetery and Frank Tuck was there. He was honored as the keeper of the dream and an inspiration to his young colleagues, all of whom felt as he did, that this sacred soil must always be remembered.

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