Salem’s Hidden Past: The Chinese Shrine at Salem Pioneer Cemetery

By Kirsten Straus ::

Tucked away on the northern edge of the Salem Pioneer Cemetery used to lie a small, cement shrine dedicated to “unknown friend[s].”[1] Unbeknownst to most Salemites, this shrine is some of the last remaining evidence of the Chinese who called Salem home around the turn of the nineteenth century. Recently, the City of Salem Historic Planning Office, under the leadership of Kimberli Fitzgerald, has undertaken an effort to uncover (literally!) this hidden piece of Salem history. I will share some of the experiences I have had while working as research assistant on this exciting project.

According to newspaper records from the turn of the nineteenth century, the Chinese residents of Salem ran laundries, restaurants, and general merchandise shops. As they lived here, they also died here, and a small section of the Salem Pioneer Cemetery (formerly the I.O.O.F Rural Cemetery) was reserved for their use. Accompanying the graves was a small cement shrine, with a marble inset inscribed with Chinese characters. Chinese burial tradition places great importance on family members caring for their ancestors’ remains in person. Chinese who died in America were buried for around ten years and then their remains were disinterred and shipped back to China.

The Chinese in Salem were no exception and there are few, if any, remains of Chinese people left in this section of the cemetery. What is remaining, however, is the small shrine that was likely used in spring and fall rituals which honored the dead. The shrine fell out of use after the Chinese were largely pushed out of Salem; a city council ordinance passed in 1903 ordered that Chinatown be burned down because it was a “menace to public health and morals.”[2]

Though another intern had been working on a project about Salem’s Chinatown for the city, no one knew about the shrine. Last year, however, that changed when we discovered a newspaper article about a shrine uncovered in the cemetery. This 1963 article shows Salem City Parks director Charles Gale kneeling next to the shrine after it was uncovered from a tangle of brush during a cleanup of the cemetery.[3] Determined to find the location of this shrine, Kimberli Fitzgerald, the City of Salem Historic Preservation Officer, and I took a trip to the cemetery. Rick Hilts, the owner of adjoining City View Cemetery and who spent much of his childhood there because his father was the owner before him, was called in to help our search. Luckily, he remembered right where the shrine used to be and led us to the “L” of cement pictured above. We were both excited to find the shrine but disappointed to find it was in such an altered state. What happened to the shrine in the years after 1963?

While the answer to that question still eludes us, archeological excavation revealed the remains of the shrine as well as a few extra mysteries. One of the most interesting findings was that the cement pad cut through the bottom character of the marble inset. This suggests that the cement shrine is actually a later iteration. Supporting this fact are the bricks found at the very edge of the shrine, under the cement. Further excavations are planned to attempt to confirm this theory.

Ultimately, the goal of this project is to offer interpretation about the shrine and Chinese influence on Salem during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An advisory committee, made up of members of the Chinese, cemetery, and history communities, is aiding the city in this endeavor. In reflecting on this project thus far, it’s obvious that luck is often just as important as research skill in saving history on the brink of being lost forever.[4]



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[1] “A Forgotten Place?” Daily Capital Journal, October 5, 1968, p. 28. Photo by author, taken August 30, 2017.

[2] “Chinatown Condemned,” Daily Oregon Statesman, January 21, 1903, p. 3.

[3] “Shrine uncovered in Pioneer Cemetery,” Oregon Statesman, March 24, 1963, p. 6.

[4] Photos of excavated shrine by the author, taken November 8, 2017.