The Associated Press
DEADWOOD, S.D. (AP) — A ceremonial altar has been dedicated in Deadwood to honor Chinese immigrants who lived in the city when it was a frontier town.
City leaders, history buffs and the descendants of Fee Lee Wong, one of Deadwood’s most successful Chinese pioneer merchants, gathered July 23 at the Mount Moriah Cemetery to dedicate a restored Chinese burner used in the worship of ancestors and in paying homage to the dead.
“What a beautiful morning it is,” Edith Wong, great-granddaughter of Fee Lee, told the nearly 60 people in attendance. “Our ancestors are looking down on us today. We are honored to be here and play a role in Deadwood history.”
Wong invited the audience to take part in the first ceremonies at the altar of the Chinese burner. After the unveiling and the lighting of incense, a parade of participants took turns setting fake 100-million-yen notes ablaze in the burner, sending them to recipients in the afterlife.
“I’m sorry there’s no whole roasted pig in Deadwood today,” Wong said to a chorus of laughs as smoke wafted from the burner’s chimney.
The Rapid City Journal reports that about 400 Chinese immigrants once lived in Deadwood’s Chinatown, maintaining their own police and fire departments, courts, and religious buildings. But by the 1930s most had left the Black Hills.
The original Chinese burner, built primarily from handmade bricks in 1908, gradually deteriorated until all that remained was its foundation. It was restored using about $31,000 from Deadwood Historic Preservation funds.
The project restored an enduring symbol of the town’s rich Chinese culture and history, said Mayor Chuck Turbiville.
Beatrice Wong, 82, said she was pleased that clay bricks, salvaged from the Wing Tsue building that housed her grandfather’s modest empire, were used to reconstruct the Chinese burner. The historic Main Street building was demolished on Christmas Eve 2005.
“Chinatown was virtually wiped from the face of Deadwood,” she said. “Today, we replaced a piece of Chinese history in this town. We have deep gratitude to the Historic Preservation Commission and the people of Deadwood.”
Edith Wong, who brought her eldest son, Rob Mullikin, from California to South Dakota for the ceremony, said Tuesday’s dedication returned a piece of Deadwood’s past to the present and created a lasting reminder that Chinese once flourished in the bustling Wild West town.
“What’s unique about this day is the combination of the Wing Tsue building and its bricks, salvaged by local residents and used in reconstruction of this 1908 burner,” she said. “They have been used to reconstruct the past and create a new history of the Chinese in Deadwood.” (end)