Three Chinese pioneers of Ashland died nearly a century ago and were buried in cemeteries here, only to be dug up in 1948 for shipment home — but their bodies never made it.

Three Chinese pioneers of Ashland died nearly a century ago and were buried in cemeteries here, only to be dug up in 1948 for shipment home — but their bodies never made it.

It's a confusing mystery that came to light only because a Portland public radio listener found some dusty, old burial records while cleaning out his home — and sent them anonymously to journalist Tom Banse of Seattle, who covers the Northwest for National Public Radio.

The records tell the tale of 550 disinterred Chinese across Oregon, including Wong Wong, 65, who died in 1917 and was buried at Mountain View Cemetery on Ashland Street. And of Quong Sing, 60, and Wang Wang, 55, who died in 1906 and 1913, respectively, and were buried at Old Ashland Cemetery on East Main Street at Morton Street.

There was no one here who could visit their graves and honor them with burning of paper effigies of things they might need in the next world, such as paper homes, according to Banse's story.

"The connection between the living and the dead is very important in Chinese culture," Banse said in a phone interview. "The departed are looking out for our best interests, and people revere their ancestors by visits to their graves. So the bones had to be sent home."

That was carried out during the first half of the past century by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in Portland, which collected $5 from Chinese laborers as they entered the country — to be used for the shipment of their remains home, if needed, said Banse, who spent four months researching the story.

The remains of the Chinese men were sent to Portland in 1948 and put on a ship to China. But because the payment was embezzled by a shipping agent and the turmoil of the Communist revolution of 1949, which closed the borders for decades, the bodies were warehoused in a charity hospital in Hong Kong, says Banse, and remain there today.

Ashland Railroad Museum Director Victoria Law has done extensive research on the burials, along with many presentations about the contributions of Chinese settlers to the Oregon frontier and says she has found nine such burials in Ashland, "some still in the ground." There were three in Old Ashland Cemetery and six in Mountain View, she notes, adding that two or three women and girls are also buried here — only males were shipped back to home villages.

It's an old tradition that if a Chinese man died away from home, he was buried, then, years later, only his bones dug up and shipped home. Many of the Chinese men in Ashland worked on building the north-south railroad in the 1880s.

Finding the answers to the mystery was a "real challenge, says Banse.

"The tipster wouldn't talk to me. He just said the documents were valuable and he sent them to me. He was afraid if he gave them to the Oregon Historical Society, that they would disappear down a black hole."

Banse visited old cemeteries and the Kam Wah Chung Co. Building, which is now a state park in John Day with an extensive collection of Chinese pioneer artifacts. There he learned the full story of Chinese workers and the bitter discrimination against them, he notes.

Banse contacted the CCBA in Portland. They asked that he return the records. NPR told Banse to digitize them first and donate them to universities interested in the topic.

In its annual Tombstone Tales, re-enacting characters from Ashland history, the museum will feature Quong Sing, one of the disinterred Chinese men, in period costume, played by Joey Ngan, an investigative analyst with the Ashland Police Department and a board member of the Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association. Wang Wang will also be portrayed. Tombstone tales will be performed at 4 p.m. June 30, and July 1, 7 and 8 in the Old Ashland Cemetery.

Law found an Ashland Daily Tidings story from 1893 noting that Quong had purchased the Wah Lee Chinese Laundry on Oak Street at the railroad tracks. Law says Quong's ancestor founded his village of Chong-Yun 740 years ago — and she is trying to contact his family members and connect them with the man's fate in America and the tale of his remains.

Breathing life into Chinese history in the West is a positive step for the region and family descendants, says Banse.

"There is so little documentation here from the old days about who lived where and when. It's great to see it being revived and I hope the remains can finally make their way home.

"There are probably some restless spirits around their remains now."

Banse will be interviewed on Jefferson Public Radio's Jefferson Exchange at 9 a.m. Friday.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.