If you heard strange voices rising from the St. Helena Cemetery as you passed on down Spring Street on Sunday, Sept. 10, or spotted oddly clothed figures roaming the graveyard, rest assured it was not your overactive imagination.
The St. Helena Historical Society was holding its 15th “Spirits of St. Helena Cemetery Tour.” It was a guided tour of the ancient resting places of our ancestors, and this year those representative ancestors were the Chinese laborers who are buried in the unmarked graves along Sulphur Creek.
The program, which attracted record crowds on Sunday, was a collaborative effort by the Historical Society and the St. Helena High School Drama Department. Students, dressed in period appropriate attire, stood in for the spirits of residents who are buried in the graveyard. Each told their personal story through historical skits written by historian Mariam Hansen.
Like many small California towns in the late 1800s, St. Helena once had a thriving Chinese community consisting of as many as 400 people (mostly men, according to Hansen). They worked in vineyards and on construction sites in the valley and they also opened stores selling goods and produce, often inviting their non-Chinese neighbors to buy their products.
Indeed, these immigrants had come for the same opportunities that every immigrant sought in the valley at that time, according to Hansen. Many sent home their paltry wages (according to Hansen as little as a dollar-a-day) to help other members of their families emigrate from China.
But unlike the European settlers who came into the valley, the lives of the Chinese, Hansen said, were severely restricted because of racial and cultural prejudices that culminated in laws that deprived them of their human rights. Ultimately, according to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, it even deprived them of their livelihoods.
Likewise, in St. Helena there were also activities and structures that were clearly aimed at targeting the population. Such was the controversy of Chinese immigration into the U.S. and the “Spirits of St. Helena Cemetery Tour” skits didn’t skirt the historical issue in any way.
One such dramatization was between Civil War hero William T. Simmons (played by Cameron Caldwell) and the landlord of Chinatown, John Gillam (Nicolas Jeworowski). Simmons was the president of the St. Helena Anti-Coolie League in 1885 and it was in front of his gravesite that the audience found the spirits of Simmons and Gillam arguing about the Chinese.
The script revealed a perceived moral authority of Simmons who complained about the gambling dens and opium houses within Chinatown. Gillam, on the other hand, merely wanted a decent return on his real estate investment across from Long Meadow Ranch where the shacks of the laborers were located. Ultimately, in the skit, Gillam accepts an offer from Simmons to buy Chinatown at a reduced price so that it might be shut down. Historically, however, Chinese residents appealed their evictions for years within the California court system. Ultimately their appeals were thrown out by the California Supreme Court.
There were many other graveside skits during the tour, including a talk by Chinese entrepreneur “Ginger” (played by Frank Lenny). Ginger owned a Chinese store that sold hats, slippers, tea, sugar and rice, and he was a proud member of the community, according to the skit. He even belonged to the Chinese Masonic Lodge in Napa, and he often invited St. Helena townspeople to celebrate Chinese New Year by giving away firecrackers and holding parties. When Ginger died at the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese Six Companies arranged to ship his remains back to his homeland. But Ginger’s spirit, according to the skit, still resides in the lush, pastoral cemetery of St. Helena.
Other skits included the sprits of Foon Kin and Lem Hung (played by Hailey Peterson and Eva Grace); James and Unity Logan (played by Alfred Ochoa and Ivy Shaw); Lee Hau and Long You (played by Dawson Landis and Georgia Anders); and advocate for Chinese girls and renown social worker Donaldina Cameron of San Fransico, known affectionately at Lo Mo (played by Carrie Steel) with Chinese girl students (played by Amelia Parr and Avery Russum).
The genius of this production was how the historical skits and the roles played by the St. Helena High School Drama Department – under Patti Coyle’s direction – transformed a forgotten history of St. Helena into a flesh-and-blood theater production within St. Helena’s historic and picturesque cemetery. The grave markers of the non-Chinese residents are clearly marked with large granite headstones today, while the headstones (as well all the cemetery records) of the Chinese laborers have been lost to history. Whether this omission occurred through neglect or simply because of the past flooding of Sulphur Creek will undoubtedly remain one of the mysteries of this forgotten past.
Yet, some Chinese grave markers are still visible today, though they are merely stones laid in the farthest corners of the cemetery.
Frank Lenny, who played the part of Ginger as a last moment stand in, said that the experience was an unexpected thrill.
“I was dropping off a couple of friends who were in the drama program,” he said. “But the person who was to play Ginger was sick, so they asked me to do it. I read the script just twice, but once I was actually playing the part, it was really interesting. I learned a lot. I hadn’t known about the Chinese here in St. Helena.”