Chinese presence marked

Photo courtesy Michael Perrone Members of N.J. Chinese American Association visit old Dutch Reformed Church where remains of 19th century Chinese residents of Belleville lie buried in basement.
Photo courtesy Michael Perrone
Members of N.J. Chinese American Association visit old Dutch Reformed
Church where remains of 19th century Chinese residents of Belleville lie
buried in basement.


It is commonly known that in the latter part of the 19th century, waves of Chinese immigrants came to the West Coast of the U.S. and settled in places like San Francisco.

But what many likely don’t know is that the Township of Belleville was also home to a sizeable Chinese community during that era and that a number of them lie buried on the grounds of the old Dutch Reformed Church on Rutgers St.

A delegation from the New Jersey Chinese American Association paid a recent visit to the church, now known as La Senda Antigua Iglesia, to learn more about their long-dead brethren and what, if anything, can be done about their fate.

Helping educate the group, headed by chairman Gary Luo, about the Far East connection was Michael Perrone, president of the Belleville Historical Society, who arranged – through the good offices of La Senda pastor Miguel Ortiz – for them to tour the historic church grounds and cemetery containing the graves of 66 Revolutionary War soldiers and other prominent Americans of that time.

It was actually the second such tour Perrone led during September. Several weeks prior, officials from the Chinese Consul General’s New York office arrived after being made aware that Belleville “was home to the first Chinese community in the eastern part of the U.S.,” he said.

Perrone said he explained to both contingents that, “A year after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, a group of 68 Chinese left San Francisco and arrived in Belleville on Sept. 20, 1870.”

Why they selected Belleville had to do with the presence of a large commercial laundry enterprise within the township that washed and ironed newly made shirts that were sent by New York clothing factories before offering them for sale to the public.

Perrone’s research shows that a retired sea captain, John Hervey, who had made a fortune in real estate, ran the laundry. Hervey hired a labor agent to go to San Francisco to recruit workers for his laundry, reportedly the biggest in the country. It was located on the east bank of the Passaic River on what is now Stevens Place in North Arlington and closed around 1900 although the brick building survived with other uses until it was torn down in 1964.

Generally speaking, it was not an easy time for the new arrivals: In 1882 the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, according to the Harvard University Library Open Collections website, blocked Chinese immigration for a decade and prevented Chinese from attaining U.S. citizenship.

A separate group of Chinese that left Frisco for the East Coast went to North Adams, Mass., where they’d been hired as strikebreakers to cross picket lines at a local shoe factory. Needless to say, they were not made welcome by the community.

But for some reason, Belleville accorded tolerance and hospitality to the immigrants, permitting the Chinese to set up a “Joss House,” a temple or shrine where they would bring offerings of fruits and recite prayers in honor of their ancestors.

In January 1871, Belleville’s Chinese immigrants celebrated their first New Year’s with fireworks and that became an annual tradition, as they were joined by other Chinese traveling to Belleville from New York.

As the Chinese community began to grow, the three churches then existing on Main St. within a block of each other – Dutch Reformed, Methodist and Christ Episcopal – sponsored a Sunday School for the Chinese children called Passaic Hall.

During the 1880s, Dutch Reformed Church claimed to have 40 Chinese among its parishioners. When any of them died, because the church cemetery was dedicated primarily to family plots, the only place available for proper burial was in the church basement where, in fact, one of its pastors was laid to rest, under the pulpit, in 1780. No surving records indicate how many bodies were placed in the church crypt.

By 1888, the Belleville Chinese community’s size peaked at 300 – then constituting about 10% of the township population – and, thereafter, gradually, its members began relocating to Manhattan and to Newark where a Chinatown developed along Mulberry St.

“We’ve spoken to the Chinese American Association about the possibility of re-instituting a Chinese New Year’s celebration in Belleville,” Perrone said.

And, he said, there have also been discussions about creating a monument designating Belleville as the first East Coast Chinese community, contingent on approval by the appropriate government body.

Perrone said the Belleville Historical Society “expressed our interest in excavating the catacombs of the [Dutch Reformed] church for any remains of Chinese parishioners,” but he added that any such effort would first require the removal of “mountains of ashes” from the old coal-fired furnace to expose the dirt below and then, the collection of any bone samples that may still survive.

“We would try to get people from Rutgers University and/or University Hospital in Newark to help us,” Perrone said. “It would be a fascinating

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