If you were in the vicinity of the historic Belleville Dutch Reformed Church at Main and Rutgers Sts. on Saturday morning, you might have thought there was a VIP funeral going on. Belleville PD vehicles, their lights flashing, lined the curb, and in the church cemetery, more than 100 people stood in the wind and the rain, crowded among the gravestones.
But this wasn’t about death. It was instead a celebration of life – the life of a vibrant immigrant community that made Belleville its home nearly 150 years ago. And the wind and the rain could not dampen the spirits of those who gathered beneath the brilliant-yellow, dragon-bedecked Chinese emperor’s flag to honor that community’s memory.
The occasion was the unveiling and dedication of the very first monument to the very first Chinese immigrant settlement in the eastern United States. Yes, that settlement was in Belleville, not – as usually, and wrongly, assumed – in Manhattan’s “Chinatown.”
As explained by Michael Perrone, president of the Belleville Historical Society, after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the Chinese laborers on the West Coast who had come to America to work on the project found themselves both unemployed and the victims of discrimination. Seeking a better life, they looked eastward.
One of the places eager to employ them was the Passaic Steam Laundry, the largest commercial laundry in the country. The huge complex, owned by a retired sea captain, James Hervey, was on the eastern side of the Passaic River, “just over the Belleville bridge near the present-day Arlington Diner,” Perrone noted in an article he wrote. “A second and smaller laundry was located on the Belleville side of the river and operated by retired Civil War Major William Blewett.”
“On Sept. 20, 1870, after a two-week train ride from San Francisco, 68 Chinese men and boys, ranging in age from 13 to 32, arrived in Belleville,” Perrone noted.
Initially, Perrone told us, the workers were housed in dormitories at the laundries, but as the population grew, and families were established, the Chinese settled throughout the town, which “eventually became home to hundreds” of these immigrants.
“The first Chinese funeral was here in November 1870, the first Chinese New Year was celebrated here in January 1871, the first school for the Chinese opened here in September 1871, and the first Chinese place of worship was located here,” Perrone wrote.
That funeral was for 28-year-old Ah Ling, one of the first workers to arrive, who died only two months later. His grave was in North Arlington, and on Saturday, an urn containing earth from the hillside where he had been interred was buried beneath the monument. The urn also held earth from the catacombs under the Reformed Church (now La Senda Antigua), where Chinese who had become church members had been interred “with the hopes of one day returning their remains to China.”
As Perrone described it, “For almost 20 years, Belleville was a relatively peaceful oasis for the Chinese who were shunned and severely discriminated against throughout most of the country.
“Chinese immigrants from throughout the region traveled regularly to Belleville to celebrate their holidays and to honor and offer prayers for their ancestors in the only Joss House (temple) in this part of the United States – activities which were prohibited elsewhere.”
Eventually, the Chinese began to move southward from Belleville to Newark, which had its own thriving “Chinatown” in the Mulberry St. area from 1890 until the 1960s. At one time, “it was bigger than the one in New York,” said Perrone. “Now there’s not a trace left.
“The monument dedicated Saturday was designed and built by an accomplished mason: Perrone himself. It bears the words, “In sacred memory of those pioneering souls of Belleville’s Chinese community.”
At the top is an inscription in Chinese characters, which translates as “Cantonese in the Arms of Jesus” – a sentiment taken from a banner that hung in the Sunday School the Chinese children had attended. The Chinese engraving, in 24-kt. gold leaf, was done by North Arlington artist Val Vadhinow, who donated his services.
The dedication ceremony was organized through the joint efforts of the Historical Society and the New Jersey Chinese-American Association and attracted 100+ attendees from hither and yon – including China. Among the most moving moments were renditions of both the Chinese and American national anthems: the former, by opera singer Xuezheng Feng; the latter, by 11-year-old Belleville resident Brianna Santos (And no one took a knee.)
Following the outdoor portion of the program, there was a gathering in the church hall, with remarks by Consul Wang Liyu and Deputy Vice Consul General Zhu Ziayo, representing the government of the People’s Republic of China.
Also speaking were Perrone, church Pastor Miguel Ortiz, N.J. Chinese American Association Chairman Gary Luo, Chinese community and business leader Margaret Lam, Belleville Deputy Mayor Vincent Cozzarelli, North Arlington Councilman Richard Hughes, Essex County Freeholder Cynthia Toro, Fr. Augustine Curley of Newark Abbey and author/Newark Chinatown historian Yolan Skeete.
If you would like to learn more about Belleville’s intriguing past, visit bellevillehistory.org.
(Editor’s note: On Monday, we drove past the cemetery. The emperor’s flag was still flying. Go take a look.)