ST. LOUIS — You wouldn't think high schoolers would want to spend a Saturday morning cleaning up graves in a cemetery, but there's a group of Chinese-American students who find it quite comforting.
"It kind of made me feel more connected to St Louis," said Calvin Wang, a student member of the Asian American Civics Scholars. "I guess knowing that there is like is such a big community right now, but also there was a big community then.
Wang is learning American history that is not taught in schools, and he's feeling a better sense of belonging by documenting, cleaning, and preserving the grave sites of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans at Valhalla Cemetery off St. Charles Rock Road. Connecting with the hundreds of graves on-site shows there was not only a community many decades ago but one that also flourished.
Valhalla was one of the only cemeteries that allowed bodies of those of Chinese descent to be buried in St. Louis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as anti-Asian sentiment and exclusionary policies were the norm.
"I think it's cool how you can look at these graves and you can see what people they're related to, if they died young or not, or if their parents outlived them sometimes," Wang said. "I think it's pretty cool how you can just learn information about these people from such a simple thing like this."
Even though the first Chinese immigrant on record was Alla Lee, who came to St. Louis in the 1850s, most of the early settlers desired to have their bodies sent back to their hometowns. Some people had intended to be temporarily buried in St. Louis, but their surviving families didn't have enough money to ship their remains home.
"It's sad for the people here because they just didn't have enough money to get sent back," Wang said.
Many notable and early Chinese leaders are buried at Valhalla including many "mayors" of the now-destroyed Chinatown that stood in downtown St. Louis for nearly a century. Presidents of the St. Louis Ong Leong Merchant and Laborer's Association, business leaders of well-known establishments such as the Asia Cafe and members of the well-known Leong family and Hong family are all buried there.
A student group called Asian American Civics Scholars decided to take on the cemetery project as part of an Asian and Chinese American history initiative. The group's founder and mentor is Dr. Min Liu, who believes this effort helps young people find new value and belonging in Missouri history.
"We would like for the broader community--for our region-- to better acknowledge and help us preserve that history," Liu said. "Show our youth our diversity. Their history is seen, and their history is also valued here in St. Louis."
"I always thought St Louis was kind of a boring place compared to San Francisco with the gold mines and the transcontinental railroad," said Max Zeng, an Asian American Civics Scholar student. "But I think St. Louis is actually a pretty interesting place because of the old Chinatown. We have a lot of history here, and I think it's pretty cool."
The group is now raising money on GoFundMe to document history as well as save graves from weather-related deterioration. Specifically, there are two burial sites that seem to be at risk for sliding into a nearby creek bed -- that of a 60-year-old man and a six-year-old girl.
"We helped stabilize the graves that were at the risk of falling," said Yija Mao, a local student working on the project. The GoFundMe project will pay for preserving graves as well as donating money to the Missouri Historical Society's Chinese American Collecting Initiative.
This effort comes at a time when more data shows Asian Americans are among the least likely racial groups to feel that they belonged and were accepted in the United States. The STAATUS Index shows Asian Americans said they often didn't feel a sense of belonging because of racial discrimination and not seeing themselves in positions of power.
The AACS students are harnessing new power by learning their history, and they're hoping it catches on.
"I want St. Louis to know that know that we're actually not foreigners, as you can see," Zeng said. "We've been here since the 1800s. I want people to know that there's a pretty deep and rich Asian American culture in St Louis."
The Valhalla fundraising team consists of four students, Ivy Liao, Yija Mao, Cal Wang and Max Zeng.