Thank you for your Question regarding Kurt Jahnke's involvement in
providing repatriation services for the bodies of deceased Chinese in
the US in the early part of the 20th century.
While specific details of any such involvement by K. Jahnke is not
easily found, it is highly likely that a man of his opportunistic
nature would indeed have taken up this form of business.
Your Question specifically asks for a discussion of the historical
importance, if any, of this service to the Chinese people. You also
ask whether the service was utilized by all Chinese, or only specific
families. Finally, you enquired about when this service may have faded
A proper Answer to your Question must start first with a brief history
of Chinese immigration to the US. An excellent resource for this can
be found through the Library of Congress website:
While immigrants from China were recorded even in the early 1800's,
the largest influx did not occur until the California Gold Rush in
1949. For the next few decades, immigrants continued to arrive,
deceived by stories of mountains of gold and riches beyond belief.
What they found were harsh, almost hostile living conditions, working
in menial and dangerous jobs while helping to build the infrastructure
that helped America grow up as a nation.
The largest contributor to the trade that your Question centers on,
though, was most likely the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1881. This act
specifically put a stop to the flow of immigrants into America. In
many respects, the enactment of this legislation flew completely in
the face of the fundamental tenets of the American Declaration of
Independence and Constitution. For the vast majority of immigrants,
predominantly men who had arrived in the previous decades, this was a
death-blow to their dream of bringing their families to America to
join them in the brave new world. So, after 1881, the Chinese
population in America consisted primarily of single men, separated by
US legislation from ever seeing their families again.
As a result of this forced separation, and by the natural sense of
community that existed in the Chinese to help provide some protection
against the constant racist attacks and actions of the "European
American" majority, several influential associations were formed in
the major Chinese population centers. Among the services provided by
these associations, was the service of shipping the remains of
deceased Chinese back to their families in China so that proper rites
could be performed. Given the unwelcoming attitude of the typical
American towards the Chinese population, it is understandable that any
Chinese person with the means to do so would want to have his remains
repatriated to his family in China rather than be interred in a
foreign and hostile nation.
Chinese Immigration to the United States, 1851-1900
The Eagle and the Dragon
While the district associations helped with this service as much as
possible, the nature of the anti-Chinese regulations and laws meant
that there was a business opportunity for European Americans to act as
intermediaries between the associations and the port officials who
controlled shipping. By the 1900's, standard practice for shipping
human remains overseas required the use of a container manufactured
from, or lined with, a self-destroying material such as zinc to allow
for air-tight shipment.
The size of this trade in the early 1900's was small at best. While
Chinese mortality rates were higher than the average for the
population due to the fact that Chinese workers tended to take on the
more dangerous construction occupations of the time (dynamiting
railway tunnels, for example), the total number of Chinese in America
remained relatively low. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was
repeatedly extended from its enactment in 1881 until its repeal in
1943, the national population of Chinese immigrants managed to decline
to as low as 61,000 in the 1920's (see
http://members.aol.com/chineseusa/00tre.htm ), or 0.06% of the total
American population. However, one can only speculate at the cost of
the repatriation services offered. With few if any immediate family
members in the US, a deceased Chinese persons assets were best
liquidated to fund the shipment of their remains back to China.
Proper rites are considered an important part of respecting the
deceased and ensuring that no ill fate befalls their family in Chinese
culture. For the extended families of many of the Chinese immigrants,
who often left young families behind to seek their fortune in America,
an elaborate wake and burial was the only way to help redeem the
deceased and provide for a smooth afterlife after the trials and
tribulations they went through in life.
Chinese Customs:Funeral customs & the wake
San Francisco Chinese funeral
It can be speculated that while the importance of repatriating the
remains of deceased Chinese immigrants did not decline, the decline in
the numbers of Chinese immigrants with ties back to China may have
reduced the trade to a trickle by the late 1920's. As well, the onset
of the Depression in the 1930's would have reduced the means to pay
for repatriation. Through the 1920's, the creation of strong Chinese
communities throughout the major American cities would have also
provided for the ability to properly mourn the passing of a member of
the community, with the proper ceremonies, wake, and burial to ensure
that honor is preserved and that the deceased would be able to travel
through to the afterlife safely.
I hope that this short piece provides you with the Answer you seek.
Please let me know if you would like any clarification to this Answer!
Google Answers Researcher