I am drawn to cemeteries. Even on vacation they pull me in. What I find compelling is the stories they tell, although individual stones are often frustratingly vague. The stories are most eloquent when they are layered on top of each other — leaving traces of complex, lost communities.
Founded in 1845, the Hong Kong Cemetery is particularly compelling spot, which I hope this short video reveals. A neighbour of Happy Valley, the legendary horse racing track, the cemetery emerges from under an elevated highway to climb a hill of inter-locking terraces — like irregular stone rice paddies.
What makes this cemetery fascinating is the density of history and description. No European wanted to die in Hong Kong in those early days, but many did. So many died young, by accident, disease, war or occupational hazard that their loved ones seem compelled to explain who they are and why they were there. Not content with formulaic epitaphs, the stones tell of origins, cause of death, occupations — the first commander of a Yangtze steamer and soldiers in the Second Opium War — and who on the other side of the world mourned their loss. Details make sense of the loss and the place.
So many died by drowning. My son asked “didn’t they know how to swim?”, but I think it is not so much a question of skill, but of circumstances. The islands, the river, the ocean: of course they would die of drowning — and of course they died without a will.
Although the cemetery is primarily British, the vitality of the place is revealed in the Eurasian tycoons, Indian merchants, the German missionaries, the White Russians who fled the Soviets, the Chinese who sit proudly in the mix under green stone. Next door are Parsee, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish cemeteries.
The Cemetery is quiet now. No new graves, and, in distinct contrast to the social atmosphere of contemporary Chinese cemeteries, few signs of attentive families. In the tradition of food offerings and hell money, one stone of an English father and Chinese mother had a fresh offering: an open bottle of Johnny Walkers scotch and pack of 555 cigarettes. It’s a practical place.