Life and Death in Hong Kong (1)

Patricia Lim, an Englishwoman and classic British dilettante — and I mean that in a good sense — one day began to build a data base on the occupants of Hong Kong’s 168-year-old Protestant cemetery. Relying heavily on an earlier effort by Carl Smith, who compiled index cards on 10,000 Hong Kong and Macau figures, Ms. Lim went through old newspapers, government gazettes and government blue books to fill out the voluminous gaps of knowledge about the deceased. The social history of the 1850s to 1870s she arrives at in her book, Forgotten Souls is starkly different from today. The “Protestant Cemetery” took Buddhist and Shintoist Japanese “karayuki” girls or prostitutes; Chinese revolutionaries, many of whom were indeed fervent Protestants; deceased members of the Russian orthodox church; and of course missionaries, Scots, and high church Anglicans. The social history is strictly colonial — the city was highly stratified, with huge barriers between Chinese and Caucasians, and even British shopkeepers like the Crawfords of Lane Crawford viewed as lower class than merchants, and barred from the Hong Kong Club or owning race horses. But the graveyard itself has had its own history, and one that resonates much more closely with the present day. The dead were the elite of Hong Kong, and were able to afford to keep their neighbors at a distance, with wide plots and massive monuments. In the late 19th century, the Protestant Cemetery was even touted as a “garden cemetery” and the public was welcomed inside to contemplate morality as well as the birds and butterflies. Meanwhile, the neighboring Catholic and Indian cemeteries were overcrowded to the point where visitors must walk on the graves themselves to make their way through.

More recently, the graveyard points out the ongoing conflict between development and historic preservation in Hong Kong. A foundation set up by Ms. Lim to restore the wobbly tombstones is required to obtain permission from descendants of the deceased before they do anything. Meanwhile, when the Aberdeen Tunnel was constructed in 1982, some 2,000 graves were affected and summarily removed to a columbarium. Pressure to remove more of the graves to make room for development remains intense, although in theory the older graves are entitled to a sort of eternal freehold. In Hong Kong, these kinds of arrangements are intentionally left ambiguous so that the government can dip into the kitty of government land as needed to produce the land premiums that generate nearly half government revenues.

The elderly Ms. Lim, in describing her research and her insights on a Wednesday night at the Asia Society’s new headquarters in Admiralty, was sprightly and anecdotal. She relishes the details she has been able to assemble about the 10,000 plots, from numbered tombstones of the victims of a suspicious air crash to the karayuki girls and two young missionary women who worked together and died within a year of each other. The Hong Kong of the 1850s to 1870s was perhaps even more diverse than it is today and attracted expatriates for the same reasons — the hope of getting rich, romance, the beauty of its landscape. I came away thinking that the cultural imprint of a city is set early, perhaps as soon as the first houses or barracks cluster around a river or a port. Foreigners no longer come to Hong Kong for the lure of saving souls, but they come for every other reason and they keep coming. And so, of course, do Chinese, from every part of Greater China, seeking its freedom and opportunities.

See Patricia Lim, Forgotten Souls: A Social History of the Hong Kong Cemetery, (Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press, 2011)

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