Visiting the famous in Hong Kong's cemeteries
Like many people in Hong Kong I assumed Happy Valley was so named because of the horse racing, and associated gambling, that took place there. But the area has a much more morbid genesis.
Back in the early days of British colonial rule in the 1840s, there was a high death rate from malaria and other diseases in Hong Kong. The area became a burial ground for victims of disease and was named "Happy Valley," a common reference to cemeteries in Victorian times.
This was one of the things I learned when I joined the popular "Hidden Hong Kong -- Happy Valley graveyard tour" run by Humanity Republic.
“Why would I visit a cemetery that had none of my friends or relatives?” says tour leader Walter Ng.
"Well there’s a lot of Hong Kong, Chinese and even Pan-Asian history that can be found here. They are a reflection of our multicultural society since Hong Kong's colonial period.”
Founders of the organisation, Walter Ng, Chow Chung-Wah and Venus Leung, are cemetery buffs. They did some in-depth research on the Happy Valley cemeteries and found that the graves are a Who's Who of Hong Kong's political and cultural development since 1842.
Reflecting the situation of the living, Hong Kong's dead rest in close proximity to other religions -- Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Parsee and Buddhists lie side by side.
For our tour, we started at St. Michael’s Catholic Cemetery. Although the British were Protestant, there were many Catholics in early colonial times that contributed to the development of Hong Kong.
Many Irish soldiers fought with the British Army and Macanese and Portuguese businessmen resided in Hong Kong. Catholic schools, hospitals and social organizations are still highly regarded today and were established in the early colonial period by prominent Catholic leaders.
One of the most famous cultural icons buried in the Catholic cemetery is big screen superstar Lin Dai who was chosen as the best actress at the Asia Pacific Film Festival four times in her 10-year career spanning the mid 1950s and 1960s.
Lin's suicide was a shock to the public as she was a beloved actress not only in Hong Kong but around Asia and the world. She is still fondly remembered by elder Hong Kong citizens and classic Hong Kong movie aficionados.
Moving onto the much larger and greener Hong Kong Cemetery, we visited the earliest gravestone in Happy Valley, dating to 1841 and belonging to Royal Navy ship captain William Brodie. That was a year before the establishment of the Hong Kong British colony.
“The burial of a ship captain here signaled Britain’s intention to colonize Hong Kong," says our tour leader Walter Ng.
Hong Kong Cemetery also has relics related to the Opium Wars. A memorial commemorates the HMS Cornwallis, which was the flagship of the British China expedition and took part in defeating the Qing Dynasty fleet in 1842 in the first Opium War.
It was on this ship that the first unequal Treaty of Nanjing was signed and Hong Kong was ceded to Great Britain.
Another monument recounts the numerous British incursions in and around the Pearl River Delta, eventually leading up to the sieges of Tianjin and Beijing that brought the Qing Dynasty government to its knees and the handing over of Hong Kong.
Powerful, wealthy and controversial figures are all buried in Hong Kong Cemetery. One such figure was Daniel Caldwell, a secretary of Chinese Affairs in the colonial government who was believed to have shielded brothels, pirates and gambling dens for his own personal gain.
He was also a Freemason as noted by the sign on his tombstone and marked the arrival of the Freemason society to Hong Kong.
You can also find the remains of martyrs and political figures such as Sir Kai Ho Kai and Yang Quyun, who were instrumental in mentoring and helping Sun Yatsen overthrow the Qing Dynasty and establishing the Republican Chinese era in the first decade of the 20th century.
Our last stop at the Hong Kong Cemetery is at the grave of Sir Robert Ho Tung, one of the first prominent Eurasians and a strong supporter of the Hong Kong government as well as the patriarch of a powerful Hong Kong family with family members in business, government and entertainment -- Bruce Lee was his great nephew.
We finished off our three hour tour by visiting the small Parsee Cemetery. Parsee families in Hong Kong originated from Mumbai and upon entering the cemetery we were welcomed by the scent of fresh cut flowers and Indian incense.
Parsees migrated from India to Hong Kong to work alongside the British during the early colonial period and they were clever businesspeople. While Parsees never numbered more than a few thousand in Hong Kong, their influence in Hong Kong life was enormous; at one time, three of the 13 board members of HSBC were Parsee.
Parsees established the Star Ferry, the Ruttonjee Hospital and perhaps the best known Parsee, Sir Hormusjee Naorojee Mody (of Mody Road fame in Tsim Sha Tsui), has a prominent tombstone in the Parsee Cemetery memorializing him as one of the original founders of the University of Hong Kong and a renowned philanthropist.
Humanity Republic leads various historical and cultural tours throughout the year. Most are in Cantonese but some are in English. Visit their website for the latest tour offerings.