Friday, September 7, 2012

Haunting Hong Kong Cemeteries

Colma, a small town south of San Francisco, is known as the ‘City of the Silent’ because of the number of cemeteries there. When San Francisco voted in the thirties to ban cemeteries in the city, Colma became a Mecca for the dead. In fact, the town's humorous motto is: ‘It is great to be alive, in Colma’.

However, Hong Kong too has a great cemetery tradition.

I know that cemetery tourism may not be something usually touted by local convention and visitors’ bureaus, but cemeteries are fascinating places to visit. One can learn a lot of history by ‘haunting’ cemeteries. I have visited cemeteries in the U.S and abroad, including recently Hong Kong.

I went initially to visit the old Colonial (now called the Hong Kong) cemetery but discovered five others in the same location, including Jewish, Muslim, Catholic (the Colonial Cemetery is Protestant) and Parsee cemeteries.

Hong Kong was a British Colony from the 1840s until 1997. The vast majority of graves in the Colonial are British and a significant number are military. A history of the wars and battles the British fought in Asia can be gleaned from reading the tombstones: the Opium wars and capture of Canton which led to the annexation of Hong Kong, the battles of World War I and II, etc.

It is interesting how peaceful the cemetery is in light of the fact that it is in the midst of a bustling city. Traffic whizes by just yards from the cemetery, but the silence of the graves and the trees and shrubs seem to shut out the noise. Wandering through the graves, reading the sentiments and names etched on the tombstones; speculating on the lives those names and sentiments represent one is almost unaware of the traffic and noise outside.

Next to the Colonial is the Parsee cemetery. The Parsee or Parsis were some of the earliest settlers in Hong Kong after its annexation. The Parsee were traders and merchants from India. They had previously emigrated from Iran to escape the Muslim invasion. Parsee or Parsis means Persians. They were and are Zoroastrians.
The cemtery is quite small as there are almost no actual graves. Zoroastrians generally believe in 'Sky Burial', offering the deceased to birds of prey.
There are only about 100,000 Parsee world-wide. Most are in Inda. The Parsee population of Hong Kong is estimated to be less than 200.

If you want to visit the Hong Kong cemeteries the easiest way is to take the Kennedy Road-Happy Valley tram to Happy Valley. Cross the street to the Hong Kong Sanitarium and Hospital and walk north. The cemeteries will be on your left across from the Happy Valley Racetrack.

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