A tour of lives past

A tour of lives past

Happy Valley's old cemeteries provide visitors with unique glimpses at Hong Kong's colonial history and its leading figures

May 26, 2011
May 24, 2011
April 26, 2011
April 22, 2011
March 31, 2011
March 21, 2011
February 22, 2011
February 18, 2011
February 10, 2011
February 07, 2011

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A tour of lives past_L
Photos: Felix Wong
Not many people would enjoy hanging out in a graveyard for fun. But the picturesque string of cemeteries in Happy Valley, on the way to Ocean Park, makes for a local cultural gem.

The 165-year-old Hong Kong Cemetery, with its tumbledown headstones, preserves some of the city's oldest trees and attests to its earliest colonial history. Its historical treasures are well worth a sightseeing trip. Here are some highlights:

Stop 1: Funeral Chapel

Near the entrance at Wong Nei Chung Road lies the funeral chapel. Built in 1845, it boasts Victorian Gothic windows with pointed arches. It is probably Hong Kong's oldest surviving colonial building for burial services. It's a Grade I historical building protected by the city's heritage law.

Stop 2: Brodie's Tomb

Commander William Brodie's resting place is the earliest dated tomb in the cemetery, according to Ken Nicolson, author of The Happy Valley: A History and Tour of the Hong Kong Cemetery. Brodie was the commander of a British Royal Navy ship that took part in the First Opium War. The ship's doctor, Edward Cree, wrote in his journal that Brodie was buried in the new cemetery in "Happy Valley" - a place for eternal happiness.

Stop 3: Mahogany Tree

"It's probably the only mahogany we can see in Hong Kong," says Leon Lau Man-chung, a certified arborist. The rare tree species is famous for its hard timber, which is used for making exquisite furniture. It was introduced into Hong Kong's flora from the West Indies. This 130-year-old tree survived the Japanese occupation, during which many trees were chopped down for firewood and construction. It's one of six trees in the cemetery recorded in the government's Old and Valuable Tree Register.

Stop 4: Guangdong Scolopia

Standing right next to a lychee tree is an old Guangdong Scolopia tree. It used to have thorny trunks and branches. "The thorns fell off as the years went by," Lau says. "But government experts don't seem to think it should go in the register. It at least deserves a name tag."

Stop 5: Hotung grave

Sir Robert Hotung was a Eurasian with a Chinese mother who became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He was probably the first Eurasian to live on the Peak among prominent British colonialists. His grave lies side by side with his wife's.

Stop 6: Ho Kai grave

The "Kai" of the old Kai Tak Airport was named after Ho Kai, who bought the first piece of land in east Kowloon with his partner Au Tak. Ho was the first Chinese to practise Western medicine in Hong Kong, the second Chinese barrister for the Supreme Court, and the third Chinese member of the Legislative Council.

Stop 7: Yang Quyun grave

It's easy to miss the revolutionary's tombstone. Yang was president of the revolutionary Revive China Society organisation, which sought to get rid of the Qing dynasty. He was killed on Gage Street by government agents. His family decided to leave his grave anonymous, fearing people would destroy it. You can recognise the grave by its number 6348 and structure: a half-built column which symbolises his unrealised dreams.

Stop 8: Spot the mistake

You can test your proofreading skills by reading headstones. In his book Nicolson notes one error. A stonemason carved "Who Departed Life" on a headstone rather than the customary "Who Departed This Life".

On March 20, former chief curator Joseph Ting will lead a guided tour of cemeteries. Visit hk.history.museum

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