Ceremony sweeps decades of dirt from Chinese graves

by Kim Lunman, The Globe and Mail – Monday, April 9, 2001 

VICTORIA — Time has erased clues to some of the dead. Their names, etched in Cantonese characters, have faded into granite tombstones in Canada’s oldest Chinese cemetery on a seaside bluff overlooking million-dollar ocean views outside Victoria along Gonzales Bay.

It is here that Stephen Lee, 51, arranges daffodils on the grave of an aunt he has never met. He doesn’t know much about Violet Lore. She died before he was born. 

“She was young, 22 or 23. She died of pneumonia,” Mr. Lee said as relatives paid respects yesterday to their Chinese ancestors at a ceremony marking the long-awaited beautification of the 98-year-old cemetery. 

Thirteen years ago, when Mr. Lee moved to Victoria, he found the final resting place of his aunt and two grandparents in disarray, with tombstones knocked over and weeds waist-high. 

The Chinese community in B.C.’s capital has spent the past two decades trying to raise money and awareness to restore the cemetery, which they succeeded in having declared a national historic site five years ago. 

The $180,000 revitalization was unveiled yesterday during a traditional Ching Ming festival in which relatives tidy the graves of their ancestors and offer gifts to the dead to mark the end of winter and beginning of spring. Sweet-smelling incense and paper money were burned over an altar crowded with fruit, flowers and a roasted pig. 

The community raised $60,000, an amount matched by the federal and provincial governments.

“This is a proud day,” said Paul Chan of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. “A lot of our pioneers are buried here.” 

The cemetery serves as a reminder that the racism against Chinese, which was once prevalent in British Columbia, often carried over into death. 

The graveyard is situated in Oak Bay, a suburb of Victoria where Chinese were once not allowed to buy residential property. 

Before 1903, Chinese graves in Victoria were segregated from those of white residents, relegated to a section of the Ross Bay cemetery that was nearly at sea level. Many of the graves were swept into the Pacific Ocean in storms.

The first Chinese person who was interred in Ross Bay cemetery on March 18, 1873, was identified as “Chinaman No. 1.” Subsequent burials were recorded as Chinaman No. 2, Chinaman No. 3, and so on. 

In 1891, for $2,200, the Chinese benevolent association bought its first private cemetery in Victoria, a 3.5-hectare piece of land. But adjacent farmers chased away Chinese mourners at the first planned burial and the mourners never returned.

After meeting some initial resistance, the association bought another parcel of land, the current graveyard, which had its first burial in 1903. About 400 Chinese are buried in the cemetery. Thirteen adjacent mass graves contain the unmarked remains of another 900. 

“This is history restored,” said B.C. Liberal MLA Ida Chong, who attended the ceremony yesterday. “It was one of the few places Chinese people in Canada were able to have the freedom of burial.” 

Ms. Chong, who represents the Oak Bay riding, which includes the cemetery, was one of the first Chinese Canadians elected to the B.C. Legislature in 1996 along with NDP MLA Jenny Kwan of Vancouver. 

Many of the buried are among Canada’s first Chinese immigrants, who came as cheap labourers to build the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s before Ottawa imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants between 1885 to 1904. 

In 1923, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, known as the Chinese exclusion act, which barred Chinese from entering Canada. It was repealed in 1947, when Chinese Canadians were granted the right to vote. 

The cemetery was chosen because elements of nature within it express feng shui. At the turn of the century, traditional Chinese practices called for the remains to be exhumed seven years after burial so the bones could be cleaned and packed in crates for shipment to China. 

A “bone house” no longer standing on the B.C. site once stored remains of Chinese from across Canada for shipment. The shipments were halted in 1937 when the Sino-Japanese war broke out, and in 1961, the 900 stored remains were buried in mass graves adjacent to the cemetery. 

After years of neglect, fresh flowers were placed along landscaped rows of tombstones yesterday. Some unnamed graves were marked by colourful candies and oranges left as gifts. A senior Chinese man crouched down to gently wipe away dirt off a marble tombstone with his hands. 

“It’s really moving,” Mr. Lee said quietly as he toured the site with his wife, Cathy. “To see this all turned around is quite gratifying.”