Over several afternoons, I ventured into a few large cemeteries on Hong Kong Island to take photographs.
I was intrigued, knowing I'd find many old plots dating to a time when Hong Kong was little more than a fishing village. I knew the old methods of marking the final resting places of those souls would be different from those in use today, and I wasn't disappointed. The markers, tombs, statues, and crypts were often intricate, and oft times, immense.
I found more than I'd expected among the weather-worn headstones and elaborate statuary.
I found peace. Inside the walls, away from the cacophony of the relentless traffic, quiet descended like a thick blanket of fog at dusk. Among the trees and hillside jungle plants came the gentle warbling of birds. Grasshoppers leapt about in the rough grass, avoiding my footfalls. Through the silence I could hear my own thoughts. More than any other place in the world, the cemeteries reminded me that my time here is fleeting; that I shouldn't squander it on the insignificant.
I found solitude. Surrounded by hundreds of thousands of frenetic, scurrying beings, the grounds were devoid of the frantic crush of the living. I breathed deeply of the space and felt my soul mingle with the elements. I smelled the fragrant air and the musty earth; I felt the texture of stones under my fingertips. I connected.
I found lives. They weren't just names carved into stone. They were real; they existed. They were once alive and warm. Some lived fully; others had not yet begun to live when their time to depart this life came. All had stories to tell. I wanted to hear their stories, to know who they were: their accomplishments, their failures, their challenges and their victories.
In the deepening shadows of the late afternoon sun, I heard their whispers. From the stones, the ghosts of history begged me to come closer, beckoning me to listen and comprehend.
I heard their tales and found pieces of their lives.
I found adventure. Many British sailors had been buried there, from the time China ceded Hong Kong to England after the First Opium War. Sailing was a profession fraught with peril. Europeans rested there as well: Portuguese, French, Scandinavians, Germans, Irish, Scots. Many died young; the circumstances surrounding their passing unknown, but in some instances, explained.
I found love. A few graves were of British naval officers and their Chinese wives, dating from a time when interracial marriages would have been frowned upon by both the English and the Chinese. Their love must have been paramount to have persevered in the face of severe disapproval and racial prejudice.
I found tragedy. In 1848, in a period of 70 days, 96 people died of an unspecified fever, including four children. The graves of all the children were heartbreaking, from the simple cross of a one-day-old infant who'd not been given a name, to the babies, toddlers and kids who never saw their second decade.
I found gallantry. These were the graves of British, Canadian, and Indian soldiers who died in the hopeless defence of Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion in 1941. Also moving were the stones marking the graves of civilian men, women and children who died in Stanley Internment Camp during the years of occupation.
I found incredible bravery. Colonel Newnham of the Middlesex Regiment, Captain Douglas Ford of the Royal Scots, and Flight Lieutenant Hector Bertram Gray (RAF), ran activities from inside their prisoner of war camp, such as smuggling in medicine and communicating with British agents. They'd been planning an escape when they were discovered. After five months of torture and interrogation, on December 18th, 1943, they were executed. To the end they refused to divulge any information to the Japanese.
I found valour. Company Sergeant Major John Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers posthumously earned the Victoria Cross: the Commonwealth's highest award for valour in action. The Japanese threw grenades into the Canadian positions. Osborn grabbed several and threw them back. When a grenade landed where he couldn't reach it in time, he yelled a warning to his comrades and threw himself on the grenade, saving many lives with his selfless act.
The many Chinese graves had their own stories to tell, but I was unable to read them. As is the Chinese custom, most stones had photographs of the occupants below as they were during their lives. The images told their own tales.
Each time I left, with the sun setting behind me, I'd been changed. I went seeking photographs and instead came away with the bigger picture. I came away better for having been there.
As I write, I look at my fingers, knowing one day they'll cease moving and will never move again. I accept that. I won't waste my life worrying about death. If I've been reminded of anything from my brief sojourns at the homes of the dead, it's to live life with the joy of being alive.
If I live it with enough joy, one day I'll be the ghost with stories to whisper.
November 9, 2001
Next Tale: Hurry Up, So You Can Wait