I was interested in photographing this old colonial cemetery for a couple of reasons. The gravestones make for interesting subjects, with the wear and tear of time being shown in different ways—cracked and stained surfaces, worn away inscriptions, rusted iron, moss and lichen encrusted rock. In addition, wandering amongst the graves, you can’t help but ponder questions of mortality.
View the whole set (80 photos):
Within each grave is a story. Some stories are lost to time—unmarked graves, headstones that have lost all trace of a name—but other stories are hinted at, revealing long past personal tragedies. What happened to Bess Mackay, who was “accidentally killed in 1925” shorty before her 13th birthday. What happened to Thorvald Anderson who drowned while swimming at Stonecutter’s Island at the age of 19.
Other inscriptions open up mysteries.What was Ernst Schelle, a prisoner of war, doing in Hong Kong in 1919. I haven’t found any records of WW I prisoner of war camps in Hong Kong. Was he about to be repatriated back to Germany?
Other stories are in the history books already. Phineas Ryrie, for example, was a leading figure in Nineteenth-Century Hong Kong—a member of the legislative council, the first chairman of the Jockey Club and a chairman of the Chamber of Commerce.
Jack Clapp of the South Wales Borderers died of wounds suffered in Tsingtao in 1914. His regiment had been assisting the Japanese in defeating the German garrison at the Chinese port city.
The sailors from the French destroyer Fronde who were missing and presumed dead were killed during the great 1906 typhoon and tsunami that left over 10,000 people dead in the territory.
Other graves and monuments tell a larger story of the harsh conditions in the early years of the colony. On one side of an obelisk is the inscription “Sacred to the Memory of all those of the LIX Regiment who died between the 11th June 1849 and the 18th November, 1858”. On the opposite side is a list
On another side there is a list of people from the regiment who died of fever during one summer.
Is the kind of sacrifice needed to build a world-spanning empire?
I should have stayed a while longer to take more photos, but after three hours, I think I had had enough reminders of mortality to last for a while.
The cemetery is now called Hong Kong Cemetery, though most people refer to it by its former name: Happy Valley Cemetery. It is located in the Happy Valley area, just next to the Jockey Club race track and sports ground. It used to be known as the Colonial Cemetery because that’s what it was: a resting place for mainly European Christian expatriates and British military personnel, though there are also plenty of graves of Chinese Christians as well. There is a Parsee cemetery immediately to the south and a Catholic one to the north.
The grounds at Happy Valley Cemetery are pretty wild, with mold, grass and vines all threatening to run amok with the encouragement of Hong Kong’s damp, sub-tropical climate. Perhaps the staff in charge of the grounds are going for a gothic horror feel. Adding to the atmosphere during my brief stay was a lone crow flitting from tree to tree and cawing angrily.
At public cemeteries nowadays, only temporary burials are allowed. That means, that after seven years, the remains are exhumed and the bones and any personal effects are cleaned and then either cremated or carefully placed in a large urns.
The photos were mainly taken with a Canon EO450D in March 2011 (on a hazy, slightly overcast day). Other photos were taken with a Digital Harinezumi 2++ and an Exemode SQ28m (digital toy cameras). The set also includes some older photos taken with a Minolta X-700. If I go back, I will take a tripod and work more on the composition of the shots. One difficulty taking photos in the cemetery was that the ground was quite soft and the tombstones had settled and were leaning in different directions. Nothing seemed to be perfectly vertical or horizontal, so it was difficult to line up the shots. The mosquitoes were another problem.
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