Deaths Tell The Story Of Life In Old Hong Kong The 8,000 graves of Happy Valley cemetery in Hong Kong tell the island's untold early history through the lives of pirates and prostitutes, missionaries and merchants. NPR correspondent Louisa Lim's mother devoted a decade to chronicling the last resting place of Hong Kong's earliest settlers.
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Deaths Tell The Story Of Life In Old Hong Kong

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Deaths Tell The Story Of Life In Old Hong Kong

Deaths Tell The Story Of Life In Old Hong Kong

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Our summer series Dead Stop is going overseas.


GREENE: This morning we visit Hong Kong's oldest cemetery. It's a place that's been one British woman's obsession for the past decade. She's someone very close to NPR's Beijing correspondent, Louisa Lim. So Louisa went to Hong Kong to tell the story of the cemetery and its obsessive chronicler, her mother.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: I'm sitting directly underneath an extremely noisy flyover. Cars are whizzing by overhead. And amid the hustle and bustle that is modern-day Hong Kong, there is, surprisingly, an enormous cemetery. This cemetery has actually played a really important role in the life of my family, because my mother, Patricia Lim, has spent the past 10 years documenting the cemetery and writing a book about it.

Why did you actually start that?

PATRICIA LIM: I was fascinated by the way Hong Kong had grown up and nobody knew anything about it. All Hong Kong history is here. And almost nobody ever visited it.

LIM: Well, let's go and visit now.

LIM: Yes, let's.


LIM: Amid the chirping cicadas and leafy greenery, there are imposing pillars, granite obelisks, delicate angels. It's a 20-minute walk across the graveyard, which is the last resting place of the first British settlers arriving in Hong Kong in the 1840s. Nowadays, these memorials are pretty much all that remain of their lives, for that reason my mother's book is called "Forgotten Souls."

These were not the elite, but the ordinary people who built Hong Kong: the merchants and missionaries, the prostitutes and pirates, the opium traders and auctioneers.

LIM: This is the grave of the first Western woman to set foot in Hong Kong. She's an American missionary, who came to China, aged 17, newly married.

LIM: Her name is Henrietta Shuck.

LIM: She died having just given birth to her fifth baby. She died, poor girl, of exhaustion; having looked after a household of 37 people, having taught in the school, both the girls and the boys, having given birth, she laid down and died.

LIM: Her grave stone is really sad. And one thing that I found really extraordinary was the way that they died. You know, mauled by tigers, shot by pirates...

LIM: ...strangled by servants, and most people had rather short life expectancy here.

The poor man died when bandits...

LIM: Untimely deaths are a stock-in-trade for my mother, who mapped all 8,000 graves. She then traced the stories of the inhabitants through newspaper accounts, letters and diaries. Through these, she retells the story of Hong Kong: a rough-and-tumble place built on a barren rock, almost unrecognizable from today's city of shiny skyscrapers.

But her fascination with the graveyard isn't shared by my father, Lim Poh Chye. I ask him if he now counts himself as a graveyard fan.

LIM POH CHYE: No, not really.

LIM: Well, when mum said she was going to write a book about the graveyard, what was your reaction?

CHYE: Well, my reaction was one of horror. And I dissuade her, but as you can see, without any success. As a Chinese, this is not my kind of thing.

LIM: Why not?

CHYE: Well, we go to cemetery, but we always go there at festivals time. You know, Chingming, to pay respects. You don't come here as a sort of recreation or something like that, or look at the grave and admire - learn the history. It's all dead and gone.

LIM: But is it? One grave illustrates just how potent legacies can be, even in death. The resting place of Yeung Kew-wan is marked by a pillar, lopped off half way up to show he died suddenly in his prime in 1901. Unusually, there's no inscription. This was because he'd been trying to overthrow the Qing Dynasty and his gravesite risked causing a diplomatic incident between Hong Kong's colonial rulers and the Chinese.

LIM: He was a revolutionary who supported Sun Yat-sen. And he might have become the leader of the revolutionaries and the father of the Republic of China. But the empress's agents came to Hong Kong and shot him on his doorstep in Gage Street.

LIM: So why didn't they put an inscription on it?

LIM: The British were secretly in favor of the revolutionaries, so they allowed him to be buried here, but they didn't want to upset China. So, they refused to have an inscription. The British always liked to play things two ways.

LIM: My mother's passion for the graveyard almost left her there permanently. Last year, on an extremely hot day, she conducted a tour of the cemetery.

CHYE: And she walked up this rather steep place. After a while, suddenly realized, she really couldn't continue, whereupon she promptly lay flat on that grave.

LIM: So she laid down on the grave...

CHYE: Yes, on that grave

LIM: ...of Richard St. Barry Loxley Leslie.

CHYE: Exactly. Exactly.

LIM: I borrowed his grave and I'm sure he doesn't mind.


LIM: And then what happened after she laid down?

CHYE: After 10 minutes, she recovered somewhat. Then we adjourned for lunch. And after lunch, she promptly suffered the after effects of the heart attack.

LIM: So you actually had a heart attack lying on that gravestone?

CHYE: She did.

LIM: Well, a very minor one.

LIM: It's lucky you didn't die of that heart attack. It would have been an awful epitaph for your book, wouldn't it?


LIM: As we get ready to leave, we run into two groups of local students touring the graveyard. It's the first time my mother has seen schoolchildren here, learning about Hong Kong's history from the ground up. She's delighted. Her book opens with the words: Death and life is a reversal of the usual order. And through her writing, she's breathed life back into the stones, retelling Hong Kong's history and, along the way, bringing life back to the graveyard.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Hong Kong


GREENE: Louisa took a great photo of her mom at that cemetery. You can check it out as well as lots of other photos from summer series, Dead Stop. It's all at our Web site,

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.


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