By Thomas Winterhoff
Mar 30 2007
Oak Bay's Harling Point is home to
spectacular ocean views, as well as a disturbing reminder of our
region's racist past. Victoria Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe leads
a public tour of the site;s Chinese Cemetery this Sunday (April 1).
In Victoria's pioneer
days, hundreds of Chinese labourers came to B.C. to work on the
Canadian Pacific Railway or seek fortune in the gold fields. As the
original Chinese immigrants passed away, many were buried in Ross Bay
Cemetery but prevailing racist attitudes meant people of Asian
descent were relegated to an area along the waterfront.
“That area was for 'aboriginals and Mongolians' That's how they listed the Chinese,” says
Thornton-Joe, whose Chinese heritage prompted her to learn more about
those early immigrants. Because Dallas Road didn't yet exist, those
sections were also frequently flooded by ocean waves. During one
violent winter storm, many Chinese and Japanese graves were swept right
out to sea.
Members of Victoria's
fledgling Chinese-Canadian community, under the leadership of the
Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, began to search for a
burial site where their dead relatives could rest in peace. Their first
choice, located near Christmas Hill, was purchased in 1891. The area
was predominantly farmland and nearby residents soon made it clear they
didn't want a cemetery for “foreigners” in their neighbourhood.
“What the Chinese
community did was have a mock funeral to see whether there would be any
concerns,” explains Thornton-Joe. “Some of the farmers showed up with
guns and told them to move on.”
The benevolent association
later bought the Harling Point property, which was thought to have good
feng shui. Another mock ceremony was held to test the public mood, but
this time the police were on hand to keep the peace. Between 1903 and
1908, the Chinese community exhumed most of their relatives¡¦ remains at
Ross Bay and transferred the bones to the Oak Bay location. After the
last of about 400 burials took place in the 1950s, the Chinese Cemetery
fell into disrepair.
In the early 1990s, local
residents began working with the municipality and the benevolent
association to restore it. Thornton-Joe was involved in that process,
in part because her grandfather is buried there.
“This is my tie not only to the Chinese Cemetery, but also to what brought me to Canada in the first place,” she says.
As a child, Thornton-Joe
helped her mother sweep off her grandfather's grave and learned how to
bow properly to show respect for ancestors – an annual tradition known
as ching ming. Together, mother and daughter tidied up the plot, cut
the grass and made offerings of incense, flowers and food. “We believe
that our ancestors watch over us,” says the Victoria councillor, noting
that a sense of continuity between generations is very strong in Asian
Thornton-Joe still visits her grandfather's grave regularly to honour his memory and ask him to watch over the family.
With the assistance of UVic
professor David Lai, members of the Chinese-Canadian community lobbied
for the federal government to declare the cemetery a National Historic
Site – a feat achieved in 1996.
In the years that
followed, broken or sunken gravestones were fixed or realigned, a
footpath was laid down, a gate was added and a fence erected along the
edges of the cemetery. Interpretive panels, added in 2001, teach
visitors about the contributions made by early Chinese settlers.
“The only reason there are Chinese cemeteries, Chinese schools and Chinatowns is because of the racism of the day.”
On a more personal level, Thornton-Joe says she only learned to fully appreciate her ancestors' traditions after she grew up.
“As someone who was born
here and encountered racism in my childhood, I rebelled against my
culture,” she explains. “Personally, I hope my grandparents, whom I
never met, will look down and realize that I'm no longer ashamed.”