Monday, 16 June 2014

Chinese Cemetery at Harling Point

Parking: on street
not wheelchair accessible
Dogs: not permitted

If you wend your way along the waterfront of Victoria towards Oak Bay, and detour towards Harling Point, you will find the Chinese Cemetery right at the water's edge at the end of the road. This cemetery is the oldest Chinese Cemetery in Canada, and was designated as a National Historic site in 2008. This is a bit of a departure from the forested parks I've taken you to in previous posts, but is a very interesting public space, and the community at large is encouraged to visit the site through the trail network that connects the Cemetery with Trafalger Park and Walbran Park on Gonzales Hill. On a windy day, it feels quiet and calm, even though it is surrounded on the back side by residences.

The Cemetery sits on a parcel of land with a large open, grassy field, flanked by a rocky outcropping on the eastern side.  With Gonzales Hill rising up behind it, a view across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a south-west orientation giving it protection from heavy winds, and no roads pointing directly at the graves, it has all the desired feng shui elements for a cemetery site. The rocky outcropping on the eastern side is covered with camas, salal, shooting stars and trailing blackberry, and drops down to the shoreline where you can see glacial formations such as "Harpoon Rock" which appear in the traditional stories of the Songhees Nation.

This cemetery site was purchased in 1903 by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, and is the oldest Chinese Cemetery in Canada. It contains approximately 300 individual grave markers and 13 mass grave markers aligned parallel with the water and the large funeral altar. It was in use up until the 1950's and formally closed in 1961. Since that time, many of the gravestones and grave markers have been broken or destroyed due to vandalism and many have been covered by grass over the years, but surveys conducted by the CCBA show there could be as many as 970 graves of Chinese pioneers.  In  2001, the site underwent a first round of restoration work, and that restoration effort continues today (Note: no dogs or bicycles are permitted in the cemetery due to this)


The Chinese community has a troubled history in British Columbia and Canada that has only recently been formally recognized by government. Chinese workers came to British Columbia as temporary workers for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway - almost all without their wives or children. After the railway was built, many stayed in British Columbia, and moved to Victoria.  As a result, by 1884 Victoria's Chinese population was the largest in Canada.

It was at this time that the provincial government set the head tax in motion in order to discourage immigration, thus removing any hope for existing Chinese residents to reunite with their families by bringing them to British Columbia.  For those who died in Victoria, custom required them to be buried temporarily in Canada, until their remains could be transported back to China, giving some rest to their spirit when their bones returned home, and the Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Associated - formed in 1884 to assert their rights in light of racist policies and practices - assumed burial responsibilities for those in Chinese community.

In death, as in life, Chinese pioneers were segregated from the rest of the community.  The first Chinese graves in Victoria appear in a corner of Pioneer Square, and were not even marked with names, but rather refer to "Chinamen Number 1, Chinamen Number 2 ..."  In 1873, the Ross Bay Cemetery opened, and a section near the water was designated for Chinese.  Not only did this site possess bad feng shui, but it was also too close to the water, meaning that some of the graves got washed away during heavy storms.

In 1891, the CCBA scouted out potential new cemetery sites with more auspicious feng shui, and purchased a piece of property on the southern slope of Christmas Hill. Unfortunately they encountered racism and extreme resistance by farmers in the area who did not want the Cemetery near their properties, and so the site sat unused for 10 years, until the CCBA sold it in 1902 and purchased the Harling Point site in 1903.

In 1907, a small brick structure was built onsite to house the bones of those whose remains were being transported back to China.  The practice at the time was to bury the deceased for 7 years, then exhume the remains, clean and dry the bones, and pack them up in crates to be shipped back to China.  This practice continued until 1937, when the Sino-Japanese war broke out, and shipments could no longer be made. The CCBA performed this task, along with maintenance of the cemetery and honouring of the graves with joss sticks and sacrifices of food and money during festivals. You can still see evidence of this today on individual graves and the altar.

Through the 1920 and 1930s, there were periods of tension between neighbours, the municipality and the CCBA over the appropriate use of the land, and at several points since, developers and other interested parties have attempted to shut down the cemetery.  Since 2001, there has been a commitment by government to support the CCBA's restoration efforts, and recognize the cultural importance of maintaining this site as a cemetery. Its current designation today as a National Historic Site ensures it will not be removed or replaced with urban development.

Natural history

This geography of the cemetery is unique, in that two separate pieces of the earth's crust meet at Harling Point. This meeting formed a natural channel for glaciers to flow through in millennia past, which formed deep grooves as they moved across the rock, and also left large boulders such as "Harpoon Rock" in their wake. As a result of its unique natural features, the site figures prominently in local Songhees stories and songs.

The glacial formation has also given rise to the perfect location for many wildflower species, including Camassia spp, Erythronium and Frittilaria.  It is also home to patches of Limnanthes macounii - a rare form of meadowfoam considered to be a species at risk, and the stand at Harling Point is one of less than 30 remaining natural occurrences of the plant.