Chinese Cemetery, Harling Point

Cherry tree growing from a plant holder, must have rooted from a branch of cherry blossoms

The Chinese Cemetery is one of the gems in my immediate surroundings. About a decade ago it was commemorated as a National Historic Site and therefore quite a lot of information can be found out about this location from internet searches. At the bottom of this post I list some of the more useful sources. I have already mentioned the Cemetery several times in my posts since it occupies much of the south facing waterfront of Harling Point, and is like a park for the neighbourhood.

Chinese Cemetery location on Harling Point, viewed from Gonzales Observatory


It is in fact private land owned by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. Nearly 20 years ago they had wanted to raise money for the maintenance of the cemetery by subdividing the bedrock area off at the south east end of Penzance Street and developing some higher density housing in that area. This resulted in a confrontation with the neighbourhood, the erection of a tall chainlink fence to keep people out and a generally unhappy situation. The resolution finally arrived in 1995 which was to have the entire property designated a National Historic Site, which gave the owners access to federal funding for maintenance of the site. They also funded a new wood fence and an attactive gate, as well as erecting a cairn and various signs explaining the significance of this location. It was a terrific solution to the problem of maintaining the cemetery and all those involved in finding this way forward should be congratulated.

I don’t have good pictures of the gate at this time, but I am sure I will, and I know I will be reposting about this spot as it is a great place to take photographs and only a couple of minutes from my house.

For me the most interesting source of information for the cemetery is a 1987 paper in BC Studies by University of Victoria geographer Dr. Gheunyan Lai (linked below). The paper gives the history of Chinese burial in the Victoria area and how they came to settle on this location for many decades. Its not a pretty story as racism plays an important role in the choices made. However, it is a story that ends peacefully though much too late and after far too many incidents.

Altar and chimneys, Olympic Mountains and Strait of Juan de Fuca in background


The location for the cemetery was chosen using the principles of Feng Shui. As Dr. Lai describes:

“The site, backed by Gonzales Hill, is flanked on both sides by rock platforms of higher elevation and commands an open view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In geomantic terms, the site was guarded by the “Azure Dragon” on its left and by the “White Tiger” on its right and was embraced by a wide stretch of water — a symbol of wealth and affluence. Furthermore, it was believed that the souls of the deceased hovering over their tombs would enjoy viewing passing vessels bound for China.” (p.30).

Sunset with Gonzales Observatory in background


The paper documents how burials were made in this location and then after 7 years exhumed and shipped back for burial in the home province of the persons that had died.

“In the old days the overseas Chinese people believed that after a person’s death his soul still existed and hovered over his tomb. If he died in a foreign country, his soul would be homeless and therefore unable to rest until his body was shipped back to China and buried in its home village. As it was expensive, if not impossible, to ship the body back to China, it was common practice to bury it for seven years. In the seventh year the grave would be opened and the bones dug up. They would be thoroughly cleaned, spread out on the ground until they were completely dried under the sun and then packed into a wooden crate. Crates of bones from Chinese communities across Canada were sent to Victoria and stored in a wooden “bone house’ ‘in Chinatown until the quantity was large enough to warrant a shipment in bulk. In 1907 the CCBA built a brick house in the Chinese Cemetery for the storage of the bones and erected a wo[o]den hut nearby for a caretaker to look after them. Before 1909 each clan or county association organized its own shipment of bones. In order to reduce shipping costs, the CCBA decided to centralize the shipment and entrusted the Taishan Association with the responsibility for collecting all the crates of bones across Canada, storing them in the brick house and shipping them to China once every seven years. The first centralized shipment took place in 1909.” (p.32-33)

Some of the recently restored headstones


This practice stopped in 1937 due to the Sino-Japanese war and was never resumed. After that the cemetery filled up and was no longer used after 1950.

Stitched panorama showing altar and chimneys near waterfront


The Cemetery has an altar with chimneys in which sacrificial burnings were made. Dr. Lai writes about those rites, but in respect to the earlier Chinese cemetery, a part of Ross Bay Cemetery, before it moved to Harling Point:

“As the Victoria Chinese generally did not have families nearby, various county and clan associations organized trips in the Qingming and Chong-yang festivals to the “Chinese Cemetery” at Ross Bay to tidy up the graves of their fellow members; light joss sticks and candles; burn paper money and ingots of silver and golden foil; and offer fruit, wine, roast pigs, steamed chickens and other sacrifices to the spirits of the dead. After the worship was over, some food was usually left behind on the graves. As this custom became known to the Siwash [Songhees] Indians, they came at night by boat from Discovery Island to Ross Bay and stole the food from the graves. At the beginning, some Chinese wondered why the native Indians feasted on roast pigs, steamed chickens and rice after every Chinese visit to the cemetery, but it did not take them long to solve the mystery. Legend has it that the Chinese had a fight with the pilfering Indians and, after this incident, ceased the practice of leaving food on the graves.” (p.28).

Detail of chimney


Around the time of the National Historic commemoration ceremony there was a big ceremony of this type, with roast pigs and other food laid out on the altar. I don’t think I have any photos of that, but if I ever find some will post them, even though they are unlikely to be very good.

An interesting movie was made about this Cemetery which can be viewed on-line at the National Film Board web site. It is called From Harling Point and is linked below.

The repainting of this headstone is shown in the film "From Harling Point" (linked below)



19 thoughts on “Chinese Cemetery, Harling Point

  1. Pingback: Chinese Cemetery | 52 rolls

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    • Hi Katherine – I am glad you find it interesting. This is a pretty old post and I find it interesting to read it again, I forgot all kinds of things I had put together for this one.


      • Okay Katherine – setting me tests I see. Thank goodness for search engines, as I had to look this one up. I take it from that work you meant something along the lines of:
        I never travel without my blog. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.


      • I don’t keep diaries – and you cite one of the best reasons not to. The past should stay in the past (so speaks an archaeologist, so perhaps that should be, my past should stay in the past!).


      • Yes, that is a very interesting thought for an archaeologist, Mr E! I have a male friend who throws away personal letters almost immediately (even love letters) and won’t keep any mementos or souvenirs of any event, yet he is an antique collector. Interesting lot, you men.


  3. Pingback: Chimney Lichen « burnt embers

  4. Pingback: Gonzales Hill Cloud « burnt embers

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