It’s an odd sight – graves stacked into the dense hillside on carved tiers, shaded by ferns and watching silently over the valley below. If you look closer at the cemeteries in Happy Valley though, you’ll start to hear the headstones themselves tell the story of the area’s violent, deadly, multi-cultural past.
When British forces landed in the area in 1841, they found what the American colonists commonly referred to as a “fever swamp.” What that meant is that the standing water, low elevation, and warm temperatures made the area ripe for mosquito breeding. Diseases like malaria, yellow fever, cholera, and typhoid wiped out the first several rounds of military personnel and settlers.
It didn’t take the Brits long to decide to move their headquarters somewhere else, but they continued to bury their dead in the uninhabitable Happy Valley. Between disease, pirates, accidents, and wars, the 19th century had no shortage of people to bury, either. With space at a premium, you can find Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Parsee, and Muslim burial grounds butted up against one another in Happy Valley, while the Chinese (who consider burial grounds bad luck) abandoned the area.
In 1844 the British drained the swamp to make room for a track to host horse races, solving two problems with one blow: getting rid of disease, and boosting morale among their men.
By the time casualties from WWI started to roll in, the bottom levels of Happy Valley were full. They started to build up on the hillside, creating new terraces higher and higher to accommodate more bodies. As a result, we can watch the centuries of Hong Kong’s past go by as we climb toward the sky.
On the lowest tiers lies the old, Protestant graves of ship captains, and notable graves such as the first female American missionary to Hong Kong (Henrietta Hall Shuck), and Sir Kai Ho Kai, the first Chinese Hong Kong native to be knighted.
Move up the hill, and watch the Victorian urns morph into the uniform military graves of WWI soldiers, and then those who fell during the 1941 Japanese invasion, the clean, simple stones contrasting with the ornate monuments in the Catholic cemetery nearby.
But there isn’t room to keep recording the history of death in Hong Kong, at least not in Happy Valley. As far back as the 1960s, local authorities realized they were quickly running out of usable burial space, and they began to promote cremation over traditional burials. People bought into the PO box-type system where ash jars sit in niches, but now those too are sold out.
It appears that, like the Victorian headstones that are sinking into the earth, the burial system in Happy Valley will become a relic of the city’s past, and sooner rather than later.
h/t: Atlas Obscura