Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Institutionalizing Charity: Hong Kong and the Homebound Burial of Chinese Americans, 1900-1949

Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Institutionalizing Charity: Hong Kong and the Homebound Burial of Chinese Americans, 1900-1949

Article excerpt

While philanthropy still remains an open area in diaspora studies, even more so does the field of funeral and burial charity, especially when migration of the dead is involved. This paper is a study of Chinese migration from the very peculiar perspective of the history of death and diasporic charity. If the last chapter on "Returning Bones" in Elizabeth Sinn's path-breaking book, Pacific Crossing: California Gold, Chinese Migration, and the Making of Hong Kong, (1) has its focus on the situation in the early years of the mass migration spurred by the gold rush, my present work, with the return of bones of Chinese Americans as a case in point, is on the condition in the subsequent half century when Chinese diasporic charity in terms of hometown burial became gradually institutionalized. While the Tung Wah Hospital in Hong Kong played a key role in the process of institutionalization, its Tung Wah Coffin Home (hereafter TWCH) established in 1900 figured as an institution for the repatriation of an estimated hundred thousand coffins and bones of Chinese from all over the world, (2) including the United States, back to China--especially to the region of Guangdong, the origin of most Chinese migrants to the new world from gold rush times until the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China when the embargo problem affected the communication between China and the outside world.

EARLY OVERSEAS CHINESE CHARITABLE HOMEBOUND BURIAL ARRANGEMENTS

In fact, even before the founding of the TWCH, coffins and bones were being repatriated from overseas through Hong Kong. Indeed, Hong Kong was the pivot for both emigration from China and the return of Overseas Chinese, living or dead, to their native places from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. As a free port opened in 1841 by Britain, its colonizer, Hong Kong functioned to facilitate trade, communication, traffic, and transport of goods, money, and populations. It was only natural then for the colony to become a place through which the Chinese migrated to North America beginning with the gold rush days. (3) Soon Hong Kong also served as a labor-recruiting station for agencies of American and Canadian companies looking for Chinese mine and railroad workers. (4) It was not long, however, after the first generation of Chinese emigrants to California had made their trips from Hong Kong that the remains of some of the unfortunate ones also returned through the colony. The earliest existing record about the shipment of dead Chinese to I long Kong from the United States was 1855, some seven or eight years after the discovery of gold in California. It was Hong Kong's China Mail reporting what had been recorded in the Alta California newspaper on May 16, 1855, about a vessel called the S. S. (5) heading for Hong Kong from the United States with a cargo of 200 bags of potatoes and "94 boxes of dead Chinamen." (6) Nothing is known regarding the causes of death of these Chinese. Nor can we verify whether they were among the first generation of Chinese emigrants to California during the gold rush times. It can be documented, though, that the repatriation of Chinese migrants' remains to their hometowns through Hong Kong took place as early as the 1850s, well before the establishment of the TWCH in 1900.

Elizabeth Sinn holds that the aforementioned shipment in 1855 would have most likely been organized by a Chinese charity association, as it was quoted by William Speer, a missionary active in the San Francisco Chinese community in the gold rush days, that the association, according to its report, had completed in June 1855 the preparatory work for the repatriation of the remains of the dead, and a vessel conveying the coffins sailed to their native villages. (7) Sinn's inference seems reasonable as under the custom of "second burial" in South China, exhumation of bones for reinterment usually took place five to seven years after the bodies were buried. …

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