Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Emergent Chinese Diasporic Identity and Culture: Chinese Grave Markers and Mortuary Rituals in Newfoundland

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Emergent Chinese Diasporic Identity and Culture: Chinese Grave Markers and Mortuary Rituals in Newfoundland

Article excerpt


Standing on the east coast of North America, St. John's, the capital city of Newfoundland, was a British-ruled dominion prior to 1949 and a rallying point for Europeanbound Allied convoys during World War II. In wartime, the city was filled with servicemen, and many local hostels provided accommodation to them. The Knights of Columbus Hostel was one of those boarding places. It was famous for its regular weekend dance parties, which were often well attended by both servicemen and civilians. On the 12th of December in 1942, a devastating fire, widely believed to have been started by a German agent, spread quickly during a party, taking 99 lives and burning down the building. Among those victims was a Chinese man named Han Mun Fong who was believed to have served as a seaman for the British Merchant Navy (fig. 1). Fong, along with seven other soldiers who lost their lives in the disaster, was buried in the "Field of Honor" section at the Forest Road Anglican Cemetery in St. John's. Comparing Fong's headstone with the others in the same section, a distinctive difference between them is the absence of a cross on Fong's marker (fig. 2).

This absence can be attributed to many things, but it is certain that Fong's marker was not placed by his family nor by members of the local Chinese community. According to the official immigration record, he had no family in Newfoundland at the time, and none of my sources-including historical texts, personal memoirs, and interviews-make any acknowledgment of the presence of Fong other than his name in the manuscripts regarding the fire. It is plausible that Fong's marker was placed by the local Newfoundland government and/or public service agencies along with those of other servicemen killed in the fire who had no family on the island. The supporting evidence is that, in Chinese tradition, with the exception of scholarly honors or official ranks, occupation is rarely inscribed on grave markers, yet "seaman" is inscribed on Fong's. One possible explanation of the absence of a cross is the popular belief that Chinese people were (and maybe still are) not Christian and that therefore, a carving of the cross might not be seen as appropriate on a Chinese grave marker. The choice not to include a cross, in turn, strengthened the common belief that Chinese Newfoundlanders were not Christian. However, this belief was strongly challenged by early Chinese settlers who first came to Newfoundland in 1895 and utilized grave markers to express their new sense of identity as both Chinese and Christian and to communicate this to convince the public that they were religiously converted and socially acculturated. Alan Dundes notes:

Identity is an oppositional process producing or strengthening "persistent identity systems." This oppositional principle constitutes one of the common threads in both personal and group identity, particularly concerning issues affecting minority versus majority cultures. Minorities experience opposition more than majorities, and it is they who have more of a stake in defining identity (especially their own). (1984:149-50)

In this article, I examine how Chinese settlers in Newfoundland, especially those who came before Newfoundland's Confederation to Canada in 1949, used grave markers and associated mortuary rituals to present their emergent creolized Chinese diasporic identity. This newly achieved identity as Chinese Christians was shaped and created through individual and/or group-based religious practices in their new home, reflecting the "multiplicity, diversity, temporality, and creolity" (Zhang 2015:450) of the emergent Chinese diasporic culture, especially that in relatively small and/or rural communities, in North America.

In past scholarship on Chinese diasporic culture in North America, folklorists focused on how tradition is negotiated and adapted in innovative ways in a new environment. Scholars such as Ban Seng Hoe (1976), Madeline Slovenz-Low (1987, 1991, 1994), Margaret Rose Wai Wah Chan (2001), Juwen Zhang (2001), Linda Sun Crowder (2000, 2002), and many others have argued that Chinese immigrants acculturated to their new settlements' mainstream culture through intentional means and actions. …

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