It might sound slightly macabre but my favourite place in Hong Kong was a graveyard. The Sai Wan War Cemetery sits high on a hill. Often when I visited huge hawks circled overhead. Friendly geckos and tiny yellow butterflies flitted over the tombs. Warring factions of songbirds and insects would be having a fierce musical competition in the thickly treed ravines on either side of the cemetery. Usually, I was the only person there.
I would stand for a moment at the Sai Wan entrance and look at the panorama of chalky white grave markers. Sai Wan is an eerily ecumenical place, a multinational mausoleum. Soldiers from eight countries and more than a dozen different religious faiths are buried together. Each grave looks identical from a distance. Only by reading the inscriptions do you discover some were Sikhs, others Catholics, some were from Scotland, others from the Netherlands, some spoke Chinese, others English. What they have in common is they died together defending Hong Kong against the Japanese during World War II.
Depending on my mood I might rush or walk slowly down the sixty -six steps that took me to the spot where I felt most at home, where all the perfectly rounded tops of the tombs were imprinted with a maple leaf. I liked to sit on the cement ledge beside the twelve long rows of Canadian graves. There were colourful wildflowers running riot in the ravine there and the palms provided some shade.
On one of my visits, I found the vault decorated with a golden cross that holds the graveyard’s record books. Personal details about each soldier are catalogued. I discovered the names of Manitoba places like Brandon, Selkirk and Fisher Branch listed as the hometowns of some men in the cemetery. Almost a hundred of the 282 Canadian soldiers buried at Sai Wan were members of the Winnipeg Grenadiers battalion. Winnipeg is my home city.
The allied forces in Hong Kong surrendered on December 25, 1941. This means just after Christmas a hundred women in Manitoba will have been notified their sons and husbands were dead or had been captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong. Those women’s names are listed in the record books at the cemetery.
I try to imagine Euphemia Johnson finding out her 54-year-old husband David had died. Charlotte Mitchell received word her 23 and 25-year-old sons Eric and William had both been killed in battle in Hong Kong. How would a mother go on living after receiving news like that?
Sometimes I started to cry when I thought of these women. I imagined them sitting in their prairie homes in the middle of an icy cold Canadian winter grieving for their children and husbands who were buried in a place so foreign and far away they couldn’t even imagine what it looked like. I usually delighted in the pell-mell pace of Hong Kong but sometimes I needed a quiet retreat. Sai Wan was a lovely spot to sit and dream up plans for my future. It was a peaceful sanctuary where I could pray for my children’s happiness. It was a place filled with memories where I found it easy to write and reminisce. If I’d let myself get overly anxious about my ‘to-do list’ or was feeling frustrated by workplace politics, visiting Sai Wan put the significance of my everyday worries into perspective.
John James Gunn of Winnipeg was only 24 years old when he was killed in the battle for Hong Kong. His wife Muriel chose to put just a single word on his tombstone- Mizpah. I’ve found many different meanings for Mizpah.
One is ‘an emotional bond between people who are separated from each other.’ While I was in Hong Kong I was separated from my family back in Canada and perhaps that’s why I felt a bond with the Canadian families who had loved ones buried at Sai Wan.
The other definition I discovered for Mizpah was ‘a place of sanctuary and hopeful anticipation.’ The Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong definitely became that kind of place for me.