Earlier this spring, a group of Hong Kong volunteers committed four continuous weekends to the successful restoration of the historic Hindu Temple cemetery and war memorial in Happy Valley. They lent their hands to clean neglected gravestones that had drowned in dead foliage, dug up stubborn layers of dirt, and cast new cement flooring in place of it. Six months later, a memorial service is in the works and they revisited their hard work, picking up right where they left off.
On November 10, social worker Jeffrey Andrews took to Facebook to once again call on the help of the Hong Kong community. “The results were amazing and unbelievable; you helped to give dignity back to a place were our community sacrificed their lives for our beloved city,” he wrote, referencing their previous efforts. “But today after a few months break, some grass and shrubs have grown back. We need your help as there will be a first ever memorial remembrance service on Sunday.”
Andrews helped lead the initial clean up at the Hindu Temple back in March, alongside other volunteers who had been gathered by the Hindu Association.
The turnout on Saturday was as remarkable as the first time, with many familiar faces determined to serve with a newfound purpose to rejuvenate the area in preparation for Sunday’s memorial service.
“Lots of people died in the Second World War; there are Commonwealth soldiers everywhere,” says Morris Cheung, Senior Head Gardener at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and one of the devoted volunteers of the Hindu cemetery clean-up. “Not just White British people; Indians, Sikh Soldiers, and Nepalese Gurkhas [died] defending Hong Kong.”
The cemetery is home to South Asian civilians who passed during the Second World War, and a war memorial for seven fallen Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army that fought in the First and Second World Wars. According to Cheung, records say that beneath the stone pillar lie a scattering of some human remains and uniforms, anything they could recover during the war.
However, some volunteers were less supportive of the memorial service, discussing the glorification of war and recognition given only through colonial importance.
“Obviously we [as a community] should receive recognition but a lot of the narrative forced around [the death of Indian soldiers] is that we died for the UK and that’s why we should be accepted,” says Raj Doel, a new volunteer who stepped in to help during Saturday’s efforts. “We have to change those narratives.”
(Photos by Alyanna RJ Payos)
Regardless of their views on the remembrance ceremony, all volunteers acknowledged the significance of their efforts.
Newcomers Leanna and Eileen are HKU students who chose to participate under the suggestion of their teaching assistant for a class, Dr Michael Rivera, who was also in attendance. The two agreed that it was a meaningful way to spend their weekend.
“It’s good for our society,” says Leanna. “I came because I value it more than what I’d be doing on my ordinary Saturday.”
Perhaps the cleaning of tombstones and the accompanying memorial service are less about the soldiers or the war itself, and more about the community spirit that lives on today.
“I really see the vibrance of the local Indian community, especially the young people. I never thought their linkage was so strong,” shares Cheung. “They work very hard; harder than whoever they could have hired [to do this].”