Saturday, May 21, 2011

History from tombstones

Learn as you run

Cemeteries are places most people avoid but the annual Jogathon Warisan at a cluster of century-old burial sites on both sides of Jalan Istana in Kuala Lumpur attracted a huge crowd with participants running past the final resting place of people of different races and faiths.
The event, organised by the Youth section of the Selangor and Kuala Lumpur Chinese Assembly Hall and other Chinese associations since 2001, was created to raise awareness on preserving heritage.
Its vice-president, Lee Wai Hong, who was also the event’s organising chairman this year, said there was a proposal to relocate the cemeteries and develop the area in the 90s but it received strong opposition from the community.
“The proposal had since been dropped and the focus now is on promoting the place as a historial site,” he said.
Mass grave: About 800 victims who were murdered and another 500 who were buried alive during the Japanese Occupation were buried at the Hokkien Cemetery in Jalan Kerayung, KL.
Youth section treasurer Fok Wai Mun, who also occassionally takes people on guided tours of the cemeteries, said these were the places that told stories about the country’s history and diverse culture.
“For a Chinese graveyard, one could discover many facts about a deceased from the carvings on the tombstone, such as his given and alternative names, titles, birth and departed dates, place of origin and names of descendants.
“The pattern of the grave, either curvy, squarish, wavy or pointed, was chosen based on feng shui.
“Each grave is also guarded by an ‘earth deity’. The descendants usually have to offer prayers to the deity before they do so to their ancestors,” Fok explained.
He added that the era a person died also determined the design of the grave.
In remembrance: A monument at Kwang Tung cemetery in KL to honour those who responded to the call to join the troupe in charge of transporting goods to China through Myanmar during the fight against Japan in the 1920s and 1930s.
The first stop of the half-day visit to the eight cemeteries — Kwang Tung, Hokkien, Kwang Sai, Catholic, Japanese, Hindu, Sikh and Sinhalese Buddhist — was the memorial site of Yap Ah Loy, the third Chinese Kapitan who spearheaded the development of Kuala Lumpur.
His life stories were written on a board erected at the site.
Businessman Chan Sow Lin, Kapitan Yap Kwan Seng and Chinese educationist Lim Lian Geok were the other famous Chinese leaders buried at this cluster of cemeteries.
Lim’s statue is located at his memorial site at the Hokkien cemetery.
A mass grave of about 800 victims who were murdered and 500 who were buried alive during the Japanese Occupation is also located at this cemetery.
There is also a monument built in 1947 at the Kwang Tung cemetery in honour of those who responded to the call to join the troupe in charge of transporting goods to China through Myanmar, during the fight against Japan in the 20s and 30s.
The cemeteries are also dotted with more than 70 shared graves for members of Chinese associations. Such associations have members with the same surnames, origins or occupation.
“They had no descendants and were buried together with fellow association members,” Fok said.
The Hindu and Sikh crematoriums are located off Jalan Loke Yew, while Sinhalese Buddhist, Roman Catholic and Japanese cemeteries are further down the road.
Fok pointed out that the Sinhalese Buddhist cemetery was the burial site of many Sri Lankan land surveyors who came to the country during the colonial times.
“Their tombstones do not tell much aboutthe dead, except for their date of birth and death,” he said.
Neat rows: The numbered headstones at the Roman Catholic cemetery in KL in memory of British soldiers who died in war.
As for the Roman Catholic graveyard, what sets it apart are the weather-beaten marble statues that exude a western atmosphere.
Other than the tombs that are identifiable based on photos and names, there are countless numbered headstones at the shady cemetery.
Fok said they were erected in memory of the British soldiers who sacrificed their lives during World War II.
“Their remains are not buried here,” he said.
Meanwhile, a short distance away is the neat and tidy Japanese cemetery, in stark contrast to the rest.
“In the past, cemeteries were unkempt and covered with bushes. One could only tell a site was a cemetery when the grass was cut during Qing Ming Festival.
“But now most of the cemeteries are well kept and have the potential to be tourist spots, a common practise overseas where tourists visit the burial sites of famous people,” he said. - theStarOnline

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