Patricia Lim

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Grave recorder 

Patricia Lim was locked in the Hong Kong Cemetery. She was so fascinated with the graves and their occupiers’ stories that she lost track of the time. When she finally came down to the cemetery gates, she found the graveyard was already closed. So she had to climb out through a government building next door after spotting a security guard and getting his attention with her faint, almost whisper-like voice. The guard turned around and there she was, standing in the twilight, silhouetted against the gravestones.

That was a few years back, when Lim was doing research for a book on the graves. “I really scared the poor man,” she says with a childish laugh. “He was absolutely horrified. I had worked in the cemetery over the years and, despite never seeing a ghost, I was taken for a ghost.”

Now in her 70s, the retired teacher, who’s been in Hong Kong for 37 years, is sweet and energetic. When she leads us through the quiet, green Hong Kong Cemetery below a noisy overpass in Happy Valley, she looks well at home. She walks fast and points out the graves from a distance. She clearly knows them well. The Victorian chest tombs, the granite obelisks, the Russian Orthodox crosses, the angels and the anchors. She spent about a decade researching the 8,500 graves here for her 624-page book, published in 2011, Forgotten Souls: A Social History of the Hong Kong Cemetery, which tells the story of our city from as long ago as the 1840s through the lives of those now six feet under.

“Cemeteries are fascinating places,” she says. “You have a whole history sleeping beneath your feet.”

Before her 2011 epic, Lim had published two books, both on Hong Kong’s historical walks. For her second tome, Discovering Hong Kong’s Cultural Heritage: Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, she enjoyed a walk through the Happy Valley cemeteries. Then she met a ‘very eccentric lady’, Susan Farrington, who had been to the ancient Khyber Pass in Pakistan and had recorded countless graves all the way down through India and Sri Lanka. Farrington persuaded Lim to start recording the graves in Hong Kong and volunteered to help. They worked together for six weeks.

“She did so much in six weeks that I couldn’t stop her from working,” says Lim. “When she left, I slightly reluctantly continued on my own.”

Lim worked with a group of volunteers, as well as some well-known local historians, to record each grave and put them into a database. Then she searched for reports, stories and personal accounts containing the names in books and old newspapers such as The China Mail, an English-language paper published in the city from 1845 to 1974.

Flicking through her scrapbook, full of reprinted clips of newspaper reports and book cuttings, Lim fondly retells how a Dr William Morrison liked to be drawn around town in a low carriage by a pair of handsome Chusan ponies with his boy holding an umbrella over his head. She also tells how another colonial surgeon, Dr William Aurelius Harland, the first person in Hong Kong to use chloroform anaesthesia in an operation, got into trouble with a servant girl in London, had to marry her to give her a good name and came here because he didn’t want to live with her. She also discovered the different ways people met their end. One was killed by a pirate in 1853, another was murdered in a derailed train by bandits in 1916 and one unlucky chap was mauled by a tiger in 1925.

What Lim’s been doing is reopening up the past. But her research can sometimes be pretty risky. She once fell over an iron railing spike and cut her knee. When her doctor asked her if it was old metal, she shocked him by telling him it was, in fact, 156 years old. She even had a mild heart attack once and had to jump in someone’s grave to lie down and rest.

Her scrapes over the years, though, have failed to kill her passion for her research. “What I wanted with this project,” she says, “was to make people aware of the historical importance of the cemetery.” Her husband, Po Chye, is from Singapore. There the government cleared 21 cemeteries and exhumed 120,000 graves for redevelopment by 1985.

“I thought, sooner or later, people in Hong Kong would get greedy and say there was no land,” she says. “And they would say ‘who wants those old graves? They don’t mean anything anyway’. I don’t want that to happen because graves are historical and interesting. They contain Hong Kong’s real history.” Shirley Zhao
 

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