Chronicles: Chinese cemetery has a new lease on life

It's one of Cowichan's unsung 'landmarks,' tucked away in rural Sahtlam on what was the historic Hillcrest Lumber Co. mill property.

It’s one of Cowichan’s unsung ‘landmarks,’ tucked away as it is in rural Sahtlam on what was the historic Hillcrest Lumber Co. mill property.

Situated immediately beside the Cowichan Valley Trail, the former E&N Lake Cowichan Subdivision, it consists of just over nine acres (3.8 hectares) of open, sloping ground. Thanks to the direction of and financial support from the Chinese Community Association, the hard work of the DCC’s Tommy Moo and community volunteers Neil Dirom, Tim Spenser and Leigh Hirst, it has recently undergone a thorough clean-up and documentation of its occupants.

I’m referring to the Old Hillcrest Chinese Cemetery, and for background information I’m obliged to Neil Dirom and to Wai Dai (Willie) Chow of the DCCA. They reminded me that, “Before 1947 Canadian citizens or immigrants of Chinese origin living in Canada faced many restrictions — men were unable to marry; when they died there was no family nearby to care for their burial or care for their grave…”

Thus it was that, in 1945, Wah Sing Chow and Sue Lem Bing (aka Sue Lem Bing Jung, Chung Mui Jung, Jung Jong Moy) approached sawmill owner Carlton Stone seeking land for use as a cemetery for the Chinese employees. Stone graciously obliged and, for legal purposes, ownership of the property was made over to Sue Lem Bing “for the local Chinese community for a final resting place for the Chinese men”.

The provincial government approved the site for use as a cemetery in September and Fong, Kai Wing became its first interment nine months later after he was fatally crushed between two logs on the mill’s log deck. His would be the first of 127 recorded burials here, the last being that of Yong, Quon Lain, on Oct. 10, 1968.

That said, it’s known that 124 graves are occupied, the remains of three persons having been removed to other cemeteries.

It’s noteworthy that all of Hillcrest’s occupants were from China’s Kwantung province. Their occupations included millworker, bull cook, logger (railway tie maker), logger (faller), gardener, laundry worker, cook, teacher, boiler engineer, lumber piler, janitor, farmer, barber, merchant, chain puller, saw filer, accountant, boom man and shoemaker.

Some of these occupations were hazardous, as evidenced by old newspaper clippings that relate the deaths of Jung, Yin Wing, Fong, Kai Wing, and Boo, Sing Bun, all of whom were killed on the job in the Youbou sawmill, in 1944, 1946 and 1952 respectively.

Ironically, former mill worker, restaurant owner and cemetery owner Sue Lem Bing, who died in his centennial year in Cowichan District Hospital in December 1989, isn’t among those buried in the Hillcrest cemetery. He’s in Forest Lawn Burial Park in Burnaby after having worked in the Hillcrest mill from its opening in 1942 until its closure in 1968. In February 1992 his estate transferred the land in trust to the Chinese Community Association for $1.

But not without the DCCA having had to go to the Supreme Court, at considerable expense, to argue that “the charitable trust created for the cemetery purposes with respect to the said lands shall be deemed to have continued and not failed and that the title to the said lands [be] declared to be in trust by the Duncan Chinese Community Association in their capacity as Executors for charitable purposes for use as a cemetery including a guarantee given for care and maintenance under the provisions of the Cemetery and Funeral Services Act, S.B.C.”.

Further expenses included having the deed registered and the land surveyed. As it happened, all costs were handily recovered by logging some of the mature trees on the unused acreage of the cemetery.

Besides cleaning up the cemetery, which has been quite a task, the DCCA has documented all of the interments (an invaluable undertaking in itself) and has committed to “formally [pay] respect to the pioneers annually and [to continue] to maintain the cemetery”. Another project in the works is to repair and upgrade the iconic wooden archway at the entrance to the cemetery.

In April 2014 Dr. Pamela Shaw, Vancouver Island University, prepared a land use report for the cemetery for Dr. Imogene Lim of the university’s Anthropology Dept. After this was submitted to the DCCA it was decided to continue to maintain the cemetery. This past February, the Duncan CCA submitted nomination forms to B.C. Heritage for the Old Hillcrest Chinese Cemetery as a ‘B.C. Heritage Place’.

P.S. Those who visit Old Hillcrest Chinese Cemetery will find that the headstones are all inscribed in Chinese. The DCCA has a complete register of those interred here and it’s to be noted that Chinese write their last name first (as in a directory), i.e. Jang, Chong Wing.

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