Although Hong Kong is far away from Russia, immigrants from Russia had settled in Hong Kong in the mid 19th-century. The Hong Kong Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the city founded in 1845 during its colonial era located beside the racecourse at Happy Valley along with the Jewish and Hindu Cemetery, provides evidence to this fact.

In the early morning of July 7, 2012, a group of students led by Conservator Paul Harrison and, Russian Pozdnyaeva Kira from the Hong Kong Orthodox Church, gathered at the main gate of the Hong Kong Cemetery to start their field trip on a voluntary project called “Restoration of Headstones in the Hong Kong Cemetery”. It was the first outdoor activity of this nature: to search for possible ways to safeguard and conserve the grave sites.

This has been a pilot project sponsored by the Lord Wilson Trust Fund. The idea is to train eighteen members of Hong Kong Institute of Conservationists (HKICON) in the basics of headstone preservation of Armenian and Russian Orthodox graves in the HK Cemetery. The Royal Asiatic Society has been actively involved in this project, and has given support to Conservator Paul Harrison, the main leader who has been teaching the technical skills of graves conservation on-site.

According to Paul Harrison, there were 105 Russian Orthodox graves inside the cemetery, but only 13 of them would be restored in this project due to limited resources. Russian Orthodox graves are mainly in the shape of a cross with two strokes—one on top and the other located obliquely at the bottom. Most of the graves have been at the HK Cemetery for over a hundred years. Breakage, as well as erosion and growth of vegetation has left the grave sites broken and bent beyond description.

“There were about 100,000 White emigrants in China. Some of them stayed in HK. And they carefully retained the values of the old Russia that were destroyed by communists.” (Who said this? The source of the quote?)

 

They walked carefully into the cemetery to avoid tripping over graves as a way of respect. Upon reaching the Russian gravesite, Pozdnyaeva Kira—a lover of history—told the stories by way of pictures of the White Russian immigrants interred in the cemetery.

“My main historical interest was the white Russian Immigration. Historians say that up to two million Russians left their country after the Russian Revolution in 1917. There were nobles, writers, painters, philosophers, composers, engineers, etc. They were the best of the best who were rejected by the bloody communist regime,” said Kira, “There were about 100,000 white emigrants in China. Some of them stayed in HK. And they carefully retained the values of old Russia that were destroyed by communists.”

Kira said she took part in and largely supported this project because of her husband, Fr. Denis, a chief-priest of the Orthodox Church in Hong Kong who met Paul Harrison. Although Harrison came to the idea of this conservation project, he needed permission from the person responsible for the graves. Due to the long history of the Russian graves, it was difficult to find the direct owners of them. So a letter of authorization from the Orthodox Church in HK serves as the related community permission for the graves. That’s why Paul Harrison contacted Fr. Denis and Pozdnyaeva Kira. Although this project has already commenced, the full approval from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to start real restoration work is still under way.

Students enjoy taking part in this project very much. Their ages ranged from twenties to fifties, but they all are the members of HKICON. They are not simply from the architecture field, but also from the Antiquities and Monuments Office and many other fields that have shown interest about graves conservation.

“I joined this project because I am interested in stones research, which is closely related to graves conservation, I am looking forward to help restoring the graves,” said Wendy, one of the students, “I knew nothing about Russians’ history in HK before, but now I am surprised to know that so many Russians have come to Hong Kong.”  One other student, an architect called Kelvin, said, “This is a valuable and rare project particularly about graves. Through this volunteering basics project, I learned a lot about Russian and Armenian history in HK.”

 

She likewise emphasized that the Hong Kong Cemetery is full of culture, history, architecture, art and design, ethnic diversity, and even everyday life of early HK, as well as life reflections. “So, Hong Kong needs to put more concern in this area.”

Sylvia Midgett, friend of Paul Harrison, a history and culture enthusiast, and an adviser of this project said, “Cemeteries in other countries are always classified as monuments and cultural heritages, but HK people always regard it as a symbol of bad luck.” Moreover, she thought that this project was a way to promote conservation education, and wished that the students who took part in this project would become the pioneers of HK conservation in the future.

Pozdnyaeva Kira shared a story of a Russian who lies in the HK Cemetery: “One of the White Russian emigrants in Hong Kong was the first Russian Orthodox priest named Dimitry Uspensky, whose grave is located in the very center of the Cemetery. He was born in a priest's family in a small Russian city. Unlike many of his peers he was passionate in languages and knew several modern and ancient languages. Among them was Chinese. He even wrote a Chinese textbook for Russians. After 1917, he was sent to China, and in 1934 he was appointed as chief priest of the HK Russian Orthodox community that consisted about 300-400 people. He was a very nice and kind person and helped emigrants a lot. He stayed in HK during the hard years of WWII and passed through all difficulties shoulder to shoulder with locals. Fr Dimitry passed away in 1970.” 

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