Sunday, May 10, 2009

Old Cemeteries, Graveyards and Remains

For some reason I’ve been thinking about old cemeteries in China recently (and did post about the Cimetière Française de Kilung). Not sure how this started, probably a conversation with a friend about the fact that Beijing and Shanghai appear to be among some of the few major cities internationally that have no cemeteries in their inner cities left. Shanghai certainly has no equivalent of Highgate Cemetery in London or the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris. Other cities of course also have their traditional cemeteries – get the bus from Hong Kong’s Central to Aberdeen and you pass the vast cemeteries somewhere up behind Happy Valley while I stayed recently in KL at a city centre hotel whose swimming pool overlooked a Chinese graveyard behind the property while in Malacca you can wander among the graves of the city’s former Dutch and English traders.

Of course I’ve visited the vast cemeteries now on Shanghai’s fringes but the downtown cemeteries are all built on. Interestingly no one much, in what can be a very superstitious city, seems bothered by this and I have no idea whether the old graveyards were just churned up or remains taken away. Some of the city’s most notorious buildings sit above former graveyards – the Pearl Oriental Tower must, at least in part, be built over the old Pootung Point graveyard while the fascistic architectural horror that is the JW Marriot at the ridiculously named Tomorrow Square sits on land (according to my old map of Shanghai) that was also a graveyard. Much the same appears to be true of Beijing – I recently went looking for a graveyard noted in an old record but it was firmly gone under the concrete of the Second Ring Road. As far as I could ascertain there was no formal removal of remains to anywhere else.

A few other cemetery related observations noted recently:

I just read Philip Pan’s excellent Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China which has a fascinating chapter on a surviving graveyard full of people who died in the Cultural Revolution- that it survived was remarkable; that people were intrigued and cataloguing the dead there a fascinating example of how not everyone accepts that all in China should just forget the CR in the rush to the glory and wonder of total KFCification.

I also recently bumped into Dvir Bar-Gal (at an incredibly bad talk by someone on the history of Baghdadi Jews in Shanghai by the way, where the speaker would neither discuss opium, slum landlordism or anything that might have reflected badly on the likes of Sassoon, Hardoon etc – really a very bad example of history as celebrity PR) who has done so much to preserve the Jewish headstones of Shanghai when he can find them. His latest efforts are noted in an article on the JTA website. Dvir notes that, ‘The four cemeteries that once served this city’s (Shanghai’s) small but prosperous Jewish community disappeared in the late 1960s during China’s Cultural Revolution. The sites were paved over to build a factory, park, hotel and Muslim cemetery, their history forgotten.’

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