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Tending Chinese cemetery a labor for families' honor

By Pat Gee

LAST UPDATED: 1:48 a.m. HST, Apr 2, 2011

Robert Wong grew up following his father around Manoa Chinese Cemetery as he took care of the graves dotting the tranquil valley some 40 years ago, showing respect for the headstones that other kids might have found tempting for a game of hide and seek, he said.

Ching Ming public observance

The public is invited to a Ching Ming ceremony at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday at Manoa Chinese Cemetery, 3430 E. Manoa Road. It is sponsored by the United Chinese Society of Hawaii, the Hawaii Chinese Qing Ming Celebration Committee and the city. Shuttle service from the parking lot to the Grand Ancestor’s Tomb begins at 8:30 a.m. A light jacket and umbrella are recommended. Seating is limited. RSVP Henry Lee at or call 536-4621.

He quickly got over the uneasiness of being among the dead and began helping his dad, Tommy Wong, with burials and disinterments. "I became part of the family," Robert said in an interview this week. "I became like a guardian. I love the cemetery, and I want to be here to take care of it."

Robert Wong considers all who are buried at the cemetery as part of his family, in the sense that everything in life is interrelated. He also adheres to the Tao­ist belief in filial piety — the duty of children to revere their parents during life and after death — and ancestor worship, he said.

Now the cemetery's superintendent, Wong has been sprucing up the main pavilion for Tuesday's opening ceremony of the monthlong Ching Ming Festival. Attending the private ceremony will be 25 trustees and guests of the Lin Yee Chung Association, which founded the cemetery about 160 years ago. (Another organization will hold a public observance on Wednesday.)

The ceremony will be held at the top of the hill, beneath a giant ban­yan tree at the site of the "Grave of the Tai-Ju or Great Ancestor," Lum Ching, the Chinese immigrant who is the cemetery's most celebrated founder.

Association Vice President James C.M. Young said Ching Ming is "the Chinese version of the American Memo­rial Day and the Japanese obon," a four-week season for families to pay homage to their ancestors. Young, a retired architect, designed the cemetery's impressivegateway and main pavilion.

Spencer Yu, a longtime trustee who will deliver the eulogy, said the start of the season is like opening a door. "It lets the spirits come out and come visit all the relatives," he said.

It begins every year on April 5 (except during leap years, when it's April 4) and ends May 5, he said.

As the group's historian, Wong said Ching Ming, as the Cantonese spell it in English, literally means "clear and bright," synonymous with the coming of spring. Mandarins spell it "Qing Ming," and local families call the season Bai San or Chun Mung, he said.

Family visits to relatives' gravesides are like having a picnic, reunion and religious rite rolled into one. Fireworks and incense are burned, along with "gold and silver paper (representing money) so that the spirits will have funds to spend in the other world," Wong said. Other offerings consist of flowers, fruits, sweets, wine and a feast, which often includes a whole roasted pig.

Wong has long been enchanted by the fabled history of the cemetery, "the whole pulse-of-the-dragon thing. I love this place." About 160 years ago founder Lum Ching was hiking Akaka Peak near the pres­ent-day Wai­oli Tea Room. From that scenic vantage point he calculated an ideal spot for the cemetery in the neighboring valley, using a compass, mirror and his knowledge of geomancy, or what is known as feng shui today.

According to the association's history, Lum Ching exclaimed to a friend: "We are at an extraordinary spot. It is the pulse of the watchful dragon of the valley. … It is a haven suitable for the living as well as the dead. The Chinese people must buy this area and keep it as sacred ground."

Lum Ching and other patriarchs founded the Lin Yee Chung Association (whose name means "We are buried together here with pride") in 1851 to establish the cemetery. The 27-acre site is the oldest and largest Chinese cemetery in Hawaii, he said.

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