Sunday, June 05, 2016

Sweeping the Tomb of Charlie Woo

The Chinese community in Niagara Falls celebrate the annual Chinese Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Day) in June. In China the holiday falls in April on the 15th day of the Spring equinox. Families travel to their ancestors' graves to clean the sites, plant new flowers, pay respects and to offer food. But in Niagara Falls it's too cold to do this in April so they moved the festival to the first Sunday in June.

There are over 120 graves in the Fairview Cemetery in Niagara Falls that have been identified as Chinese workers who died as single men. So they have no family to sweep their tombs. This is because the 1885 Head Tax and 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act made it impossible for the early Chinese workers in Niagara Falls to marry. Seeing as they have no descendents, the local Niagara Chinese community has taken it upon themselves to act instead of family to celebrate the Tomb Sweeping Festival in memory of these childless Canadian Chinese. There are many more early period Chinese workers in Niagara whose earthly remains are unknown. Their tombs are never swept.

The Niagara Falls Chinese community is dwindling and aging. They need help with this work. So they asked for volunteers from the St Catharines Chinese Cultural Association to lend a hand. Even though I am not Chinese, I was educated in China. I have been a member of the board of the Chinese Cultural Association of Niagara for 10 years now. I am white and of Irish Protestant background. My Canadian ancestors were anti-semitic, racist Orangemen who would have fully supported the Head Tax and the ban on Chinese migration to Canada. I cringe with guilt thinking of it. Sweep the graves of the Chinese my people unjustly oppressed in our meanspirited ignorance? Count me in! How could I refuse?

So on the appointed day I arrived at the designated meeting point in the Fairview Cemetery marked in Chinese on the Cemetery map. I assembled a team of four. Myself, my wife who is ethnically Chinese, our 12 year-old son, and his friend Sean from Beijing. We were assigned 17 graves in Sectors three, four, and five of the Fairview Cemetery. For each grave we were issued one potted geranium to plant, one stick of incense to burn and lunch to share with the "ancestors." I'm advised it is a kind of food old old timey Chinese workers enjoyed: some roast pork, a chicken leg, two Chinese buns (one savoury, one sweet), and an orange. I put a few bills in the donation box to help out with costs for next year.

Our first grave is a small stone. At the top is the name "Charlie Woo." The rest of the information is in Chinese. I read it out to my son.  His name is Hu Zhenguan. He came from Chonglou, Taishan County, Guangdong. He was born in 1888. He died in 1939.

We spent about 10 minutes with Mr. Woo.  My team was in for a long morning to do all 17. We planted and watered Charlie Woo's geranium with reverence and lit his incense stick with some difficulty as it was raining lightly that morning.

I tried to imagine what Charlie Woo's life had been like. I suppose he likely worked long hours in bad conditions in a Chinese hand laundry or cheap Chinese restaurant catering to the Niagara Falls tourist trade. Was he very homesick for China over his years in Canada? Why did he die young at age 51? I suppose he lived in crowded and poor lodgings. Maybe it was untreated tuberculosis that killed him when his lungs gave out? How bad was it for him to realize that he would die a "bare branch" with no descendents?

I wonder what Mr. Woo would have thought about having a Mandarin speaking white man maintaining his grave, bowing to his memory and sharing his food offering on the Qingming Festival? Would he have understood how much deep regret I feel about the Head Tax and then the Exclusion Act imposed on him by my racist forebears? My bow was not just a bow of respect to the departed elder. It was a bow of deep apology for what my people did to Charlie Woo and the thousands like him.

I will be back next year to plan another geranium and burn your incense, Mr. Woo. I will try to be your filial grandson. Its the least we can do. But definitely not enough.

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