Next of Kin Unknown

Offering to the ancestors

Should a sojourner—the term commonly used to refer to men who came to Canada to work with no intention to stay—have the misfortune to die abroad, his and his family’s wish was that, one day, his bones would be shipped to China, for final burial in his family’s plot in their ancestral village. Rituals respecting the dead required that after seven years the remains be exhumed and the bones cleaned, and then stored until a shipment could be made to China.

Only large and established west coast Chinatowns had clan associations and fraternal organizations able to step into the breach to take care of funeral expenses, burial, and, later, storage in a “bone house” and shipment of bones to China. In Ottawa, pragmatism prevailed; some accepted that the final resting place would have to be in Canada.

In 1925, four civic-minded men—the brothers Mong and Kwong Hum, and Shung Joe and Sue Wong—raised funds to designate an area at Beechwood Cemetery as a Chinese section. A first purchase of 40 lots was made in the name of the Hum brothers.

Marion Hum: “That makes our family proud”

Monument at Beechwood Cemetery (Courtesy of William Joe)

Twelve years later, in 1937, upon the outbreak of war in China against the Japanese, which cut off civilian transportation across the ocean, the community made a second major purchase at Beechwood of several dozen plots, this time in the name of Ottawa’s Chinese Benevolent Association.

Sojourners ruled out returning to China once it was under Communist rule. In the 1950s, some wives in Ottawa joined in efforts spearheaded by elders in the local fraternal and community Chinese associations, including the Kuomintang and the Chinese Benevolent Association, to raise funds for the future burial expenses of elderly and impoverished men without kin in the city.

Tom Yee (far left) and his wife Marion (beside him) and her relatives on a visit to bai san (worship the ancestors) at Beechwood Cemetery, circa. 1960s. (Courtesy of Marion Hum)

 

Mrs. Chong Sam Hum, who’d had more formal education in China than most if not all of her generation in Ottawa. Ottawa, circa. late 1980s. (Courtesy of Robert Hum)

Mrs. Chong Sam Hum was one of those wives. Her husband, Chong Sam Hum, on his own in Canada since 1913, sent for her and their son Robert in 1950. Robert regularly drove his mother and the wives of Shung Joe and Sue Wong in his used 1953 Pontiac up and down the Ottawa Valley to canvass where they knew of Chinese families in business. Robert, by then a retired physicist, recalled his mother’s plea for contributions: “‘We’ve got to do something for these people,’ she’d say. “She liked the cause, though she found it difficult to ask for money. People could get hostile because they didn’t like to talk of cemeteries.”

Gladys (née Wong) Chin and her brother, Douglas Wong, penned a recollection of their parents’ annual visitation to honour the dead: Annually the Wongs prepared the ritual of visiting Beechwood Cemetery to pay homage to the pioneers who immigrated to Ottawa before them and to those who passed away afterwards. They raised funds, prepared foods (chickens, roast pork, sweets and fruits) to offer to the deceased, purchased and planted flowers at each gravesite and arranged bus transportation for the community. After the ceremony all would gather back at the Yick Lung store where a strong tradition of feasting and social interaction occurred. The Wongs were instrumental in serving and delivering the foods to everyone who could not attend.”  

Robert Hum: “The elders respected my mother”

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Copyright © 2012 Ottawa Chinese Community Service Centre and Denise Chong

 

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