Chinese Cemetery emerging from brush

The Chinese Cemetery off Apopo Road in Kapa‘a is slowly emerging from the overgrowth. Some 27 people showed up last weekend to spend a day in the sun clearing trees, brush and rubbish from the .94 acre site.

Jerome “The Shadow” Freitas revived interest in the cemetery in June 2006 after a chance meeting with a woman of Chinese ancestry put him on the path to enlightenment. Bringing the plight of the cemetery to the attention of The Garden Island, an article resulted in a group of interested residents banding together. Those meetings eventually led to the cleanup last weekend and the re-emergence of the Bak Fook Tong Society.

The Kapa‘a cemetery is identified in “Chinese Historic Sites and Pioneer Families,” a 1979 book published by the Hawaii Chinese History Center.

The book identified the cemetery as the Bak Fook Tong Society Cemetery, dating back to the turn of the 20th century.

In the Hawai‘i state archives, James W. Pratt, commissioner of public lands in Hawai‘i in the early 1900s, received a petition from the Kapa‘a Bak Fook Tong Burial and Cemetery Association to create the Kapa‘a cemetery. “In 1905 Wong Aloiau petitioned Gov. Freer … then Hawai‘i was a territory … and Freer said ‘yes’ and gave the land — .94 acre — on a hillside,” said August Yee of Honolulu, who heads the group with sister-in-law Priscilla Leong of Kapa‘a. “In 1923 the state auctioned off the land for $100 and the society bought it.”

Yee and Leong, with the help of “The Shadow,” arranged the clean-up last weekend. Leong’s father, grocery store owner Tam Kee, was buried at the cemetery in 1964. Kee was also the father of the late Reuben Tam, a world-renowned painter, and Harvey Tam, an award-winning photographer.

Yee said they cleared about two-thirds of the cemetery over the weekend. Within the graveyard is a stairwell of 100 concrete steps that climbs the hillside.

In another area, a multilayered concrete foundation houses an open concrete pit where Chinese residents pay respects by burning colored paper that represents money and symbolically conveying good tidings and prosperity to deceased ancestors.

Some of the fallen headstones bear engravings of Chinese characters.

Koa trees and weeds abound. Some of the trees have grown through cracks in the pit’s foundation.

Yee said another clean-up is scheduled for early August. “We plan to come back on Aug. 4 at 7 a.m. to finish the clean-up,” Yee said.

On May 18 the Kapa‘a Chinese Cemetery Clean-up Committee is planning a thank-you dinner at Pacific Island Bistro in Kapa‘a.

Those interested in finding out more can contact Yee at 946-7799; or Freitas at 822-4813.

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