Ancient Chinese cemetery to be honored, restored
To help stir civic pride and to preserve a piece of Kapa‘a’s cultural history, volunteers plan to complete the clean-up of the Chinese Cemetery off Apopo Road in Kapa‘a on Aug. 11.
Created about 100 years ago by a Territory of Hawaii governor, the cemetery is the final resting place for generations of Chinese who helped build the Kawaihau District, which today is the largest population area on Kaua‘i. The cemetery may contain as many as 200 gravesites.
Because of a lack of funds, the cemetery has been neglected in recent years. Its existence only came to light in the summer of 2006 following a chance meeting between a woman resident from Kapa‘a and “Da Shadow” Jerome Freitas, a government watchdog.
Residents subsequently banded together to clean up the site May 5.
With two-thirds of the work done, volunteers will be asked to complete the cleanup between 6:30 a.m. and noon Aug. 11, said August Yee of Honolulu, who is coordinating the effort with his sister-in-law, Priscilla Leong of Kapa‘a.
“It is the coming together of the people in the community to restore the cemetery to its former condition,” he said.
Twenty-seven volunteers from Kapa‘a participated in the first cleanup, and an equivalent number and more are expected for the next one, Yee said.
Mary Requilman, who heads the Kaua‘i Historical Society, said she thinks the effort will strengthen community ties.
“I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the (cemetery), but any time the community steps forward to have a clean-up effort, it can only be a good thing,” she said.
Volunteers will be asked to bring their own equipment and tools. Lunch will be served around noon.
Among those who helped in the first cleanup were John Kruse, a Kaua‘i County Real Property Division employee who encouraged volunteers to come out, kuma hula Aunty Beverly Muraoka, Tom Aiu and Jerry Nakasone. Also among those who pitched in was Joe Horak, a contractor whose employees helped with the cleanup that resulted in 10 truckloads of debris being removed, and other contractors who donated the use of heavy equipment, including a dump truck and an excavator.
Yee described the cooperation behind the effort as being “incredible.”
The lack of an endowment fund resulted in the neglect of the cemetery, which had been covered over by hale koa trees and brush before the May 5 cleanup.
But Yee said he anticipates the maintenance will continue as the cemetery has strong spiritual significance for Chinese on Kaua‘i.
Chinese immigrants first came to Hawai‘i to work in its sugar industry in the mid-1800s, and over time, some settled on Kaua‘i and in Kapa‘a.
In the early 1900s, the Bak Fook Tong Burial and Cemetery Association sent a petition to a Territorial of Hawai‘i official asking to create a cemetery in Kapa‘a.
George R. Carter, a Republican territorial governor of Hawai‘i appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt at the time, approved the request, leading to the establishment of a cemetery on a hillside of about an acre.
In 1923, the government approved a grant that only allowed the association to use the land as a cemetery, Yee said.
The group then bought the cemetery site for $100 and developed it, Yee said.
The Kapa‘a cemetery boasts an altar and a round concrete fire pit from which Chinese residents offered food and burned colored paper — representing money — to convey prosperity to their ancestors.
Priscilla Leong’s father, Tam Kee, a grocery store owner, was buried there in 1964. Kee was the father of the late Rueben Tam, a world-renowned artist.
Many of the Chinese descendants of those buried there have moved away from Kapa‘a, but the clean-up will now allow remaining families to honor family members who have passed on and to connect with their historical roots, Yee said.
• Lester Chang, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or email@example.com.