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Volunteers restore Chinese cemetery

KAPA‘A — After a year of work, restoration on an ancient Chinese cemetery off Apopo Road in Kapa‘a has reached the halfway point.

A total of five cleanups have taken place at the site over the last year, with the most recent on May 17, said August Yee of Honolulu, who has helped coordinate the restoration effort.

Yee said 63 tombstones were positioned upright on permanent foundations two weeks ago. Volunteers also cleared overgrown trees, brush, weeds and grass.

As part of the cemetery restoration, Korey Pang, who graduated from Kapa‘a High School on Friday, recently completed his Eagle Scout project at the cemetery.

He built a cement table and bench so people could rest after walking up the stairs that climb the hillside.

Pang, who started in the Scouts at age 6, is in Boy Scout Troop 133 led by Scoutmaster Mike Kano. He has been coming to the cemetery since he was a child to visit the grave site of his great-great aunt.

“Every year we went to the grave site, and it was always overgrown,” Pang said. “My uncle would have to make a path every time. (For my project), I wanted to make it clear and accessible for everyone.”

Since Yee had already started the cemetery cleanup, Pang said he remembered how there was never a spot to rest and he and his family would have to sit down in the dirt.

“There needed to be a table and bench,” Pang said. “So I hatched my plan.”

The teen went around to other tables and benches in the area to get an idea of measurements. The project took about three weekends to complete and was finished in early April.

“I had a lot of support from my family and friends,” Pang said. “I had friends come help that weren’t even part of my troop.”

Pang’s mother, Susan, said her son had a lot of support in his venture.

“We’re very proud of him,” she said. “He had to initiate everything — we were just his helpers.”

Now that he’s finished, Pang will officially become an Eagle Scout in a ceremony Tuesday at the Kapa‘a United Church of Christ at 6:45 p.m.

“I feel real proud people get to sit (on the bench),” Pang said. “I’m glad it’s already helping people even though the cemetery project isn’t finished yet.”

Now that the table and bench are installed, more improvements will soon be underway, Yee said. He hopes to somehow bring water to the cemetery to sustain vegetation.

“We hope to change (the landscape) from brown and bare into a more attractive and appropriate for a cemetery, green and attractive.”

The cemetery was created more than 100 years ago by a Territory of Hawai‘i governor as a resting place for generations of Chinese who helped build the Kawaihau District, which today is the largest population area on Kaua‘i.

Lack of funding for upkeep led to its neglect. In 2006, Jerome “The Shadow” Freitas rekindled interest in the site following a chance meeting with a woman of Chinese ancestry. After reading an article about the state of the cemetery in The Garden Island, interested residents banded together, which led to the first cleanup.

Another cemetery cleanup is scheduled for July. At that time, approximately 40 fallen tombstones will be put in place with a concrete foundation.

Yee’s goal is to restore every tombstone to an upright position by May 2009. He even anticipates a celebration next year in observance of Ch’ing Ming, a time when ancestors are honored at their grave sites.

More than 250 grave sites have been identified, according to Yee. But the records of the cemetery are missing, and Yee is hopeful that someone who knows where they are will come forward.

“I never dreamt I would be involved in a project like this,” Yee said. “The community now knows it’s there.”

For more information, contact Yee at 946-7799.

• Rachel Gehrlein, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or rgehrlein@kauaipubco.com

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