Lin Yee Chung Association

Legacy of Hope A Campaign for the Manoa Chinese Cemetery

Sharing a true story…as written by Patti Look

A few years before the coming of the first group of Chinese contract laborers in1852, a young man named Lum Ching, now called “Tai-Ju,” came to Hawaii in hopes of making a living with his freshly acquired knowledge of an astronomy/geology-based study called “kum yee hok.” He would often be seen carrying two round “magic” instruments on the outskirts of the city, studying the environment of various locales. The instruments were the “lo poon,” an astronomy-based compass and a light reflecting mirror. These were primitive instruments for measuring actual scientific phenomena.

One morning Lum Ching and a friend hiked into Manoa Valley to a spot near the present location of Waioli Tea Room and noticed a peculiar knoll projecting into the center of the valley, about a mile from where they were standing. Both of them hiked over to the top of that knoll, then called Akaka Peak. There they discovered a beautiful view of the valley to the sea.

Lum Ching carefuly set his complicated compass on a level surface following the run of the mountain range and, to his surprise, the compass needle pointed directly south. He did some further calculations and set his magic mirror alongside the compass, tilting it in several directions to catch the rays of the sun. In astonishment, he turned to his friend and said, “We are at an extraordinary spot. It is the pulse of the watchful dragon of the valley. People from all directions will come from across the seas and gather here to pay homage. Birds too will come to sing and roost. It is a haven suitable for the living as well as the dead. The Chinese people must buy this area and keep it as a sacred ground.”
The sacred attributes of the land identified by Lum Ching are now popularly ascribed to the Chinese philosophy called Feng Seui.

While most records of the early years of Manoa Chinese Cemetery have been lost, this oral account of the cemetery’s site selection was captured in the 1940s. The story was shared by Luke Chan, who had served the Cemetery and its Association in various capacities for over 30 years, and related to Wah Chan Thom, fellow trustee and author of the first history of Manoa Chinese Cemetery.

Chinese Migration to the Kingdom of Hawaii

The 19th century witnessed a period of economic development and industrial expansion in the Kingdom of Hawaii. In addition to sugar, major crops included rice and sandalwood. Honolulu Harbor saw over 400 whaling ships pass through annually. Between 1852 and 1898 approximately 50,000 Chinese made the voyage to Hawaii to work in sugar and other agricultural industries.

Among the cultural practices that the Chinese migrants preserved in this foreign land were the funeral rituals and the veneration of ancestors that were the cornerstones of Chinese religions and culture. For some migrants, there was also the desire of returning earthly remains to the motherland.

In order to meet the needs of the Chinese population, Manoa Chinese Cemetery was established in1852, with the purchase of land in Manoa Valley.

Manoa Chinese Cemetery

Once the Manoa site was identified, establishing the cemetery was the mission of a group of approximately 30 Chinese businessmen who organized themselves in 1851 as the Lin Yee Chung Association, the first Chinese organization to be established in Hawaii. Lin Yee Chung means “we are burried together here with pride.” In addition to acquiring the burial land, the Association also took on the responsibility of arranging for traditional Chinese funeral rites and facilitating the return of remains to the Chinese homeland.

The purchase of the land commenced in 1852 and was completed in 1896. Funds were raised through the donation of a minimum of six months worth of earnings by each of the cemetery’s founding members. In order to legalize the group’s status and protect its property and rights, Lin Yee Chung leadership applied for a charter of incorporation from the Kingdom of Hawaii, which was granted on June 7, 1889 by Lorrin A. Thurston, then Minister of the Interior.

In the early years, cemetery administration was disorganized. Fortunately, in the years soon after World War I, three men stepped forward to reorganize and revitalize the cemetery – including defending it from a community that wanted the cemetery abolished. Wat Kung, Chun Hoon and Luke Chan implemented an orderly plot layout in the cemetery and were responsible for many of the physical improvements that still exist on the cemetery property today.

Management of the cemetery continued in the years immediately following World War II under Superintendent Yen Tai Lum. Under his direction, the cemetery opened new burial areas and built the Memorial Hall, the Bone House, and the Pavilion, which still stand today. Lum was also a proactive administrator, securing tax-exempt status for the Association, Land Court registration for cemetery lands and negotiating with the City on the extension of East Manoa Road and property tax assessments.

Honoring our Heritage – Improvements and Repairs

Many people assume that one must be of Chinese ancestry in order to be buried in the Manoa Chinese Cemetery, but this is not so. The cemetery is open to all. And while services frequenty include Buddhist or Taoist elements, it is not uncommon for services to be performed in accordance with Christian or Hawaiian tenets, or a combination of several faiths.

For many decades the cemetery grounds contained little more than the graves, the larger tombs and whatever flora was planted at gravesides by families.

Other embellishments were few and modest until the early 1980s, when the Association initiated a plan to refurbish and beautify the grounds. The plan included a maintenance program and began with landscaping, including the planting of the royal palms that today grace the roadways to the Grand Ancestor’s Tomb. Ti leaf plants, in the Chinese favorite color of red, were also planted among the graves.

The next order of business was to repair the existing structures and monuments, most of which where in critical condition. Of primary concern was the weather-worn wooden arch that stood at the base of the lower entrance road, which created a safety hazard. In its place now, an elegant structure of sturdy material will last for generations to come.

A similar project involved a decaying wooden portal and pavilion located near the Grand Ancestor’s Tomb. An original headstone structure also needed replacement in recent years. Through the generosity of the Sun Yat Sen Foundation, a new granite façade was erected in 2007.

In addition to repairs, the Association created a more formal setting in the cemetery through the placement of statuary and other cultural symbols. Such a project was well beyond the means of the Association’s modest budget, but through the generosity of the various Chinese societies, organizations and private individuals, items such as marble lanterns, zodiac animals, lions, elephants and pagodas were purchased and placed throughout the cemetery. These gifts imbued the grounds with a new sense of grace and reverence.

The current trustees are charged with addressing the remaining, and increasingly urgent, improvement projects, which include a much new Memorial Hall, necessary roadway repair, development of a new Columbarium and renovation and improvements for the aging Pavilion.

Preserving Local History and Culture

Manoa Chinese Cemetery is located at 3430 East Manoa Road in Honolulu. The cemetery has been designated as one of Hawaii’s historic properties by the Historic Hawaii Foundation.

The Historic Hawaii Foundation further describes Manoa Chinese Cemetery as follows:

The Manoa Chinese Cemetery is sited on a knoll nestled on the interior slopes of Manoa Valley, an amphitheater shaped valley in Honolulu. The area is approximately 10,753 acres in size, with about 10,000 individual burials and defined by a low, rock wall. The head stones, mostly made of granite, stand upright in crowded rows along the sloping lands facing the ocean. Founded in 1852, Lin Yee Chung (a.k.a. Manoa Chinese) Cemetery is the oldest and largest cemetery on the Hawaiian Islands. It is significant for two major reasons; (1) The cemetery has all the design elements of a “classic” Chinese cemetery, and (2) As a traditional cultural property, each year in April, the “Three Presentations Ceremony” (a traditional graveyard ritual) is performed during “Ching Ming,” the Chinese memorial season. No other Chinese cemetery in Hawaii has both of these features, thus possessing integrity of relationship and condition, and maintaining a significant practice to the Chinese community in Hawaii.

The Road Ahead

While traditions thrive at Manoa Chinese Cemetery, the road ahead presents many challenges for the Association.

For many years, the cemetery was operated on a shoe-string budget so that burial plots could be offered at the lowest possible rates. Though the community was well-served, the cemetery’s very existence was often imperiled. While rates are now commensurate 6
with other cemeteries, the Association has been hard pressed to obtain the financial resources that will provide for the maintenance and operation of the cemetery in perpetuity.

Covering the costs of care and maintenance of the graves is of ongoing concern, but acquiring the resources to address the deteriorating physical plant is a more daunting task. The Memorial Hall has fallen into disrepair, as have several auxiliary properties.

The Lin Yee Chung Association is charting a more proactive path in order to meet these challenges. The Association has encouraged the active participation of its directors, appealing particularly to younger members. It has and continues to seek the assistance and participation of the community and community associations. In order to raise funds, the Association is engaging in strategic planning to devise more efficient and productive use of its core and auxiliary properties.

Legacy of Hope Campaign Projects
  • Repair all cemetery roads $1,500,000
  • Rebuild the Memorial Hall $2,500,000
  • Design and Construction of a new Columbarium $1,000,000
  • Renovation of the Pavilion $ 500,000
    Total $5,500,000

The board is developing plans and projected construction schedules for the projects above.

A Call to Action

In the President’s Message that prefaces the updated history of the cemetery, Samuel C. Luke noted, “Manoa Chinese Cemetery does matter, and it is important to our continued existence that the community understands who we are and what we do.”

Local history and culture matter. They should be frequently visited keystones in our understanding of the past and a means of honoring those who came before us. Local history tell the story a place – its meaning and significance. Local culture helps us to understand how we became who we are.

The importance of preserving local histories and cultures in the contemporary age of globalization is that each offers something unique to humanity. But preserving our cultural heritage can only be achieved with the help of dedicated custodians and stewards.

By helping to fulfill the $5.5 million goal of our Legacy of Hope Campaign, through gifts of cash, appreciated assets and bequests, or other forms of estate planning, you will have a substantial, immediate and long-term impact on Manoa Chinese Cemetery.

Your generosity will be recognized, and your children and grandchildren – and all future generations – will benefit from the history, knowledge, culture and values that the Chinese brought to Hawaii nearly 168 years ago.

A Chinese proverb states, “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one.” The Manoa Chinese Cemetery is truly a gem, one that needs stewardship and care.