Death and Memorialisation in Hong Kong and New Zealand

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Remember Me Principal Investigator, Emeritus Professor Margaret Holloway, recently travelled to Hong Kong and New Zealand. She reports on memorials she observed on her travels.

In vain did I protest to neighbours and friends as I left home on 4 February that this trip was mainly work. It has truly been an incredibly intense but fruitful period of work, managing at the same time to be enjoyable – despite the topic which brings me to the Asia-Pacific. I was in Hong Kong at the kind invitation of the Chinese University on their distinguished scholar scheme.

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Emeritus Professor Margaret Holloway delivers her distinguished scholar lecture at the Chinese University in Hong Kong.

I had decided to extend the coverage in my public lecture, ‘Living and Dying Well’, to embrace the topic of memorialisation as an intrinsic part of the whole picture. With UK audiences, even those clued into the End of Life Care Strategy with its six steps care pathway, the final one being care after death, this can take some explaining. However, in Hong Kong (which does not have a government strategy with accompanying public awareness campaign) notions of life and death only make sense if understood together, of death as transition and the maintenance of continuing bonds with deceased relatives as the norm. The audience was immediately receptive to the idea that memorialisation is an important process for societies and individuals in their ongoing management of the relationship between life and death. Hong Kong is a curious mixture in this regard. On the one hand identified as a highly secularised society, on the other, its Buddhist and Christian heritages are preserved in its institutions and public ceremonies and traditional rituals make plentiful use of Chinese folk symbols.  One interesting feature is the erection of a monument to honour the achievements of Hong Kong’s only Olympic gold medallist, placed in the ‘Windsurfing Memorial Garden’. Maybe there is nothing significant in the choice of words or maybe this is a contemporary example of those historical monuments which both celebrated achievement in life and subsequently have become markers in the historical memory.  Shortly before we left, a firebombing incident on one of the busiest underground stretches of the MTR (transport system) in which 19 people were injured, provided a stark reminder of the fragility of life and the urgent need for 21st century societies to be able to deal with death in the midst of life.

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On to Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand to meet with Ruth Mcmanus at the University of Canterbury who is conducting the NZ comparative study on the ‘Remember Me’ project. Memorialisation in Christchurch is ongoing and ever-present following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. As the half-destroyed monuments from the past are all around (apparently, Queen Victoria’s statue was the only one to survive the 2011 earthquake intact) new memorials continue to spring up or be added to in a continual process of the city remembering and marking those people and symbols of the past which have been lost, alongside re-building and reconstructing their city’s shape and identity.

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Fusion of the public and the private is both overt and restrained. For example, at the white chairs (185, one for every person who died), placed on a road junction in an area of the city still more devastated than re-built, visitors are invited to select a chair to sit in and reflect. I chose an Ercol chair which reminded me of the one my father used to sit in.

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As I sat in solitude and a slightly eerie stillness despite the early evening traffic all around, I noticed the only other rocking chair moving gently in the breeze. Small wonder that in this location Ruth McManus and I spent many hours deep in discussion, joined on Wednesday by Jackie Bowring, another death studies scholar in landscape architecture.[1] As we talked the bush fires raged and a state of emergency was declared as the fires spread rapidly through outer suburbs. Families who had moved out of the city centre following the earthquakes were again facing devastation and loss, all the more poignant as Christchurch prepared for the annual earthquake memorial ceremony on 22nd February.

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Flowers beside a World War I Memorial.

On to Queenstown to visit family. A very different atmosphere, but from the Maori symbols to the Chinese miners’ burial sites in Arrowtown to the Fallen Soldiers Memorial arch framing the entrance to the gardens in the city centre, this sporting playground also illustrates the centrality given to memorialisation in NZ history and contemporary culture.

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Fallen Soldiers Inscription.

Back to Hong Kong briefly for another seminar, before returning to the UK. Back home, it is perhaps with heightened awareness following this trip, I noticed afresh on my routine dog walk a family memorial placed outside their cottage in a prominent position beside the public path. The memorial is to a young man who was shot and killed by Police during an acute mental health episode in an event which remains controversial in the local community. Their chosen memorial serves as an ongoing reminder of the juxtaposition of the public and the private, the personal and the political, and the function of memorialisation in allowing expression of these complex inter-relationships.

Three very different cultures, British, Hong Kong and New Zealand, but each demonstrating the importance at individual, family and community levels of memorialisation in negotiating the ongoing relationship between the living and the dead.

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‘For grief’ poem displayed at the White Chairs memorial site, Christchurch.

Emeritus Professor Margaret Holloway is Principal Investigator on the Remember Me project. Her travel to Hong Kong was supported by the Chinese University of Hong Kong Distinguished Scholar Scheme.

[1] Our discussion of forms and purposes, spaces and places, role and identity and meaning construction was  recorded and will be podcast in May 2017.

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