Tuesday, October 10, 2006

British Columbia Revisited:

Exhumation and Repatriation of the Dead
One of British Columbia's anti-Chinese laws, "An Act to Regulate the Chinese Population of British Columbia" (1884), explicitly addressed cultural issues.20 A clause in it stipulated that "no Chinese was to be removed from a cemetery without the permission of the Provincial Secretary."21 Though some British Columbia residents understood the technicalities of the practice of repatriating human remains to China, they either did not appreciate its cultural relevance or saw it as an uncivilized and filthy ritual. The British viewed exhumation as socially unacceptable, and unhygienic, and this contributed to the cultural stereotype of the Chinese.
As mentioned above, exhumation of Chinese remains was a common practice in British Columbia. David Lai says that overseas Chinese of the period believed that when they died in foreign countries, their souls would remain troubled until their earthly remains were repatriated.22 Indeed, when Chinese died in British Columbia, they were buried-- only to be dug up seven years later. Following the exhumation and cleaning of bones, the jiefang (street associations) "shipped them to the Tung Wah hospital in Hong Kong, which distributed them to the various villages of destination."23
The practice, which appeared as uncivilized to the British, was in fact seen as an organized and valuable cultural necessity by the Chinese. As Sinn points out, this "concern...was typically Chinese, and Chinese associations of every kind tried to service the dead. Among overseas Chinese, the problem became paramount, making the ability and willingness to arrange for Chinese burials, together with exhumation, re-interment and repatriation of bones to the native village, a keystone of community leadership and influence."24
Anti-Chinese supporters saw the exhumation and repatriation process as clear evidence that the Chinese were "a non-assimilable race". The fact that the Chinese went to great lengths to return human bones to China fuelled accusations that they were not intending to settle in Canada. To the British, it made no sense that the Chinese would have meticulously prepared and repatriated the bones of the dead if they had considered Canada their true home. Ironically, the fact that more permanent Chinese cemeteries began to appear in many areas of British Columbia throughout the 1880s, may have indicated that they were becoming more settled.25

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