Gravestones reveal Christmas Island's long Chinese history

SBS World News Radio: It might surprise some, but the Australian territory of Christmas Island has a long Chinese history and it's revealed among the graves in the island's main Chinese cemetery.

Gravestones reveal Christmas Island's long Chinese history

Gravestones reveal Christmas Island's long Chinese history

It began in the late 1800s with phosphate mining and left hundreds of Chinese mine workers dead from poor nutrition.

It continues up to the present day, with the majority of Christmas Island's residents of Chinese heritage.

But only relatively recently have they begun exploring the island's past and thinking about what it means for their future.

Christmas Island's main Chinese cemetery lies beside the road to the golf course and the de-commissioned casino.

It appears unassuming.

But it's a revealing piece of Christmas Island's more than 100-year mining history.

Virtually every headstone tells a brief story about the person buried there, unlike most Australian graveyards where headstones usually just show the name and dates, with an epitaph sometimes.

The island graves also have another unique feature.

"If you look upon the entire cemetery, you'll find that most graves have what's known as a turtlebackâ¦"

Retired teacher Helene Bartleson, from the New South Wales Blue Mountains, is known by the locals as "cemetery lady".

She became fascinated by the cemetery - and another on the nearby Phosphate Hill - when she first visited the island about ten years ago.

"Turtleback has smooth edges, they're never squared off because the negative winds in feng shui terms don't blow easily via squares. So they smooth the edges so that any negative winds will go around their ancestor's after-life houses and not leave any negative spirits behind."

A line in a book comparing Chinese miners in Ballarat and Christmas Island piqued Helene Bartleson's curiosity.

The student of Chinese languages and history could find very little else about the miners on Christmas Island so she made the long journey west to an Australian territory less than 400 kilometres from the island of Java.

"And it was when I first got here and I first saw those cemeteries that just left me open-mouthed. I still feel it now. When I think about it now, I see again that first glimpse of two beautifully feng-shui'd Chinese cemeteries, untouched, unrecorded, un-photographed."

So mostly on her own initiative, and with the permission and help of the locals, she spent three years restoring the cemeteries.

She also discovered a brutal past about how the so-called coolies, the Chinese phosphate mine workers, were treated around the turn of the 20th century.

"On this island, because of the circumstances on which the men came here, they were very much like the equivalent of factory fodder even though they were, in fact, indentured labour and couldn't altogether be described as slaves, but it was a very close run thing. They only records that exist that they were ever here is on their headstones. There were no burial records, there were very few death certificates in the early days."

The workforce was pushed so hard by the Christmas Island Phosphate Company - and fed so little - that hundreds died from beriberi disease, or thiamine deficiency, between 1900 to 1904.

"To the point where they were about to be forced to close the mine because their workforce was dying around them on a daily basis."

Helene Bartleson's passion for unearthing the island's history led her to write a book about the island's cemeteries.

But with the help of the island community she's also created a museum that sheds more light on the island's past.

It's housed opposite the Chinese Literary Association - which is a restaurant-meets-rotary club - in a building that used to accommodate Chinese mine workers.

"A lot of this came locally and one of the things that the community prides itself on with this museum is that so much of what's in it is directly connected to this community itself, its links to the mainland, things are identifiable with people and events that they know. It's not just a collection of old stuff."

The room's walls are covered in black and white photographs, maps, charts and other government documents.

The photos illustrate colonialism in full flight where the Chinese are clearly at the bottom of the pecking order.

That approach continued in later decades, when a new intake of Chinese and Malays came to the island - this time with their families.

Their housing, schools - even the swimming pools - were segregated.

In the photos, Europeans are resplendant in their white suits while Indian guards stand watch.

The Chinese with their long hair plaited into queues wear loose smocks and simple trousers.

In other pictures, that would give today's resource company health and safety supervisors palpitations, the "coolies" work shirtless and shoeless shovelling and hacking phosphate ore from deep pits.

In another, a worker braces a piece of wood with his bare foot against a rail cart as hundreds of kilos of phosphate ore tumble down a wooden ramp.

He shelters behind the cart as the ore crashes down.

He might not have been seriously injured or killed that day, but many others were - either claimed by beriberi or the brutal conditions.

Helene Bartleson says many would have been left where they died if it wasn't for the Hongmen brotherhood, a secret society similar to the Masons.

"Most of them were buried with some kind of ceremony because that's the Chinese way, you don't mass bury and because they had the Hongmen brotherhood here, part of whose oath was to see that brother members had a burial and a headstone, they continued to do that."

The museum, which also features cultural items like Chinese dragon costumes, musical instruments, statues of gods and pottery, is just the first stage of a grand heritage plan.

The National Trust of Australia is guiding the islanders in exploring their past, but also highlighting their culture.

There are scores of temples dedicated to various Chinese gods dotted around the island.

Senior Chinese leaders still tend the graves, leaving offerings for the dead and maintaining the many temples.

Lisa Sturis, from the National Trust, says Australians would be surprised about the history and dominant culture of the island.

"I think it definitely represents that cultural group. In Australia you get different Chinese communities all around regional and metropolitan Australia, but I think the extent of the cemeteries, the extent of the temples is really quite unique to Christmas Island."

The National Trust is also helping the islanders capitalise on tourism by highlighting and exploring the island's past and current culture.

"The projects that the National Trust works on, it's not just about heritage, it's about working with communities developing economies so if we can work with the Chinese community and develop these places in a way that's respectful to their culture, but also creates another product that can be promoted then that can only bring benefits to the island."



7 min read
Published 24 February 2016 at 2:40pm
By Ryan Emery