GP: Hakka Chinese Cemetery, Kuching, Malaysia

Robyn Flemming, the author of Skinful: A Memoir of Addiction, is very much alive and well and currently in Malaysia. In this, the first of three guest posts (GPs), Robyn takes us to the city of Kuching in the province of Sarawak to explore the Hakka Chinese Cemetery with its wonderfully intricate mosaic gravestones. She took the photos; she wrote the text. I simply wish I could have been there.


Around 30 different ethnic groups call Sarawak home, including Malays, Chinese, Indians, and the many indigenous tribes (known collectively as Dayaks). Chinese traders arrived over 1400 years ago on the island of Borneo, which Sarawak shares today with Indonesian Kalimantan and the independent Islamic sultanate of Brunei. By the mid-1800s, there was a permanent population of Chinese immigrants working in the pepper plantations and gold mines and operating as traders. Today, the Chinese are the second-largest ethnic group after the indigenous Iban people, and 30 per cent of them are of Hakka descent.

This Hakka Chinese Cemetery in Kuching dates from 1969. The tombs are elaborately decorated “residences” and reflect the deceased person’s social position.

Hakka Chinese Cemetery, Kuching, Malaysia. Mosaic tile in pastel blue, pink, white, gree, with a raised altar. Two landscape paintings showing water and mountains flank each side of the altar

Hakka Chinese Cemetery, Kuching, Malaysia. Gravestones with raised altars sit in the forefront and a modern orange/grey building in the back. Graves are tiled with mosaic tiles. The altars are flanked by painted scenic pictures set on four tiles.

Hakka Chinese Cemetery, Kuching, Malaysia - well preserved mosaic tile on a gravestone. Large pink tiles in the foreground with a smaller mosaic tile used for the front altar (pink) and back altar (blue). Photos of a man and his two wives are set in the middle of two nature scenes (water and mountains) each pained on four tiles.

One of the tombs shown here houses the remains of a man and his two wives. Caskets are positioned on the small plots according to the principles of feng shui so that they are in harmony with the surrounding energy flows.

Hakka Chinese Cemetery, Kuching, Malaysia - close up of the pink and green mosaic tile on a grave showing the level of intricate detail and a nature scene of waterfalls and a snowcapped mountain in the background painted on four tiles set in a mosaic frame.

Hakka Chinese Cemetery, Kuching, Malaysia - close up of weathered mosaic tile in faded blues, pinks, and purples with a nature scene painted on six square tiles and set in a rectangular mosaic frame. Painting shows water in the foreground with trees ana  bring to the right and a purple snow-capped mountain in the back against a pale green sky.

The Ching Ming festival, known as Grave-Sweeping Day, takes place every year in spring. The cemetery is crowded with family members tidying the tombs of their ancestors, and making offerings to them of fruits, vegetables and wine. Paper replicas of luxury goods such as brand-name clothing, cars, electronic goods and money are burned to ensure that their ancestors enjoy a comfortable afterlife.

Hakka Chinese Cemetery, Kuching, Malaysia - pagoda style tomb set on a slope with mosaic tiles and chinese lettering

[MM: Eve Sonary Heng wrote a piece for the Borneo Post in 2016 with some interesting stories from the graveyard minder.]

@ 2024 Mary Murphy