The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Research Grants/Awards

Title of Project:
Networking Charity: The Tung Wah Coffin Home and the North America-Hong Kong-Guangdong Connection

Total Fund Awarded:
HK$1,176,590

Principal Investigator:
Professor YIP Hon Ming, Department of History, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Funding Source:
RGC General Research Fund 2011/12

Abstract of Research:
        The Tung Wah Coffin Home (東華義莊) was built near Hong Kong's Sandy Bay, its present address, in 1899 to continue and develop its philanthropic activities initiated in the 1870s. It was an important unit of the Tung Wah Hospital, and then the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, in the charitable service of housing coffins and exhumed bones awaiting shipment to the deceased’s birthplaces in mainland China or interment under local charitable burying grounds. While the Tung Wah Hospital has long been recognized as the leader of the Chinese community in early colonial Hong Kong and a representative Chinese benevolent organization, its special features impressively exemplified by the Coffin Home are yet to be explored.

        Taking the opportunity of compiling a collection of selected archival source materials of the Coffin Home for the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, I have had access to the voluminous relevant archives stored at the Tung Wah Museum and discovered the uniqueness of this kind of service and its great significance in the history of Hong Kong, China, and the world. Its research value lies on the one hand in the witness that the Home, as a charitable institution, has borne to the evolving changes in the social and cultural history of Hong Kong and China. A possible reevaluation of the death and burial culture of south and north China may also come out as the Coffin Home seemed to have facilitated a combination of the customs of delayed burial in north China and secondary burial in the south. Moreover, a macro study of the Coffin Home can even shed light on the amazing phenomenon of global Chinese diaspora and Hong Kong’s function in networking overseas Chinese everywhere in the world and their motherland, as the Coffin Home played a pivotal role in making connection between Chinese charitable institutions overseas and those in China for transport of thousands of coffins and human remains back home every year. Until the 1950s when the embargo problem affected the communication between China and the world outside, the Home might have been the only agency in the world that shouldered this kind of charity work on such a vast scale. Few scholarly works however have ever been published on this subject specifically.

        As a case study, this project’s focus will be on Hong Kong’s pivotal role in networking charity between north America, especially the USA and Canada, the first "gold mountain" for Cantonese, and native towns for the overseas Chinese mostly from Guangdong during the time span from the late 19th century to the 1950s. It is hoped that this original study centering round the theme of charity networking can herald a macro study on the global picture of the Chinese diasporic world to which Hong Kong has long been the pivot in one way or the other.