Amid exotic trees in a garden setting, rest Hong Kong's extraordinary and ordinary, those who died heroically in wars, ignominiously in drunken brawls, or suicide; victims of accidents, pestilence, and pirates; barkeepers, prostitutes, children, and luminaries whose names are today borne on street signs.
It's a far cry from the highway overpass outside the gates.
Charting the 8,500 or so names and weaving their stories together into a 624-page book, "Forgotten Souls: A Social History of the Hong Kong Cemetery," is Patricia Lim, who spent about a decade on the project.
The cemetery had only a record of graves -- which date from 1841 to 2007 -- identifying them by section but not with precise locations, while the earliest graves had no info, Lim said.
A "fanatical friend" from the UK spurred her on to the cemetery project after Lim had dedicated a chapter of her last book, "Discovering Hong Kong's Cultural Heritage: Hong Kong and Kowloon" to the Happy Valley cemeteries. The friend was none other than Susan Farrington who has recorded graves in the Himalayan foothills of Pakistan. She came to Hong Kong to help. When she left, Lim couldn't stop.
"Since I was in it, I might as well finish," she explained.
With inscriptions as a starting point, Lim and a host of volunteers recorded each grave into a database, assigning it a section, row and number. Then she pored through now-defunct newspapers -- like The China Mail, the Friend of China, the Daily Press -- personal and travel accounts, histories and every book on Hong Kong she could get her hands on.
"It seemed such a waste of opportunity -- and stories -- not to link them," Lim said. "If you just go through the cemetery, plot-by-plot...no one would have taken any interest. It seemed imperative to link, if people were going to get to know them."
Out of it emerged a social history of Hong Kong and a cemetery whose names have included the "Protestant Graveyard" and the "Colonial Cemetery." Adjacent to it are separate cemeteries for Catholics, Jews, Parsees, Muslims, and Hindus.
Hong Kong was "a hard, unhealthy place to live," Lim said. "It was a gamble. You sacrificed health for wealth. But that was maybe why they were so wealth-conscious. It was very important. You knew you were sacrificing, that you'd probably die."
The cemetery opened at its current location in 1845 after its former spot -- just east of where the office tower Pacific Place 3 now stands -- overflowed beyond capacity. Hong Kong had become a British colony only three years earlier.
Particularly prominent at the time were doctors, two of whom -- Dr. William Aurelius Harland and Dr. William Morrison -- have the cemetery's biggest monuments and most appreciative epitaphs, according to Lim. They were among four colonial surgeons who died within a 12-year period of malarial fever in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong wasn't really "happy" or a place for European women, Lim said. With a high ratio of lonely bachelors in a transient population, brothels and bars were in high demand.
"There were German taverns, English taverns, American taverns," including Edward Thomas' Uncle Tom's Cabin, which opened in the 1850s after its namesake novel was published, said Lim. Thomas, a New Yorker buried in Section 9, died at age 29, leaving his widow to run the business.
Among the 465 graves that belong to Japanese are ship crewmen, shop owners, employees of trading firms as well as prostitutes, according to Lim. One monument to Kiya Karayuki bears the signatures of 58 girls, suggesting she was either a much-loved prostitute or a brothel keeper.
Also buried at the cemetery are the first to not only make their fortunes in Hong Kong but also give to it: financier and developer Sir Catchick Paul Chater, who transformed Hong Kong and Kowloon waterfronts; Sir Kai Ho Kai, founder of the medical school that would evolve into the University of Hong Kong; and Robert Ho Tung, who built a commercial empire.
Others meanwhile died without a trace except for the inscription on their tombstones, Lim said.
Old graves were difficult to read, requiring multiple trips under different light conditions. "Some I never managed to read." she said.
There were also family members who had the same names. And then there were Chinese who went by as many as three or four names during the course of a lifetime, whether it was during school, used for family purposes or attained upon wealth.
In the late 19th century, the Botanical Garden staff helped the cemetery evolve from a simple graveyard to a lush cemetery garden inspired by those in Europe, like Pere Lachaise in Paris and Glascow Necropolis, according to one landscape architect.