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Tamsui Foreign Cemetery: Its History and Occupants

The Foreign Cemetery of Tamsui: Its History and Occupants

by Chris Nelson

Nestled in the far corner of the historic grounds of Tamkang Senior High School in Tamsui is something you wouldn’t generally expect to find on a school campus: a cemetery. In fact, there are two cemeteries here. One is Mackay Cemetery, the burial site of Rev. George Leslie Mackay (1844-1901), his family, and a number of his associates. Mackay, a Scottish-Canadian Presbyterian missionary and dentist, was a celebrated figure of 19th century Tamsui whose mark on northern Taiwan is still evident to this day. But behind Mackay Cemetery is another burial ground. This lovely, secluded and somewhat mysterious plot of land is the final resting place of nearly 80 people: merchants, mariners, missionaries and more. This is the Tamsui Foreign Cemetery.

Cemetery history 

The Foreign Cemetery’s existence is an indirect consequence of the Treaty of Tianjin, which was ratified in 1860 after the Second Opium War. One of the treaty’s terms was that several Chinese ports, including Tamsui, would be opened to foreign trade. Western merchants and diplomats soon moved to Tamsui, many with their families in tow. And when people live abroad, inevitably some among them will die abroad.
The origin of the cemetery can be traced to 1867, when Mary, the two-year-old daughter of an unknown foreign national, was buried in a quiet spot atop a hill behind the British Consulate, which was established the same year at Fort San Domingo. Late that summer, a second child, the daughter of Charles Earl, an Englishman, was buried next to Mary. Then in 1870, the year that harbormaster George Forrest Hume was interred there, the site was officially consecrated and named the Foreign Cemetery. 
For the next hundred years, through the Japanese occupation and into the KMT era, the Foreign Cemetery was quietly tended to by the British Consulate, accepting the occasional burial. The Japanese government officially recognized it as a burial site for foreigners, and though the cemetery officially became property of the Republic of China in 1945, the British Consulate was allowed to remain in charge of its maintenance. This lasted until 1972, when the United Kingdom recognized the sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China, after which custody of the cemetery was briefly taken over by the Australians before being transferred to the American Embassy. But this all ended in 1978, when the United States formalized diplomatic ties with the PRC. With nobody maintaining it, the site fell into neglect, overtaken by vegetation, accumulating garbage, and suffering from vandalism.

Saving the cemetery

All was not lost. According to French-Canadian IT engineer and organic farmer Pierre Loisel, two concerned Canadians approached him in 1984 at the opening ceremony of the Canadian Society (now the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan), bearing news of an abandoned cemetery in Tamsui where many Canadians were buried. These two were Jack Geddes, a lay missionary of the Presbyterian Church, and Georgine Caldwell, who taught at the Taiwan Theological College and Seminary. Geddes and Caldwell had tried recruiting scouts over the previous couple years to help clean up the area, but they were looking for a more sustainable solution, and wondered if the Canadian Society could help. Loisel remembers fondly, "So I went there and kind of fell in love with it, and I said 'We’ll do it!'" So the board of the Canadian Society formed a committee to take care of the cemetery. Their first order of business was to clean up the site, thus beginning an annual tradition of sprucing the cemetery up for Tomb Sweeping Day.
During its stewardship of the cemetery, the British Consulate kept records in two books, one a burial register with names, dates and grave locations, the other an accounting ledger recording all the expenses involved with the burials and the cemetery. After the closure of the consulate, the books were transferred to the American Embassy, then to French-Canadian immigration specialist and Canadian Society board member Denis Crépault, and then to Loisel, who recognized their priceless historic value. Then in the late 1990s, the cemetery was faced with another challenge: neighbors were petitioning the Tamsui city government to widen the lane adjacent to the cemetery, which would have caused significant damage. At a local historical society meeting, Loisel brought up the issue to the head of the Institute of Taiwan History at Academia Sinica, who said that the cemetery could be saved if it became a historic site. The two books proved instrumental the lobbying effort. With the help of the institute, the cemetery won recognition as class three historic site in 1998, ensuring its long-term preservation. The two books are now housed at the institute.
Once this was accomplished, the next plan of action was to build a wall to protect the cemetery from further damage. Before this time, it was open, and students used it as a shortcut, damaging the stones. With the expert supervision of Su Wen-kui, teacher of history at Tamkang Senior High School who knew about the building materials and techniques historically used in the area, the Canadian Society had a wall built and a gate installed. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce remains the custodian body of the cemetery, doing regular maintenance and keeping the annual Tomb Sweep Day cleanup event alive. (Tomb Sweeping Day, or Qingming Festival, takes place every April 5.)

Cemetery layout

The cemetery is completely enclosed by a wall, with a gate at the southern corner. The cemetery grounds are divided into four sections by two brick paths. The southwest quadrant, to the left of the gate, contains mostly Catholic burials. Proceeding clockwise, the northwest quadrant is for merchants, the northeast quadrant is for officials, and the southeast quadrant is for Protestants.

The cemetery occupants

The exact number of people buried in this cemetery is uncertain, but it's in the ballpark of 78. Over a quarter of them are children, many of them daughters and sons of diplomats and missionaries. The professions include ministers, tea merchants, employees of the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs Service (ICMC), employees of the British Consulate, sea captains, military personnel and doctors. The "tenants,” as Loisel likes to call them, hailed from Canada, the US, the UK, France, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Finland.


While running his mission, Mackay was assisted by a string of missionaries. One was James Bruce Fraser (1846-1929), whose wife Jane Eliza Fraser (1847-1877) died almost three years after their arrival in Formosa. Devastated, he left, and was replaced in 1878 by Kenneth Frank Junor, whose son Frank Renneslon Junor (1874-1878) is buried here. Junor returned to Canada in 1882 due to poor health. Then in 1883, John Jamieson (d. 1891) came and served many years before ill health took his life. His infant son, George Straith Jamieson (1887-1887), is also buried here. Jamieson’s replacement, William Gauld (1861-1923), became successor to Mackay following his death in 1901. Gauld, one of the most prominent residents of the cemetery, designed and built many buildings, including the House of Maidens and the House of Reverends, both on Zhenli Street opposite the high school. He also founded Mackay Memorial Hospital, and served as a consultant for Japanese architect Uheiji Nagano on the design of the Office of the Governor-General of Taiwan (today the Presidential Office Building).

Frances Stribling (1890-1962), an American, taught at the Union Girls’ School in Hangzhou, China, from 1917 to 1941. When hostilities between the US and Japan broke out, she was placed under house arrest by the Japanese and subsequently repatriated, along with fellow missionary and cemetery inhabitant Henrietta Tieleman (1896-1962), who had established a mission station in Shaanxi Province in 1926, aboard the MS Gripsholm, fitted with an electric cross and taking a circuitous route back to the US via Africa and Brazil. Stribling returned to Taiwan in 1953 to teach at the Presbyterian Bible School in Hsinchu, while Tieleman continued her missionary work in Nanjing under the Communists from 1949 to 1951, before coming to Taiwan.
Quebec-born Narcissus Peter Yates (1862-1938) was an Anglican missionary of the Montreal Diocese. He came to Taiwan in 1915 and worked with the Japanese Anglican Church in Taiwan. In the 1930s he carried out a great deal of missionary work among the Aborigines of eastern Taiwan. He also tried to convert the Yami Aborigines to Christianity, but was unsuccessful. The only Finn among the interred, Johan Aminoff (1850-1918) arrived in Twatutia (Dadaocheng) in 1882, and served as a translator and a teacher of English and German. Leona Inez Green (1891-1958) was a Catholic nun and missionary of the Door of Hope Mission, who opened an orphanage for girls in Shanghai. After the Communist revolution, she came to Taiwan where she founded another orphanage. And Leonard George Bolton (1900-1961) was a missionary based in Yunnan Province, where he ministered to local minorities including Lisu and Tibetan people.

Military personnel

Lieut. Max E. Hecht (ca. 1854-1892) is another prominent occupant of this graveyard. He was a German naval officer and engineer hired in 1886 by Taiwan’s first governor, Liu Ming-chuan (1836-1896), to supervise the construction of Hobe Fort and other fortifications around Taiwan. In the wake of the Sino-French War, one of Liu’s top priorities was to beef up Taiwan’s defenses, and Hecht was hired for his expertise in the most advanced fortification building techniques. In 1891 he was conferred the Imperial Order of the Double Dragon for his contributions. He has two graves in the cemetery: one in Chinese, and one in English and German.
Other military personnel include two sea captains, Capt. A. Berg (d. 1950) and Capt. Einer Bye (d. 1920), of whom little is known, and George Smith (ca. 1854-1888), chief engineer of the SS Formosa; the broken column on this Geordie’s gravestone symbolizes being cut short in the prime of life. And the curious epitaph of Johann Korsholm (1854-1888), mate of the SS Wai Ting, reads "Drowned at Tamsui Bar". This doesn’t mean he overindulged himself at some local tavern; instead he met his fate during a storm at a sandbar that was once a major navigational hazard outside the Tamsui River estuary.

Diplomats and customs officials

Adrian Conway-Evans (1905-1952) was a British vice-consul. Before the Communist takeover of China, he served as a military attaché at the British Consulate in Nanjing. A lover of the great outdoors, he enjoyed driving his Volkswagen to areas with spectacular scenery. Following the revolution of 1949, Conway-Evans was sent to Taiwan to take up a diplomatic post with the ROC. His tenure was cut short by tragedy. He and his friend Osmond Nevill Smyth, an Australian diplomat who had come to Taiwan on holiday, were on their way to Sun Moon Lake when they asked their driver to stop at a mountain stream for a swim. Conway-Evans went in first, but was overwhelmed by the stream’s strong current. Smyth tried to save him, but they both drowned. Smyth’s grave can be found in Hong Kong Cemetery at Happy Valley. 
Other British Consulate employees are P. W. Petersen (ca. 1845-1894) a constable for the consulate during and after the Sino-French War, and Percy Charles Nicholls (1885-1928), who also worked for the firm Samuel, Samuel & Co. in Taipei.
Five people are identifiable as employees of the ICMC. They are Neil Currie (ca. 1861-1884), a Scottish employee who died of “congestion of the liver and dysentery”; fellow Scotsman George Forrest Hume (d. 1870), harbormaster and tide surveyor; Frenchman Leopold Lefebvre (1826-1878); George Nepean (d. 1894), and Canadian T. H. Demetts (d. 1876).


A number of the cemetery’s occupants worked for the venerable trading firm Tait & Co. Stuart Elphinstone (1878-1965) was a British citizen of Anglo-Indian ancestry who served for many years in Taipei with the company as a coal and sulfur merchant, starting around 1920. Francis Herbert Berger (1912-2001) was a tea merchant who worked for Tait & Co., serving a director of the Tamsui branch in 1941. During World War II he was taken captive by the Japanese and interned in Shanghai, but he returned to Taiwan in 1948, where he later founded his own tea business. And Edward Harold Low (d. 1905), a Briton, was also an employee of Tait & Co.
Tea was (and still is!) a major export of Taiwan, and another prominent tea firm, Boyd & Co., had as tea inspectors Fergus Graham Kell (ca. 1873-1915) and Arthur Frederick Gardiner (ca. 1865-1909), both of whom shuttled between Tamsui and Amoy on business. Jose Maria Boyol (d. 1941) worked for Taipei-based tea firm Carter Macy & Co., Grey Walter Clifton (1875-1919) served with Mitsui Bussan and Formosa Mercantile as a tea buyer, and George E. Bogaars, OBE (1900-1970) is memorialized as a "tea expert".


One of the earliest foreign families to call Tamsui home was the Florentino family. Pedro Florentino (ca. 1715-1884) was a Spanish sailor who married Huang Chun, a local woman. They had one son, Bi King-guei (1858-1926), who in turn had a son Joaquin Florentino (1889-1926). All three generations of Florentino men, all Catholics, are buried in this cemetery.

Getting there

The Tamsui Foreign Cemetery is accessible through the campus of Tamkang Senior High School, on Zhenli St. in Tamsui. (There is a gate to the cemetery, but it’s almost always locked; go through the campus instead.) The main entrance of the school is roughly halfway between the Tamsui Customs Officer’s Residence and Aletheia University, almost opposite the entrance to Missionary House. When you enter, you may be asked to leave an ID at the guard post. Then follow the main thoroughfare through the campus as far as you can go, turning right when you arrive at a green Chinese-style building shaded by magnificent banyans. Turn right and pass through the brick archway. To the left you’ll see the entrance to Mackay Cemetery, and immediately to its right is a path leading to an open area just outside the Foreign Cemetery. Climb the steps over the wall to your left, and you’re in!
This article first appeared on www.taiwanease.com in June 2016. All Rights Reserved.