Manager of war graves honoured by crown

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 June, 2010, 12:00am

Derek Cheung Yu-keung doesn't have a high profile - most of the people he serves are dead - but after 16 years of quiet toil his efforts have been recognised by the British government.

Cheung, manager of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and responsible for keeping 1,581 graves in good order, has been made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. 'I am very happy to receive the honour; this job gives me satisfaction and recognition. I shall try my very best to continue with my service,' he said.

Cheung, 61, who tends the graves at the Sai Wan War Cemetery, is one of 1,300 people working for the commission worldwide and the only one to receive such an award this year.

Most of the graves are of soldiers who died in the two world wars.

'They were buried here regardless of their title or race and there were also a lot of nameless soldiers,' Cheung said.

Philip Noakes, the commission's outer area director, who nominated Cheung, said he had done a great job.

'He's so good at what he does. His dedication and commitment to his job keeps the cemetery so beautiful,' he said. 'It's a sad place of course, people are buried here, but the cemetery is so beautiful it sets a fine example of what we like to achieve.'

When he started in 1994, Cheung's title was group supervisor.

'My job mainly was to be a middleman for Hong Kong and England, and to make arrangements for visitors coming from other consulates.'

Cheung has spent a lot of time beautifying the cemetery. 'All the grass on the cemetery is best to be three centimetres long; it's most comfortable to step on. And we have shrubs planted between each grave but they can't be taller than the gravestone,' he said.

'We have blue grass, rhododendron, bridal wreath and aster planted here. They are evergreen plants.' Perennials were most suited to Hong Kong's seasons, he said.

Cheung imports some of the shrubs and flowers from the mainland. 'I try out different plants here, because not all can adapt to the weather in Hong Kong.'

There are no trees in the cemetery for a reason - they could be toppled or broken in a typhoon. 'When there is a typhoon, the trees may break the grave, and with trees planted next to the graves, the ground cover can not grow healthily.'

Cheung is well respected by his colleagues, who greet him as 'Sir'. This might be related to his military background.

Before working in the Sai Wan War Cemetery, Cheung spent 23 years working in the military as a staff sergeant, 'but I never went to war, I did mostly administrative work'.

Even so, 'the training exercises were the toughest part of all'.

The headquarters of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is in England. There are offices in France, Belgium and Italy. Hong Kong is one of many sub-offices around the world.