Photography has the power to capture a moment and give the viewer a chance to go back in time. It sheds light on what the photographer saw on a particular day, the events that happened and the social environment of the time.

Photography in China was introduced through western photographers who used to capture the Asian country’s landscapes, people and cities. From 1976, the Chinese people’s love towards the camera increased considerably and, since then, many photographic studios came into being.

On September 12, 2019, a Maltese woman visited the office of the China Cultural Centre in Valletta to donate a series of old photos featuring Chinese funerals that happened in Malta. She explained that she had found them among the objects of her late husband, a former undertaker, who had received the photos as a souvenir of these specific funeral services. At the time, the funeral of a Chinese person in Malta was a rare occurrence. Unfortunately, the wife found no written records about these photos.

These photos came into the China Cultural Centre’s hands at an opportune time as the centre’s director, Yang Xiaolong, recently launched a movie project about the tragic death of two Chinese workers that happened in 1979 during the construction of the Red China Dock.

A local band accompanying one of the funerals featured in the photos.A local band accompanying one of the funerals featured in the photos.

The centre approached historian Raymond Mangion, who said that the two Chinese workers, Xu Huizhong and Gu Yanzhao, were the only two people among 800 workers, who were sent by the Chinese government to help the Maltese in the construction of Dock 6, that did not make it back to their country.

Xu, a Chinese engineer aged 47, lost his life tragically on March 16 of that year while he was working inside the dock. He received the Ġieħ ir-Repubblika posthumously on April 23, 1979.

The other worker, Gu, died of natural causes when he was 46 years old.

During discussions on the film’s script, Yang expressed great interest in researching and discovering the story behind the new-found photos and to find out whether these were related to the 1979 events.

The China Cultural Centre, therefore, started to look for information about these never-before-seen snapshots. They analysed the photos in detail and found that they recorded two funeral services that took place Ta’ Braxia cemetery, in Pietà. The two Chinese workers who were engaged on the building of Dock 6 were, however, buried at the Santa Marija Addolorata Cemetery. So they had to exclude the possibility that these photos were related to the 1979 events.

So the centre started looking for more details. From the fashion style and the old public bus in the background, the photos hint that they were taken in the 1970s.

Another scrap of information came from the rubber stamp at the back of the photos and on the envelope in which they were brought.

A simple coffin may point to the fact that one of the deceased was a working middle-class man.A simple coffin may point to the fact that one of the deceased was a working middle-class man.

From the fashion style and the bus, the photos hint that they were taken in the 1970s

The rubber stamp belonged to Maltese photographer Anthony Arrigo Azzopardi, the father of famous Maltese photojournalist Lino Arrigo Azzopardi.

From Kevin Casha’s book, Photography in Malta – The History and The Protagonists, the centre learned that Anthony Arrigo Azzopardi was a special constable during World War II who used to take photos of armed forces personnel stationed in Malta. He also owned a retail shop in Melita Street, Valletta. Over the years, as he grew more interested in photography, Anthony turned his stationery shop into the News Photo Bureau. Unfortunately, both Anthony and Lino (his son) have passed away and no information could be obtained from these important sources.

On closer inspection, it was found that the two funerals were led by a different priest. It’s difficult to say if these two funerals happened on the same day or if they were related to each other. However, it is certain that the deceased were from different social classes.

This is evident from the fact that one of the coffins has a more elaborate design and it was accompanied by a Maltese band, which is quite rare in itself. So, the person either had to have an important role in society or else was very wealthy. 

On the contrary, the other coffin has a simple design, giving the impression that it carried a working middle-class person.

The China Cultural Centre is asking the public whether it knows any of the people in these photos or if it has any information related to these funerals.The China Cultural Centre is asking the public whether it knows any of the people in these photos or if it has any information related to these funerals.

Finally, the centre’s representatives went to Ta’ Braxia cemetery with the aim of finding the graves where these people were buried. The cemetery, which is now managed by Din l-Art Ħelwa, was established in 1857 as a multi-denomination burial ground.

The names of three Chinese nationals buried there in the 1970s and four names buried in the 1960s emerged. However, without an exact date or name, it is very difficult to decipher whose funeral is captured in the photos.

The highlight of these records yet remains in seeing a good number of Maltese and Chinese paying their respects. It is worth remembering that,  in 1972, China and Malta established diplomatic relations through former prime minister Dom Mintoff. This was not just the start of a business friendship but a friendship between two nations and two cultures.

Over the years, Maltese and Chinese citizens have worked and learnt from each other despite the distance between, and size of, both countries.

The establishment of the China Cultural Centre in Malta provided a further bridge between the two nations. The centre organises events, educational courses and opportunities for both Chinese and Maltese artists to interact, perform or exhibit their art.

Through such activities and opportunities, there is a continuous exchange, collaboration and sharing of culture and knowledge.

The China Cultural Centre encourages the public to contact it if anyone recognises any persons or has any information related to the photos featured here or if one would like to share any memories, stories or photos related to the 48-year-long friendship between Malta and China.

As former US president Thomas Woodrow Wilson said: “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”

One can contact the China Cultural Centre by sending an e-mail to or by calling on 2122 5055.

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