Tires crunched under the car as we drove slowly onto uneven parts of the worn, tar road. Riding alongside on her motorbike was Aunty, a private caretaker at the cemetery. One hand steered the bike whilst the other held a broom that she pumped upwards in acknowledgement upon seeing us. Aunty stopped when we parked on the side of the road, dismounted with broom still in hand and began chattering happily to my dad and uncle.
Having worked at this graveyard in Petaling Jaya for most of her life, she remembered them from past years trips. Grave visiting is usually avoided like the plague by the Chinese, but last week was an exception — the 5th of April was Ching Ming. Known as Tomb Sweeping Day in English, the festival is celebrated every April to commemorate the dearly departed. During the week of Ching Ming, relatives turn up at funeral parks to sweep, remove weeds, re-paint faded lettering and conduct the rituals of offering food and symbolic gifts at their ancestors tombs.
Normally, I wouldn’t be so enthusiastic over a trip to a graveyard, but my last visit to the final resting place of Apo, my grandmother and Ahgung, my grandfather, was over 10 years ago, at Apo’s own funeral. When I was reminded of the festival a week before, it dawned on me that although I’d watched Apo carefully make Ching Ming preparations many times over, I was clueless to the traditions and what they meant. In the spirit of wanting to reconnect with an annual Taoist ritual that I grew up with, I set my alarm for an unearthly hour (pun unint…oh who I am kidding, couldn’t resist) and set out with my dad and uncle for the gravesite two Wednesdays ago. We arrived just as Aunty was heading down the road leading to Apo’s gravesite on a hill, but she doubled back and trekked up with us in thick rubber boots, broom still in hand. “No charge. Special for you,” she beamed, while making quick work of sweeping the cement floor in front of my grandparents’ shared headstone. She pointed her chin at her competition, some men in red t-shirts from a cleaning company, hovering about at the foot of the hill. “Watch out for them,” she said. “Dishonest.” Then, seeing that my uncle was ready to start the rituals, she bade goodbye and gave us a gold sticker with her contact to place on the side of the tomb, a return favour for the free sweep.
Ancient Taoist rituals of Ching Ming in modern Malaysia
My uncle was already laying out the offerings before she had disappeared down the hill. Taoists believe in a variety of gods; amongst them an Earth God, or Tu Di Gong who watches over the affairs of the land. My uncle placed three hard-boiled eggs and three bright pink-yellow prosperity cakes on a plate, clambered on to the burial mound behind the headstone and set the plate on a mini stone altar. He then laid out three cups of tea in front of the food, stuck two lit red candles in the ground and bowed three times at the altar before placing three large sand-brown incense sticks in between the two red candles. The final step was to burn a stack of colored papers, sheets of reds, golds and silvers that represented money — all of this as a sign of respect for Tu Di, whom some fondly refer to as Grampa Tu Di.
While the “money” burned, my uncle moved on to the rituals for Apo and Ahgung. He placed a rectangular sheet of bright red paper atop my grandparents’ headstone, weighed down by a prosperity cake, essentially telling other grave “residents” (and their visitors, dead or living) that this tomb was still being cared for by family with means. Tea cups were arranged in a row, accompanied by a second row of rice wine. Then, food was laid out again. Some families go all out by bringing a real feast of roast duck, fish, veggies dishes and even whole roasted pig, because Ching Ming celebrations in the old times included picnicking with family and extended relatives after completing the rituals. But here we were on a workday in the middle of the week. Just me, Dad and Uncle in a cramped, hilly Chinese graveyard that didn’t inspire thoughts of picnic.
So we kept it simple: I helped my uncle with small plates of steamed roast pork buns, glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves, eggs, pears and more bright pink prosperity cakes which, compared to our drab surroundings, stood out prominently. I stared at the cakes, remembering that as a child, I found them dry and unremarkable (they still are,) as Uncle poured rice wine in a ring around the food — a symbolism that it was for my grandparents only, stray spirits keep away. I looked around at my dad. Where was he in all this? Dad had planted himself in one corner of the tomb and was reading the paper like he does every morning on his front porch. Letting your older brother do all the work? C’mon Dad!
Turns out, I was wrong. I found out later that the hang san (walk the mountain) ritual, including pre-ritual prep of food, drink and paper offerings, was primarily my uncle’s responsibility, as the eldest son in the family. And in fairness, Dad was just following my uncle’s lead. He wasn’t really asked to do anything till my uncle handed him three skinny sticks of incense to pay his respects to Apo and Ahgung. We took turns to stand in front of the altar and bow three times before placing the incense into a narrow strip of earth before the headstone. Not having done this in over a decade, awkwardness washed over when it was my turn. The proper way is to hold the incense at eye level and smoothly bow to a 45 degree angle, but I ended up doing three forward half-jerks, and then quickly repeated three more when Uncle shot me a puzzled look. I didn’t have time to ponder my ritual faux paux, as Uncle was making his way to neighbouring tombs with a bunch of incense sticks in hand. Leaving incense at the tombs is an act of respect and gesture of goodwill towards my grandparents’ “neighbours,” in case our activities were disrupting their restful slumber, and more interruption was to come.
There was still another important step in the ritual: sending worldly items to Apo and Ahgung.
Prior to our trip, Uncle had made his purchases from a specialty shop. Two red and yellow cardboard trunks, decorated with gaudy graphics of gold bars and jewellery, contained paper clothes, shoes, and other accessories. Up until this point, the rituals had been quite standard, but beside Apo’s trunk lay a paper umbrella, and an additional white package. My uncle, a conservative and unemotional man, had been fond of his mother, and although I wanted to ask what was in the white package, I refrained. I wasn’t sure if he would not get embarrassed.
Before we began burning the offerings, each item was tagged with a label to direct the items to the underworld. Apo and Ahgung’s names had been added to the labels in Chinese characters, ensuring a speedy delivery to each of them. Once uncle poured rice wine in a ring around the trunks, he lit a few pieces of gold and silver joss papers that had been folded into the shape of a nugget and placed them under the the cardboard trunks, which were elevated by bricks. Soon, as more gold and silver paper nuggets were added to the flames licking the bottom of the trunks, we had a little bonfire going. Papers flickered and withered into soot and ash as Uncle poked at the fire with an iron stick he fashioned from wires. Every piece of paper offering had to be burned down to ash or it wouldn’t reach the intended recipients, according to belief. Uncle refused my help in finishing this arduous and smoky task, insisting I would burn myself.
Very well. I sat back and looked around at the graveyard. We weren’t the only ones who had the same idea of avoiding the weekend crowds. Nearby, a few other families were also sending their offerings. A decade ago, it was pretty common to see cardboard Louis Vuitton handbag replicas amongst one of the offerings. I chuckled to see that it hadn’t gone out of style — perhaps fashion trends are slow to catch on in the underworld. We jumped and looked up when fireworks popped abruptly in several directions, a practice used to ward off evil spirits. And at least two of those red t-shirted men that Aunty had warned us about came by to offer their services; how they were dishonest never came to light, but I was annoyed when a fellow with a big grin came up to sell us lottery tickets. Bad taste much? Dad sent him straight off. Not that it mattered, because he managed to sell some to another family perched further up the hill. Perhaps all this “money” and goods they were sending their dead relatives made them think that it wouldn’t hurt to try winning some real cash.
Putting aside thoughts of making a quick buck, I appreciated being able to celebrate a day in my grandparents honor. Ching Ming is a religious Taoist holiday. For me, it’s more about honoring Apo and Ahgung for the sacrifices they made to ensure my family’s survival. They left Hainan Island around the 1940s, amidst a bloody struggle against the Japanese invasion of the island. Apo and Ahgung fought poverty in Malaysia for many years to raise Dad and my uncle. Not to mention a relative who’d survived being executed at gunpoint. Had they stayed in Hainan and miraculously survived the invasion, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward policies in the 60s would have robbed them of their traditions before famine starved them to death – slowly. I believe that my grandmother faithfully followed these rituals mostly because of her Taoist background, but also because she knew, that of the people who lived through her experiences, she was one of the lucky ones who got to keep her life and her traditions relatively unscathed.
Knowing what Ching Ming means to her, I’m glad that we still carry it on. Our memories of her and Ahgung are with us always. Still, spending half a day commemorating their lives and legacy once in a year — it’s not too much to ask.
Here’s more local scoop on Malaysian culture, on the right way to order kopitiam drinks.