Sunday, April 1, 2018

IS QING MING A DYING TRADITION?


I grew up barely knowing my father. I only saw him during weekends. But every year when Qing Ming comes around, I am reminded of him. I was nine when he passed away. For many years after his demise, I dutifully joined the family to pay our respects at his graveside during Qing Ming. But when I left to further my studies, and especially after I moved to KL in 1971, those annual visits became fewer and fewer, and eventually they ceased altogether. (Photo source: Straits Times)

My father's grave is still there in the Chinese cemetary outside the small town of Bakri on the outskirts of Muar. It is marked by a tombstone with his portrait and name in Chinese characters on it. My brother Henry and his wife have faithfully continued with the visits during Qing Ming, and I plan to join them on their next visit. My other siblings have converted to Christianity and they prefer to remember Father in their own way.

This year Qing Ming falls on 5 April. Thousands of Chinese Malaysians and Singaporeans who practise ancestral worship will observe this day by making the annual visit to the burial grounds of their dearly-departed kin. It is a mark of filial piety to pay their respects to their ancestors with prayers and offerings of food. Family members also take the opportunity to spruce up the burial area. This explains why Qing Ming is also referred to as "Tombsweeping Day".

Perhaps most fascinating of the Qing Ming rituals is the burning of papier mache offerings. Over the years, these paper mache offerings have changed in keeping with the trends. I recall decades ago witnessing the burning of this huge paper replica of a mansion. The patriach of a family supermarket in my neighbourhood had passed away at a ripe old age. His children wanted to make sure their father would live in luxury in his after life.

A papier mache mansion all ready to be burnt as an offering to the deceased.
At the time as I was watching the 'mansion' make its way up in smoke to the other world, I thought about my father. He was in his late 30s when he passed away in 1957. I remember my grandma made sure we burnt offerings of paper money - lots of it, in silver and gold, also replicas of his favorite clothes, food and his reading glasses. She wanted to make sure my dad would be comfortable and would always have money to spend in the other world. He was her only son.

Today, being well-provided for takes on a new definition. It is no longer about sending necessities to the beloved deceased. The trend now is to go for paper replicas of luxury items like an iPad, LV bags, jade and gold jewelry, a BMW, and even a yacht! Apparently the rituals at some burial sites have taken on a modern flavour, with dancing girls as shown in the image below forwarded by a friend.


I was in Chinatown, Petaling Street a few weeks ago hoping to find that little shop which used to make paper offerings for Qing Ming. It was no longer there. In fact, it had closed down many years ago. Not surprising. Making paper offerings for the departed is a dying craft, literally.

With the younger generation losing interest in the old ways, Chinese traditions and customs will soon disappear into the history books. There might come a day when Qing Ming will no longer be observed if Chinese parents of today do not pass it down to their children.

In land scarce Singapore, for example, land has become such a premium that the government has taken back cemetary land for redevelopment. Graves have been exhumed and the affected families notified well in advance. Today only the Choa Chu Kang cemetary is left. Columbariums will soon meet a similar fate as more families opt for the ashes of their dearly beloved to be scattered at sea or in flower beds as in green burials. Graveyards as we know them will be a thing of the past.

Whether that is a sad thing or not is debatable, I suppose. The dead must give way to the living, and the living find new ways to remember the dead, as in converting ashes to wearables e.g. rings, pendants or decorative items. Life must go on. But the memory of loved ones who have left us will remain in our hearts.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

LIVING A FULFILLING LIFE


In February 2017 I gave a talk at the launch of The Senior magazine at Petrosains KLCC. I was then the editor of the magazine. It was my second time speaking at the venue. The first was on the topic 'Staying Relevant in the Digital Age', and the second was on 'Active Living for Seniors'. The Facebook memory I received this morning (March 1, 2018) reminded me of the talk. So I am sharing the slides here for those who missed the talk.


Here's the first slide (above), and a question for the readers - Do you agree retirement is the best time to enjoy life? I can almost hear the YES and NO.

The response would depend very much on whether we have laid the foundation for a successful retirement. If the roots of a sapling do not get enough of the right nutrients, the sapling will not grow into a strong and sturdy tree that will withstand the vagaries of the weather.


Likewise, for our retirement years to be truly golden, we must ensure these six pillars (roots) are firm enough to buttress us against the challenges of our later years. The six pillars: good health, financial security, strong relationships with our family and friends, community service, a belief system to keep us grounded, and lifelong learning to help us grow and improve.


If we do not have all six pillars in place, or if some of these pillars are weak, we need to shore them up. Insufficient savings? Work on a plan to generate some income or cut back on spending. Too old to do the things we have always wanted to do? Says who? Age is just a number that Father Time has given us. It does not define who we are, or what we want to be. We are the drivers controling the steering wheel of our lives.


Retire from work, but do not retire from life. Live life to the fullest or see it pass us by. The march of time seems merciless as we enter our later years. It is as if the countdown had begun as soon as we hit our 70s, never mind the research studies that show longevity is on the rise as evident in a new demographic category of super-centenarians worldwide - those aged 100 and above. Do we want to make each moment count, and fill it with happy experiences? Or do we want to withdraw from family, friends and the world outside, and fill our days with regret and remorse, and all the bitterness of a life that could have been otherwise. What a sheer waste of precious moments as the clock ticks away the minutes.


So get rid of the doldrums and go out. Feel the sunshine and the breeze on your skin. Take time to smell the roses, play with your grandchildren. Recharge. Be grateful that you can get up in the morning to greet another new day. Growing old is a privilege not everyone gets to experience.


Have fun, travel, explore, discover. This is the time to spend on yourself. Be selfish. The above photo is one of my all-time favorites taken at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore in May 2015. A total of 40 members from SeniorsAloud and U3A (KL and Sgor) went on this 3D2N trip. There was so much to see, do and learn. A truly diverse group of Malaysian seniors spending a fun weekend together.


No need for us to look across the oceans for an inspiring role model of graceful ageing. Right here on our shores we have our former PM's wife, YB Toh Puan Dr Siti Hasmah, 92 now, to show us how we should live life in our retirement years. We are never too old to pick up new skills. All it takes is a change of mindset and attitude. The world is our oyster if we let it be.


One of the biggest fears of growing old is loneliness and abandonment. This comes from the perception that older people are useless and unproductive. Harbouring such thoughts and feelings can lead to depression, and in some cases, to suicidal tendencies in the elderly. The best way to dispel such negative thoughts and pessimism is to be active. An idle mind is the devil's workshop, right? Join a seniors club or volunteer with an NGO that resonates with you. For a start, why not sign up for courses with University of the Third Age (U3A)? Not only will you widen your circle of friends, you will also enjoy the fun of learning new skills with your peers in a non-threatening environment, without the stress of exams and assignments!


The ladies above signed up for U3A acrylic painting course as beginners. They soon discovered they had a flair for painting. The result - an acrylic art exhibition of their masterpieces held in Putrajaya. Goes to show that we are never too old to learn new skills, never too late to unearth our potential. Think of the sense of pride and achievement these ladies must have felt. We can all be like them. Take the initiative to explore new horizons. Be fearless. Never let our age stop us from trying new things that interest us.


When we spend our retirement years living a sedentary lifestyle, our muscles will soon atrophy. We will start complaining of aches and pains all over. And before we even reach our 70s, we have become dependent on all kinds of aids, from walking aids to hearing aids and every other aid in between. It's time to get up from our armchair and exercise. Don't fancy exercising on your own? Round up some friends for a qigong session, or join a group like Mrs Jagjeet's Nordic Walkers.


There are also groups that organize hiking-camping-cycling trips. Take your pick. Go google, or search Facebook to find out where these groups meet and how you can join them. Making resolutions to lose weight, eat well and exercise regularly produces no results, if they remain as resolutions. Translate your resolutions and good intentions into action to see results.


Nothing like spending time outdoors in the early mornings or late evenings doing exercises to keep fit. Above are some members of Malaysian Healthy Ageing Society (MHAS) brisk walking in Taman Jaya park a few Sundays ago. In another section of the park was a group of old friends enjoying a quiet board game. Good friends provide a strong support system in our old age. Cherish their friendship.


Don't fancy the physical demands of hiking or cycling? Take up gardening like SeniorsAloud member Keats (above). Mowing the grass, raking dry leaves, carrying flower pots and weeding all help to strengthen our muscles and improve our flexibility. There's also the added joy of eating the fruits of your hard work if you have a garden of fruits, herbs or vegetables. Urban farming is gaining popularity among city residents. U3A offers short courses on hydroponics, kitchen garden and mushroom cultivation in some semesters.


Not only should we take care of our physical health, but also our mental health. Use it or lose it applies to our brain as well. Board games are great as mental exercises, so are doing crossword puzzles, sudoku and playing mahjong. All these help us to maintain our mental acuity and hopefully keep Alzheimer's at bay. Above are members of SeniorsAloud enjoying a mentally stimulating game of Math Magic. The board game was invented by Malaysian Jimmy Yeoh.


The ladies of senior citizens clubs love to dance. We just wish the guys shared the same interest. No matter, as long as the ladies are having fun, the guys are content to sit and watch. Dancing is an enjoyable way to exercise the body. It is liberating as well. The above photo was taken at SeniorsAloud's 'Golden Memories' dinner and dance in 2015. Our 10th anniversary dinner is coming up in October. Do join us to celebrate this milestone.


Passion and Compassion - these two values have been at the core of SeniorsAloud's existence from its very beginning in May 2008. Working hard to extend SeniorsAloud's reach and promote an active lifestyle for seniors has been my passion since I retired in 2004. I am blessed to have a dedicated team of volunteers to support me for our events and projects. Our passion spills over into compassion for others that need a helping hand. We believe firmly that volunteerism adds meaning and purpose to life. There are so many ways we can contribute to community service. Just find the one you are comfortable with, and that works best for you.


For SeniorsAloud we have chosen to help by setting up a small initiative to look into appeals for assistance from the elderly or from NGOs that serve the elderly. Above are some of our past community service efforts made possible with funds raised at our annual dinners. Consider joining our SeniorsAloud Volunteer Group (SVG). Alone we can do only so much, but together we can do more.


Given the platform to speak on active ageing to an audience of senior citizens, I could not pass up the opportunity to promote SeniorsAloud and U3A at the launch. These are probably the most active senior citizens groups on social media in Malaysia. So it should be easy for anyone interested to get in touch with SeniorsAloud or U3A to join their activities. Just google. By the way, U3A semester 2018 starts soon. Registration Day is Sat 3 March 2018. Course enrolment is on a first come basis.


The above are the slides from my 30-min talk, with notes added. If you would like to know more about any of the groups or activities mentioned here, contact SeniorsAloud at info@seniorsaloud.com. We are committed to promoting active living for senior citizens, and will put you in touch with the relevant people in charge of these groups.

(This article has been updated from the original posted on Feb 28, 2017.)