Sunday, April 1, 2018


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.

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