Penang Chinese culture is strongly influenced by the Confucian, Buddhism and Taoism tradition. Dating back as early as the 18th century, Penang Chinese ancestors were descendants from Southern China, mostly from the Fujian Province, bringing with them the tradition, culture and philosophy of their homeland.
One of the oldest Chinese traditions that is still widely practiced in Penang and at home with my mother is called the “Ancestors’ Day” or the “Tomb Sweeping Day”. In Penang, the coloquial word for “Ancestors’ Day” is known as “Cheng Beng” in hokkien or “Qing Ming” in Chinese mandarin.
Cheng Beng is an important family tradition. I believe this tradition is not as widely and elaborately celebrated as half a century ago for a number of reasons. One is the scarcity of land. Cemetary land has made way for housing developments. Tombs are being cleared. Another reason is that each family members are more widely dispersed these days – either living in a different state, country or region. The younger generation has a busier lifestyle – work, their own family and social networks – taking less interest in centuries old traditions. It is inevitable that we are slowly losing our traditions and culture, which makes it more critical than ever to preserve for future generations.
When I think back to when i was a young boy, I remember that Cheng Beng was a huge thing for my mother and her family. On the occasion itself, we – every single member of my maternal family – would make a bee-line to my grandfather’s tomb. We would take turns to pray and pay respect to my grandfather, from the oldest member of the family to the youngest. We would clean the tombsite so it was neat and tidy. There would be an array of my grandfather’s favourite food items. We would burn an abundance of “joss money” also known as “hell money” and other daily necessities such as clothing, shoes, slippers made from colourful paper, so our ancestors could use these in the after-death.
Now. Forty years later. My paternal and maternal grandparents and my father have since passed away. My aunties, uncles, cousins and other family members are living in different parts of the world, including myself. We no longer make a bee-line to pay tribute to my grandparents’ tombs, if the tombs are still there, which I don’t think they are.
There is no one else to carry-on the tradition except my mother, who I adore and love as the most caring woman I could ever ask for. Up until today, my mother has been carrying on these traditions year after year without fail. I had the opportunity to watch her last year when I went home for a visit. To learn and to watch her prepare for the Cheng Beng festival. The only tomb that my mother has been visiting belongs to my great, great grandfather on top of a small hill, which she has to climb the many steep steps. Last year, she wasn’t able to make those steps as she is getting older and her knees are getting weaker. She is 82.
As a respect to our ancestors, my mother now perform this centuries old tradition and ritual at home. She could not make it up the hill. She will pay someone to go to my great, great grandfather’s tomb to clear and clean the site.
There is so much more that I could learn from my mother and to carry on our Chinese traditions
Flashback to last year’s Cheng Beng festival at home with my mother. She has an old formica folding table that props up for her to use as an altar. She will meticulously arrange each of her dishes (home cooked and sourced locally) with the correct number of rice bowls and little tea cups for each of our ancestors. At the front of the table will be two red candles and in the middle a cut out tin for skinny joss sticks. There are two twenty cent coins beside each side of the tin can. The ritual is to toss the coins into the air until they land. Once to start the prayer, to invite our ancestors home for the feast. An opposite side of the coins mean they have arrived. The coins will be tossed a few times until an opposite side was landed. The coins are tossed again towards the end to check that our ancestors have finished their meal before clearing the altar. The same principle applies. An opposite side of the coins mean they have finished eating and have left our presence.
To finish the ritual, my mother will carefully stack the joss money and paper replicas of material goods; such as clothing, shoes and other more luxurious items. She will snip a piece of each of the food items to burn with the joss money and paper replicas.
The food after feasted by our ancestors’ spirit will be served to the family to eat, as a blessing for a better health and a better future.