Saturday, April 05, 2014

Qing Ming

Qing Ming this year falls on 5 April. It is one of the important time when Chinese would take time off and make efforts to remember their departed loved ones and ancestors. In some traditional families, their family members would travel vast distance, from where they might be in, be it studies, work or even living in, to come back to join the family in going to the tombs of their ancestors to pay their respect. In some small towns, the local hotels could be fully booked.

In modern times, especially in crammed cities, many Chinese are opting for cremations and hence the ashes of the departed would be placed in niches. Some might be placed in temple halls of ancestors. Others in public columbariums.

In the Singapore tradition as I know (not too sure if this is the general Chinese tradition), the Chinese would observe Qing Ming ten days before and ten days after the Qing Ming date. Because of the high concentration of tombs in the cemetery vicinity and niches in the columbarium, there is expected traffic congestions. Some people would go as early as 5am to beat the crowd. There are also some who would go one week before the ten days limit. Pragmatism prevails.

Rituals and offerings evolved over time and place. Where the tradition is to put coloured papers on the tombs (hence the Hokkien term of De Mong Chuah, meaning putting the paper onto the tomb), when there are no more tombs (as in the niches), this practice becomes non-existent in the columbarium.

Other traditions of the family gathering together in the bigger space of the tomb to have an extended family picnic, eating traditional food (such as popiah, Hokkien spring roll which seems to be the Hokkien tradition) and the offerings - usually including the favourite food of the departed loved ones and traditional dialect food - becomes almost impossible. I remembered following the Zhong Shan Clan to Peck Shan Teng (Bishan) in the old days during Qing Ming, where the clan members would go to pay respect to their respective ancestors and came back together to have a picnic at the main clan tomb memorial. There would be more than half a dozen huge roast pigs in the offering to the collective ancestors of the Zhong Shan Clan. The butcher members would later chop up the roast pig for us to enjoy with the traditional Chinese in the picnic. I could not understand the Zhong Shan dialect, but I enjoyed the roast pork. :)  With the removal of the tombs in Peck Shan Teng, this annual tradition stopped.

Offerings to the departed and ancestors continued, food, tea and wine (for some, which could range from XO to beer), and of course, joss papers and other worldly goods to be transported across the realms. As in life, with evolution, so would be the offerings. The lookalikes of mobile phones, ipads and tablets could be found being sold in the joss shop. Dishes too. And if one needs some medication, they are available too.

In the Cantonese quarter of Chinatown (where most people would know as Chinatown), there are still two joss shops meeting the needs of the people in Chinatown and anyone coming into town. One is at Blk.5 off Banda St and the other at Smith St. If one wants to look for traditional Chinese joss papers, Chinatown shops are surely the best place. Over time, some of them are also getting rare. And many of the offering are becoming "mainstream" with all the dialect groups.

While the congestions might be as far as Choa Chu Kang/Lim Chu Kang area (where the cemetery is) or Mandai (where the huge government built columbarium complex is), a number of clan associations's ancestral halls in Chinatown are being visited by the descendants. Many of the older members have their tablets placed in the clan association ancestral halls.

As in the Chinese tradition, Spring and Autumn are two seasons when one remembers one's ancestors. And so, Qing Ming in Spring reminds us of our ancestors, for without them, we would not have been here. For many of us in Singapore, we could but marvel at the challenges our ancestors met and overcome over the ancient to not too recent years to bring us to where we are today. It is a time to be grateful.

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