Ching Ming

Aunty Lily [Centre] holding umbrella to shade grandma
who is laying out items at an ancestor's grave
Chinese Ching Ming traditions

Late last year, I received an email from Eza, a reader who was doing research on Chinese New Year customs in the South for a short documentary in ‘Panorama’ an RTM programme.  She read my articles on these timeless traditions and wanted to interview me about the specific significance of items like mandarin oranges, ang paus and traditional food for Chinese New Year. 

Her deadline was close and she was already en route from Kuala Lumpur to Johor Baru and while I was flattered that she was keen to meet me, I thought it was best to introduce her to people who practice such customs and are better sources of information. 

My cousins with grandma [wearing shades!]
at the cemetery - 1960's
So I connected her with my friends in the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association who are far better equipped to help her and I’m glad Eza got all the info that she set out to find.  This incident was a significant and heart-warming experience because she is a young non-Chinese who was keen to discover more about Chinese customs to share with viewers.  I just hope this knowledge will lead to more tolerance, understanding and greater racial harmony in our multi-cultural community.

Generally most non-Chinese are familiar with Chinese New Year traditions because they cannot escape the abundance of Red colour, red packets or ang pau and mandarin oranges during that time of year.  But they may not know much about the Mid-Autumn Festival when the Chinese traditionally eat mooncakes or the Hungry Ghost Festival when they believe that the Gates of Hell are open for ghosts to roam the earth to be fed and entertained.  The Chinese who practice ancestor worship also observe Ching Ming, a tradition where families visit their ancestors’ graves in the cemetery.

Grandma laying out items at an ancestor's grave
while Ah Kong [standing Left] looks on

In the early years when I first joined the family for Ching Ming, I remember waking up in the morning and not asked to change out of my pyjamas.  We are not encouraged to lounge around in pyjamas but on that day, the children were allowed to go out in their pyjamas.  Much later I understood why and it was not any part of the tradition but the long trousers of our pyjama pants were helpful in protecting our little legs from mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies in the long grass around the cemetery!

Ching Ming, the most important festival of the dead on the lunar calendar, is a month-long celebration for families to go to the cemetery to clean up the graves and make offerings and prayers to their ancestors. 

Shirt in paper replica with a variety of joss paper

Days ahead of that chosen date in the month, grandma would buy loads of joss paper and joss sticks and she would start folding the joss paper into rolls of paper with turned-up ends that resembled taels of gold.  I also had fun rolling stacks of tissue-light sheets of single-colour paper in multi colours which I later learnt, were replicas for sheets of fabric. 

Grandma would organize baskets of food including steamed pau dumplings, whole boiled chicken, braised duck and roast pork along with sacks of the gold taels, coloured rolls of fabric, other joss paper and fresh flowers for each ancestor.  It was a fun family field trip to lug them to the various tombs located in different cemeteries in Johor Baru. 

One of the rituals of grave site ancestor worship is the lighting up of joss sticks and taking turns to kowtow before the ancestor’s tomb, starting in the order of seniority within the family.  Then the paper items are burnt because the Chinese believe that the money and material items will be sent to their ancestors to make them more comfortable. 

Aunty Polly showing off shirt
replicas for Ah Kong - 2011
Now, in addition to stacks of Hell Bank Notes, paper coins and paper gold ingots, many families also send their ancestors gifts in paper replicas like shirts and sexy lingerie, cars with chauffeurs, mansions with servants and even luxury items like mobile-phones, plasma TV’s, DVD players complete with discs and more recently, even i-phones, i-pads!  I remember after the rituals at each tomb, the pau, fruits and drink would be distributed and eaten at the site and this is so interesting because I just discovered that this is a form of a reunion meal with the ancestors!  Meanwhile the meat items would be brought back to Ah Kong’s house and enjoyed with other dishes and grandma’s delicious slow-boiled soup in a big family feast. 

The Chinese do not neglect the Ching Ming observance because their honour and respect for their elders and ancestors continues even though they have moved into the spirit world.  The belief that the family’s future generations will be blessed as their forefathers are honoured, is a universal conviction held by many cultures in the world and one that Malaysians can easily identify with.  So around this time of year, it is not unusual to see the roads around Chinese cemeteries all over the nation, lined with vehicles as families carry out this annual obligation as part of their culture and tradition.

Mum at tomb of Uncle Robert
and Aunty Helen - 2011
Unlike modern memorial parks that are designed with carparks, visitors to old cemeteries have no alternative but to park their cars on roadsides.  Last Sunday my sister and brother-in-law were back in his hometown and while they were passing a cemetery where the roads were bordered by parked cars, they were appalled to see policemen busy issuing summonses for parking offences!

While these officers may be carrying out their duties, they seem to have an obvious lack of understanding and tolerance for another culture.  This Chinese tradition is practiced only once a year and because they usually go early and stay briefly to avoid the blazing sun, their cars are not parked there for long.  With better understanding and greater sensitivity towards the Ching Ming traditions, I just hope that such summonses will be graciously waived.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 11 April 2012


  1. Anonymous4/15/2012

    Where are the ticket issuers every Friday noon

  2. Anonymous4/15/2012

    Is Eza a political strategist studying the traits to draft strategy for upcoming GE ?