Tomb Sweeping Tradition

Grandfather's tomb with offerings made
in the annual Ching Ming tradition
Around end March to early April, you will see the Chinese visiting the cemeteries in and around Johor Baru.  This annual trek to the tombs is known as Ching Ming, the most important festival of the dead in the lunar calendar where Chinese who practice ancestor worship go to family tombs to make offerings and prayers to their ancestors. 

This Ching Ming festival is not to be mistaken with the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts when the Gates of Hell are open for spirits to roam the earth to be fed and entertained.

Eating is an inherent part of the Chinese culture so for Chng Ming, families will bring food like steamed pau dumplings, whole boiled chicken, braised duck and roast pork along with the favourite drinks of their dearly departed.  I remember the early years when Pepsi Cola first came into the market and our late great-grandmother used to enjoy sipping this bubbly soda which she called, “Pess cola.”  Now at every Ching Ming, the family never fails to bring a can of her favourite “Pess cola” to offer to her at her tomb!

JB Chinese community leaders paying their respects
at the Ming Tomb
Interestingly, there is one special tomb in Johor Baru that does not have the remains of any ancestor buried within.  This grand tomb is located in the cemetery close to Jalan Abdul Rahman Andak and is simply adorned by two Chinese characters: Ming Mu meaning Ming Tomb.  History records that when Johor became part of the Unfederated Malay States under the British colonial authority in 1914, the kangchu system was abolished and the Ngee Heng kongsi or society was disbanded.  This kongsi, which started as a secret society, was legalised by Sultan Abu Bakar as an association in 1873 and assigned to take charge of Chinese community affairs in Johor.  

"Tomb Sweeping Day" indicated on this page
of traditional Chinese calendar!
United with the other Chinese clans as a legal society, members of this association built the Johor Ancient Chinese Temple at Jalan Trus, started the Foon Yew School and established a common cemetery for all dialect groups that Johor Chinese still fondly refer to as, Kongsi San.  When the Ngee Heng Kongsi was disbanded, their assets were dissolved and contributed to charity with a sum set aside to build a tomb for the burial of all their ritual and sacred objects as well as ancestral tablets. 

To this day, JB Chinese community leaders perform ancestor worship rituals at this tomb twice a year, during the Ching Ming and Chongyang festivals. 

The Chinese will not neglect the annual Ching Ming observance because they believe that as their forefathers are honoured, their future generations will be bestowed with blessings.  In stormy rains or sweltering sunshine, they will climb the hillocks to reach the tombs and pay their respects to their ancestors who have moved into the spirit world.  And after the rituals at each tomb, the pau, fruits and drinks would be distributed and eaten there as a form of a reunion meal with the ancestors!

A collection of paper replica games for gamblers!
During this season, there will also be quite a bit of open burning in the cemeteries because the Chinese believe that when paper items in the form of money and material goods are burnt, they will be sent to their ancestors to make them more comfortable in the netherworld. 

Traditionally this includes sacks of folded golden taels, coloured rolls of fabric, joss paper printed as Hell Bank Notes and paper replicas of material items.  These may be suits of paper attire, paper cars with chauffeurs, paper mansions with servants and luxury items like jewellery, sexy lingerie, cigarettes, plasma TV and even the latest gadgets like mobile-phones, ipads and laptops. 

A set of ko-yok or medicinal products too!
Recently I passed a shop selling Chinese joss items and couldn’t resist pausing to take a closer look at the range of paper replica items that are available for citizens of the netherworld.  I gather that gambling is also another innate part of the Chinese because among the interesting items like branded jewellery and laptop computers, I saw a box set with games I recognised like chess, mahjong, playing cards, domino cards and chi-kee cards. 

I was amused that even in the netherworld, the dearly departed can gather to gamble and when I spotted another box set of medicinal products with a range of ko-yok or traditional first-aid remedies, I was truly tickled because I never knew that they are still prone to itches, aches and pains!

It is not only an Asian tradition for families to remember their ancestors by presenting flowers and giving the tombs an annual clean-up as this is practiced even in other cultures.  People generally honour ancestors as they owe their very existence to their forefathers but just as we cherish memories of them after they are gone, it is better to value our elders while they are still with us.  So have no regrets but just go all out to give them your reassuring presence and practical support while they can still appreciate it. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 11 April 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment