Updated: Dec 1, 2020
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.