Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Remembering Qingming Festival

At some point in my schooling in the American system, like so many children, I went on a field trip that involved making a grave rubbing. As the teacher gave instructions and demonstrated, I was horrified. Did she not fear the wrath of the departed? How disrespectful to traipse through sacred grounds as though it were Disney World. Luckily, one of my classmates was more than happy to make two grave rubbings. I did not have to participate in desecration of someone's ancestor's final resting spot after all. Disaster averted!

Yesterday was Qingming Festival, a national holiday in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China for honoring one's ancestors. On Qingming, families gather to bai san, literally translated as kowtow to the mountain, a nod to the feng shui belief that the most auspicious grave sites face water and rest along a mountain side. 

Tsuen Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery, where my grandfather is buried
As one of the mostly densely populated cities in the world, it's no wonder that cemeteries in Hong Kong are also bursting at the seams. I read somewhere that it's easier to get public housing in Hong Kong than a burial spot. (Note to the living: if you are claustrophic, you'll need to reconsider Hong Kong as a final resting spot.)

Although I have not returned to Hong Kong in 30 years, I still remember the importance of Qingming festival, which falls on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese calendar, or 15 days after the vernal equinox, either April 4th or 5th, depending on a given year. In Cantonese, four is a homonym for death, so the fourth day of the fourth month was always a spooky mnemonic for me. 

My family--siblings, parents, uncles, aunt, cousins, grandmother--hiked up many concrete steps carved into a mountain, bearing elaborate food and libation to offer to the spirit of my grandfather, buried in Tsuen Wan, and my great grandmother, buried in Chai Wan. Although I was scared of ghosts and hated the long trek up the seemingly never-ending steps of the mountain, it was a fun holiday filled with shenanigans between cousins, as we pretended to be mules carrying provisions into the desert to save many lives. A roast pig was involved, so we took turns as pall bearers to piggy, an offering to our departed ancestors, along with Hennessy XO cognac, fruits, and other delectables. When it came to food, we did not play around. Mountain or no, feasting was the promised reward. 

Along the way, the grown ups would inevitably retell famous family stories of how grandfather did not condone laziness or insolence one bit, that just one glare from grandfather and you knew to shape up or else.

When we finally reached our destination, we swept the grave, lay out the offerings, burned spirit money and incense, and one by one, took turns kowtowing three times to show our respect to ancestors. And then came the reward for trekking up the mountain: FEAST! 

Paying our respects to grandfather (I am the second from left in the front row). As I look at this picture today, I'm struck by the simplicity of my grandfather's tombstone compared to ones behind us in this picture. My uncle Tony was only 20 years old when he had to buy a grave for his father. He, my grandmother, and later my mom, worked hard to pay off that piece of land.

I have not celebrated Qingming in 30 years, but in two weeks, my family will be convening at my beloved grandmother's final resting spot, also on a mountain--yes, feng shui really matters!--to begin a new North American tradition of honoring our ancestors. I can barely wait. 


  1. Wow! Wishing you and your family a beautiful and spiritually replenishing Quingming as you visit your grandmother's resting place. Thank you for sharing. I love your opening: a routine field trip assignment that can be perceived as a "desecration." My pastor had mentioned this tradition in a recent sermon. Your memories are so vivid and beautiful. I love seeing the picture of you and your family paying respect to your grandfather. What a beautiful tradition. I wish you much remembering and feasting.

  2. I do so enjoy your posts. I never fail to learn something from them. Thanks for sharing your memories and traditions.

  3. Michelle, I agree with both of the above commenters. I always look forward to reading your family stories, so very different from mine and from most of the other slices found on twt (with the exception of LSquared, whose work I also look forward to reading). I love the complexity of the sentences you write. I love the pallbearers for piggy line, the way you and your cousins played to get yourself tot he reward for the day. I especially love the learning part of your pieces. Is this why there are 'trash' cans at the cemetery??? Or are the cans for another reason? Maybe that is your next piece! Thanks for another great read! maribeth batcho

  4. Gosh Michelle this is fascinating! An awesome tradition to honor those we loved and have lost.

  5. I love hearing about other cultures' traditions. Your blog posts are so beautifully written! You balance the personal and the informational so effectively.


I'd love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below.