Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Culture Share: Qing Ming and Seventh Month - no, they are not Halloween

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Joyce Chng discusses Qing Ming and Seventh Month in Singapore.

Qing Ming and Seventh Month - no, they are not Halloween

One distinct memory I have when it comes to Hokkien funeral rites is my grandfather's, back when I was only eight or nine (perhaps, even younger). I have sketchy memories of my Ah Gong, memories of his caring nature and his smile, of being held by him. It was all the way back then when I was looked after by Ah-Ma and Ah-Gong in their Geyland five-foot-way house. When they moved to Bedok, Ah-Gong soon passed away and they held the funeral wake at the void-deck of the housing estate.
Now, the void-deck is a common area designated by the government to be used by everybody, ranging from funeral wakes to wedding celebrations. So, it's not uncommon to have a Chinese funeral wake at one end and a Malay wedding at the other. People are rather civil about this when it comes to using the void-deck.
I didn't get to see Ah-Gong in his coffin. But I was aware that a sense of sadness hung in the air like unspoken words. I was clad in garments made of rough brown sack cloth. Sometimes I even wore a plain white tee shirt, with a colored piece of cloth pinned on the sleeve. I would later learn that the colored piece of cloth signified my relation/connection to the deceased. I was one of the grandchildren.
For the children, the week-long funeral wake was a strange mix of color, noise and (odd) gaiety. To us, it was a party with people visiting every night. There were make-shift round tables, each laden with a plate of peanuts, sweets and tidbits. Strands of red thread mixed with peanut shells. The guests would bring the strands of red threads back and later to discard them. The children laughed and ran about. In the day, we would pretend-hide from the forbidding banners of ancient warriors like Kuan Kong or sit down with the aunts making paper ingots for the ritual burning in the nights. Then, everything accumulated in a burst of theatre, loud gongs and chanting, and crossing a 'bridge' with the rest of the family.
I couldn't remember when we 'sent' Ah-Gong off. I only remember seeing a garishly decorated lorry, replete with florescent phoenixes and a pagoda. This type of hearse is fast becoming rare. Likewise, the hearse was accompanied by a band, mostly comprising of amateurs who blew their trumpets and banged their drums enthusiastically.
Later, when the household settled and we mourned in our own ways, my aunts started talking about the strange occurences at night, when the light started flickering for no reason or that the tap in the bathroom started running in the middle of the night. They said it was Ah-Gong coming back.
Death rites are interwoven into the Chinese way of life, into the year of festivals and celebrations. We have Qing Ming and Seventh Month (Ghost Month), two festivals related to death and remembering our ancestors. They find their way into my fiction, something I happily welcome. Qin Ming is a period where families re-visit the graves of their relatives. The Mandarin Chinese for these visit is “shao mu”, literally “sweep grave”. There they tidy the grave and tomb-stone, removing weeds and clearing out assorted debris. At the same time, they lit candles and lay out new offerings.
Seventh Month is darker. The spirits of the dead return to visit their living kin and relatives. Families bring out altar tables covered with all sorts of good food. They burn paper money so that their relatives would live in relative comfort in hell. There are paper cars, paper houses, paper dresses and even paper cell phones. I am sure that the enterprising ones would come up with paper iPads (for tech-saavy ghosts). Everyone knows when Seventh Month starts. The streets and pavements are lit by candles. In the twilight and dark, they look beautiful and eerie, guiding the dead. Throughout the month, people make offerings and burn paper money. Stories also proliferate with the urban legends re-surfacing to send chills down spines. “Never walk on burnt ashes,” one story goes. “The ghost will follow you home.” Another one, more to frighten children - “Never go out at night!” (for obvious reasons).
Oddly enough, we have getai concerts with music and singers, or – also getting uncommon – Chinese opera performances by invited travelling troupes. The front seats are always empty for the 'unseen' guests. These days, people watch the getai concerts for visual entertainment and general good fun.
Yet... the more spiritual and paranormal aspect weave in. Larger celebrations would involve mediums (or tang ki) who invite the gods to possess their bodies. They would perform impossible feats of strength or endurance, scarring themselves with cleavers to prove that they are truly blessed by the gods.
It is not a surprise that everyone breathes a sign of relief at the end of Seventh Month.
For some reason, Southeast Asian ghosts seem more vicious and blood-thirsty. The pontianak. The hantu tetek. The pochong. The flying heads with bloody entrails. The urban legend where the old lady feasts on soiled sanitary pads. The ghost in numerous school toilets. Seventh Month tends to heighten those dark primal fears in us. We tread more carefully, more prudently (since the ghosts seem to be easily offended/angered!).
But hey, it's no Halloween here...
Not at all.

Joyce Chng lives in Singapore.


  1. That is fascinating. Back in my high school Spanish classes we studied some about El Dia de los Muertos: The Day of the Dead. Neat to see how another culture handles death. I had a strong sense of what it would be like to attend one of the rituals and what it means to the participants. The only thing I didn't understand was the "five-foot-way house." I have no idea what that means, but everything else was vivid. The concept of the void-deck is pretty cool.

    I chuckled at how the last line echoes the title yet implies something different.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Jaleh. I love this post too.

  3. Would be good to also mention roughly when these festivals fall - Qing Ming around early April and Seventh month (seven months after the lunar new year) around late august/early Spetember. Reading the above p[ost makes it sound like they happen around the same time. Also, it might be too much but any chance of calling it the Hungry Ghost festival instead of or aka Seventh Month? How about also adding the dragon boat race and the shameless devouring of bak chang (YUMMMM!!!!). Just a thought...lah!

  4. While quite unlike the way that people in America and elsewhere celebrate Hallowe'en now, Seventh Month does bear a strong resemblance to that holiday's pagan predecessor, Samhain, particularly in the suggestion that the boundaries between this world and the spirit world are unusually thin at those times. I find such traditions rather fascinating.

    1. Yes, I can see the similarities. I'm glad you enjoyed the article, J.H.M. Thanks for your comment!