By Lillian Tong
Cheng Beng, made up of the words ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ and ‘bright’, is the Penang Straits Chinese and Hokkien term for QingMing or tomb sweeping holiday. This traditional Chinese festival is the equivalent of ‘All Souls Day’ and usually falls on the third month of the Chinese calendar. The practice and celebration of Cheng Beng is undergird by Confucian values of proper rites and decorum as expressions of filial piety, loyalty, and respect for the ancestors.
“Oh, Chor Chor, where are you?” mother asked quietly; her voice held a tinge of exasperation. We started the morning feeling excited as our coterie, every hand carrying offerings, wandered among the hills of Mt. Erskine – father, mother, aunts and uncles, and us children in tow. Our motley groups trudged along, trying to locate great-grandmother’s tomb.
When our little legs arrived at the tomb, the men were already cutting away weeds, grass, and undergrowth that had swamped the place. They then noticed a hired-man nearby and paid him to finish the job.
In the meanwhile, mother and the other women set out the offerings, joss, stick and paper, and paraphernalia on the small ‘altar’ in front of the tomb. My third aunt unlocked the tiffin from its handle and removed the 12 separately stacked low containers and ladled the many dishes into uniform batek blue and white porcelain bowls. She lined them up in three rows.
For us, the younger children, we crowded around watching her preparing them and we thought of it as fun-like playing masak-masak (playing house).
The candles and incense sticks were then lit. Family members took their turns to pray, bow, or kowtow before the tomb-inviting great-grandmother to this banquet while also requesting her to invite our ancestors, departed relatives, and any other departed friends to share the meal.
As for us, the children (again), we squatted around the front altar with the sun beating down. Our task was to ‘kor hoay’ watching the flame on the candles.
As the candles burnt low, it was time to ‘puak phoay’ by tossing two kidney-shaped divination wooden blocks in the air. If both blocks fall and land with one on the open-face while the other close, it means that the ancestors have ‘finished eating’ and duly appeased.
Yes, they have!
Afterwards, the men went ahead and piled the joss papers, ‘gin chua’ silver joss paper, and ‘kim chua’ gold joss paper in a heap before setting them ablaze. As the flame began to die, mother went to offer libations to the ancestors.
After all were done, the offerings were packed up and soon our hot, tired, and sweaty caravan started our way down the hill. At home, we all shared the offered food together.