Memorials for the Dead and Ancestors

(by Connie Lacobie)

When I was growing up around 1960-1980, the people in Hong Kong were mostly ancestor worshippers. They were strongly influenced by the Taoist beliefs. The people believe after a person dies, his soul floats around and they need those Taoist monks or nuns set up a ceremony at the funeral, gives him some currency notes, paper golden urn, a paper car or house by burning them inside the big urn. Those ashes will transform into the real image that the spirit can use wherever he is. They believe they need those materials in the other eternal life.

Besides, the Chinese were taught to respect their ancestors. My family participated in the most popular three:

  1. U Lan, Chinese Halloween, on the 14th day of the seventh month
  2. Ts'ing Ming, Day of the Dead, in the spring around Easter Holiday
  3. Ch'ng Yeng , also called Double Nine , on the ninth day of the ninth month

U Lan

History: According to my father, Ue Laan Day is the similar to Halloween. However, Hong Kong Chinese take it seriously and scarily. The Chinese believe in Ym and Yeng (see below). In Mandarin and the West, this is known as Yin and Yang. The former is in hell and the latter is the earth. From 12:00 mid-night of the 14th day of the seventh month, the door of the hell below earth opens and all those spirits and ghosts are set free to tour and visit their ex-relatives before they died and to haunt their enemies whom caused their death. Hong Kong people believe Ue Laan Day is haunted and scary. If anyone has done some wrong doings to someone, he would be so afraid of revenge from the spirits. They would hire a Taoist monk or nun to give those loose spirits a mourning ceremony in which they would burn some paper gold bars or paper money issued by the Bank of Hell (mng tung ngn hng ). Superstitiously, one traditional practice recorded by my father was that when he was young in his village, on the Day of Ue Laan, there was a spiritual leader -- who happened to know well the matters of hell and earth -- guided those loose spirits & ghosts back to hell. They were recorded jumping and leaping all the way from village to village and back to the door of hell before Ue Laan finished. Folks believed that spirits lost power when the sun is rising.

Customs: my father was not supportive of the tradition of U Lan, . He did not believe in ghosts or spirits. My grandmother was alone to organize this ceremony. Before the day, she went to the incense store and bought a bundle of brown tissue paper with a golden square or a silver square plated in the center. She also got a stack of colorful tissue paper cut into a rectangular shape. They came in different solid colors. Those were paper fabrics.

My sister and I were called to help her fold those squares into a paper urn and roll up those rectangular colorful papers into a bulk of fabrics and tied them up together with a ribbon.

She prepared the following food items:

  1. a bowl of cooked rice with water
  2. some peanuts
  3. some fruit
  4. some sake

At home before dusk, she cleaned and set up the ancestors alter, she laid the food items on the worship table and lit three incenses burning in the urn. She mumbled a little and spilled three little cup of wine on the ground. Imagine one of the ancestor worshipping scenes of Disney's Mu Lan, you will grasp the idea. Then, she started to burn a bundle of paper fabrics and a dish of golden urns. This represented that our family donated some fabrics and gold to our ancestors who they could use them wherever they were. Some people burnt a paper car, a paper house, etc. for their ancestors. Remember the scene in the movie, "World of Suzi Wong"? At the ceremony, she burnt paper items for her dead son, in the same fashion as Ue Laan.

At night, my grandma led us down to the front entrance of the high-rise building and practiced her ritual ceremony. She said those paper items were burnt to those souls who had lost, had died painfully and misfortunately.

This memorial was not pleasant and optimistic. My siblings and I were so panicked and uncomfortable around the whole day of Ue Laan. We were scared that ghosts and lost souls would come to haunt at us at night. We usually covered our head with our blankets or turned on a big light and tried to sleep through the night. It would be different for me if I was converted to be a Christian at that time.

Ts'ing Ming

History: It falls in the Spring, around the Christian Easter Holiday. Ts'ing means clear, ming means bright. According to the Confucian classics, this is the day to start the spring plowing and gravestone cleaning. Before the reign of Xuan Zhong of Tang Dynasty 732 A.D, the Chinese people swept their ancestors' graveyards every 2 weeks. Beside sweeping, they had a rite to follow. This rite drew a group of family to participate and consumed a lot of money and time preparing sacrifices and fruits on the alters. The Tang Emperor modified this mourning tradition and set it up for once a year.

Customs: During Ts'ing Ming, my father would take us to my aunt's grave at the Catholic Cemetery. We bought her a bundle of flowers and cleaned her grave with a sweeper. Afterwards, my father and my grandmother would organize a mahjong game at home. After my grand parents died, we were busy. We had to go to three different locations to sweep graves. I remember very much those wonderful scents from honeysuckle in the Catholic Cemetery.

Ch'ng Yeng

History: Ch'ng means double. Yeng (Yang) means positive, masculine. Two males together create trouble. In the universe, there should be one Yin and one Yang.

Back in the 6th century, according to the book of Xu Qi Xie Ji by Wu Jun, a man called Huan Jing was told by his master Fei Chang Fang who was a Taoist that Huan Jing and his family needed to escape from a nemesis by climbing up the mountain nearby his house. They needed to drink chrysanthemum wine and carried a dogwood twig in their hands. They ought to leave before the fragrance of dogwood faded out. They made it to the top of the mountain and rested for a day. In the evening, they went back home and found out all the animals in the house and farm were executed.

From then on, people followed this practice and climbed up to the mountain on this day.

Customs: On the day of Ch'ng Yeng, our family used to follow the tradition of climbing up the mountain, Victoria Peak and had Dim Sum when we walked down the hill. Then we bought a cake from a bakery called Maxim. Our family satisfied the need of escape, climbing up and eating cake. Sponge cake was popular in that day. We ordered me at the Dim sum restaurant. We did not go to the grave particularly, except the period when all my grandparents passed away, we went to sweep the graves of my mom's parents on the day of Chung Yeung.

Now, I have moved to America for 18 years, these memorials for the Dead are not celebrated in my family.

© 2019, Kevin & Connie Lacobie Some graphics by: