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  • Writer's pictureKathy Chin Leong

Ching Ming – The Holiday for All

Ching Ming. The auspicious holiday greets us every spring, and the date moves according to the lunar calendar.  But in 2024, Ching Ming will fall on April 4, the day when Chinese officially honor their ancestors. Busloads and carloads of families will visit the graves of loved ones who passed recently and long ago.

To avoid the crowds we went last week to the Hoy Sun Ning Yung Cemetery in Colma to pay tribute to Popo (maternal grandmother) and Gung Gung (maternal grandfather).  There were six of us in tow- my mom, uncle, aunt, myself, sister, and cousin.  And it was the first time I drove us to the cemetery for Toisanese. Toison is a county in the Guangdong province  in southern China.  As my 82-year-old Uncle Ben stressed, “This place is only for those from Toisan, no one else.”  Chinese from other provinces have their own burial sites, many found in Colma, the cemetery capital of the Bay Area.

Early memories of this graveyard was the stuff of nightmares. As a child I attended Chinese movies with my parents in Chinatown, and there was always a double feature. The first was a modern love story that always ended in tragedy and tears; the second was an historic kung fu flick or a scary movie which featured a cemetery or two. So imagine going to my grandparents’ hilltop resting place right after seeing a ghost movie.  At the time, it appeared unattended with overgrown weeds, litter, and weeping willows as high as skyscrapers. Headstones, all askew, were crammed into the dirt.  Fresh upturned soil in a rectangular shape meant a burial had taken place recently. 

The branches with draping leaves would sway in the constant breeze; these were the ghosts shaking their long manes.  Since the entire cemetery was situated on this steep slope, I kept thinking our car would someday roll down the hill or that I would lose my footing and fall, tumbling across the tombs of someone’s grandma, grandpa, aunt or uncle. 

This time, returning as an adult, the experience was radically different. It was not cloudy, but sunny.  The site was modernized with smooth cement pathways, wide enough for two lanes of cars. We could drive up safely with room to park.  Garbage cans were stationed about liberally so Ching Ming attendees and anyone who came during the year could toss their miscellaneous trash and the wrappings from their flowers. The grass between gravesites was mowed, weeds trimmed.  We came early in the morning before caravans of vehicles would appear. For the first time, my sister and cousin and I noticed the serene view of the bay in the distance. “Very good feng shui,” Mom remarked.  “It’s beautiful.”

We first paid homage to Popo and arranged a bouquet of mixed blooms in the vases next to her headstone. Sally, my sister, talked about how Popo would make her laugh by removing her dentures and smacking her lips directly in front of her face.  While listening to this anecdote, I again wondered why my grandmother was not buried next to her husband. Two other individuals are sandwiched in between.  According to Uncle Ben, after Gung Gung died, Popo waited a day too late to purchase the plot next to her deceased spouse, and by then, the space was taken, and so was the slot next to that one.

Uncle Ben told us that he originally wrote the Chinese calligraphy now etched on Popo’s granite headstone. It is brandished with a small oval black-and-white photo of her which he took himself.  The top rim and center of the headstone is emblazoned with a white cross designating she was a Christian. Below that are the dates of her birth and death, her family surname and married last name, plus her birth village.  Pointing to the characters, he said his precise calligraphy with every nuanced stroke was duplicated exactly by a master craftsman.

We next stepped over to Gung Gung’s space, added the flowers and bowed in recognition of his life. My grandfather, Poy Der, had served in the U.S. Navy.  His gravesite is marked by a simple white marble military headstone, unusual for a Chinese cemetery.  He could have been buried with his Navy buddies where all the servicemen go, but (as the story goes) he wanted to be near Popo.  As we stood there remarking how we should clean the marble next time we come, my cousin Francis told me he had done some research and discovered my grandfather did not fight.  He was a teenager, around 18 or 19, and was given the task of washing the uniforms.  While that is the lowest rank, what it lacked in prestige was made up for by becoming a livelihood for Gung Gung who subsequently opened his own laundry business in Chicago and later in Tampa, Florida.  He regularly sent money to Hong Kong  to support his family.

At the last minute, we decided to take pictures before leaving.  Francis, the family photographer, happened have a tripod in his trunk.  We posed happily as a multi-generational clan, each of us a bead in the Der chain. This time at Hoy Sun Ning Yung, I had no fear of swaying ghost hair, nor did I see overgrown weeds that threatened to kidnap me.  There were no tombstones jammed in between the tree trunks on the side of the road.  On this fair, sunny day, we were grateful to pay homage to our beloved grandparents. I felt extremely appreciative that my mom, aunt and uncle were still alive to retell stories, argue and banter, and that Sally, Francis, and I could bond in this rare moment as peers. Two generations visiting the older generation seemed so right, so complete. 

Afterwards we drove to lunch at a nearby Chinese hole-in-the-wall restaurant.  Towards the end of the meal, a guest called out to me.  It was Dale, my Chinese American friend from Santa Clara, and he was sharing a meal with his mom and uncle.  I walked up to say hello.  “So Dale, here for the same thing?”   “Yep.”  “Did you go to the cemetery already?” “Yep.”  We smiled realizing that this annual ritual is not a burden, but an honor, especially when you come with family.  Ching Ming is not just a time to remember the dead, but a day to commemorate life.

Chinatown is out now!

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