Getting in touch with my roots during Qing Ming

Getting in touch with my roots during Qing Ming
Many Chinese Singaporeans observed this year's Qingming Festival (Tomb-sweeping day) at the Choa Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery yesterday. It was a family affair for many as they paid respects and remember their ancestors who have passed before them.

I only began to realise how little I knew about my forefathers when my older daughter, Yanrong, asked me for help with her family tree school project some time back.

I can't boast of an unbroken ancestry dating back to ancient China. Technically, I can, given my ethnicity. But any substantial links beyond my grandparents are long broken.

I certainly don't know of any living relatives in China or the exact village from which my grandparents and great-grandparents had come.

I have no memory of my maternal grandparents. My grandfather died before I was born and grandma followed him when I was one.

I can remember my paternal grandparents. But they, too, died rather young.

I can't recall when I last visited their graves but it had to be at least six years ago before Yanrong started primary school.

Feeling a little guilty and nostalgic, I decided to fulfil my duty this year and made a trip back to Ipoh to pay my respects.

In my family tradition, honouring our ancestors during the Qing Ming festival is a mark of filial piety.

For some people, being filial means treating our parents and other elders well when they are alive. I agree.

But there is a place for remembering the dead as well. Otherwise, there is no need for memorials.

I would have loved to have my wife and daughters join me in making the trip but that would have been too disruptive to their school schedules, particularly for younger daughter Yanbei, who had Saturday Chinese dance rehearsals to prepare for the Singapore Youth Festival.

In any case, it is rare for the entire extended family to mark Qing Ming together since none of my four siblings and I are based in Ipoh. This year, my parents and I were joined by my only brother.

Despite my long absence, I had no trouble recognising the unchanged landscape of the cemetery where my grandparents were buried.

Their graves were well tended, thanks to my father who had made a call earlier to weed out unkempt undergrowth and repaint faded inscriptions.

In keeping with these occasions, there was much reminiscing, mostly by my mother.

Many of the stories I had heard before.

One of her favourite retellings was about how my father came by a windfall that enabled him to marry my mother.

You see, Dad has a complicated genealogy.

The man I called grandfather when I was growing up was, in fact, his stepfather.

My biological grandfather died from a gas explosion at his welding factory when Grandma, his second wife, was pregnant with my father.

The first wife, who had no children of her own, subsequently made life difficult for the young widow.

Either out of loneliness, desperation or love, she soon remarried, to the man who was an employee of her dead husband.

The absence of biological ties must have been made very clear to my father, for I have never heard him address his stepfather as anything other than "Uncle".

When he was 24, my father's stepmother (the first wife) died.

He was bequeathed her house and the factory. By then, the business was worth very little.

The house was stripped bare by greedy relatives, friends and other hangers-on by the time my father took possession of it.

But they didn't take everything. By a stroke of luck, my dad found $7,000 - a princely sum in 1962 - in small bills pasted behind some wallpaper.

With the money, he was able to hold a proper wedding and continue his father's business.

The visit was not all about reliving old memories. I also learnt something new.

For instance, I discovered the grandfather I never knew had three wives, not two. No one, not even my father knew anything about this woman except that she predated the grandmother whom I had for a long time believed to be the first wife.

Whether one is a believer in the tradition or not, the value of observing the Qing Ming festival lies in more than just the rituals.

It is about extended families coming together to remember and reaffirm their roots.

It was a chance for me to piece together a bit of my family history.

Outside of Qing Ming, my parents tend not to delve into the distant past.

Unlike the ubiquitous social media of today, I have to depend almost entirely on oral history to find out about the lives of all my grandparents.

It may not be too reliable as our memories tend to play tricks on us over time.

Hopefully, I will have enough of a collection, even if it borders on myth, to pass down to my daughters.

This article was published on April 13 in The Straits Times.

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