'Filial lion' mourns at funeral of 94-year-old Singaporean matriarch

PHOTO: Shin Min Daily News

Told by doctors that the end was near, a 94-year-old matriarch decided to spend her remaining days at home.

On April 18, the nonagenarian, whose maiden surname was Li, passed away peacefully at her home, leaving behind seven children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Li's five-generation family comprises fifty to sixty members, Shin Min Daily News reported.

Li's wake was held at Bukit Batok West Ave 6 over six days. Unlike most wakes, however, hers had an unusual addition — the sight of a lone 'lion' clad in black-and-white, bowed before the altar. 

The extraordinary performance, as reported the Chinese evening daily on Saturday (April 23), saw the lion entering the area with head and body bent low, seemingly playing the role of a filial son returning to pay his last respects.

According to Shin Min, this particular ceremony, loosely translated from Chinese as 'inviting a filial lion', is more commonly seen in regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, and is less commonly practised in Singapore.

The family shared that the lion costume would be cremated along with Li, symbolising that she would have constant protection and companionship in the afterlife.

Close-knit family spanning 5 generations

Li's eldest son, surnamed Chua, told Shin Min that their mother had brought up seven kids up single-handedly after their father abandoned the family.

The 72-year-old recalled how he and his siblings would head to school either in the morning or afternoon. "Whoever wasn't at school would be responsible for selling the cakes that my mother made, door to door," said Chua, who's also the founder and honorary advisor of Hong Jie Association, which puts up lion dance performances.

As the backbone of the family, Li was credited for holding the family together. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the family used to enjoy regular celebrations during the lunar new year and on birthdays.

Li was well-respected by everyone, said Chua. Li's grandson also described his grandmother as someone who was usually very gentle, but could be strict when angry. "She always taught us the importance of being united as a family. So even though our family is big, we are all very close," said the 48-year-old.

As a show of respect and piety, the family ordered a custom-made lion costume for Li's final send-off.

Besides the muted colours of the 'filial lion', also known as a 'white lion', the musical accompaniment to the performance is also completely different from the traditional lion dance, according to one commentary on a Facebook group.

And while the rarity of its occurrence here is disputed according to sources AsiaOne spoke to, there may be several reasons why it's less commonly seen. 

Other than the hefty cost of creating and cremating the 'lion' which could be a deterrent, other conditions have to be met in order for the ceremony to be held. 

One of which is that the deceased has to be aged 80 or older, or have a family spanning at least four generations. Either that, or they must be someone of a social high status.

As per Chinese custom, the passing of those who have lived to the ripe old age of 80 or above takes on a more joyous nature as a celebration of a life well-lived. 

The younger Chua told Shin Min the family's intention was to give his grandmother a lively send-off for her last journey. She was cremated on April 23.

candicecai@asiaone.com