More than any other year, the Qing Ming festival this year is the talk of town among the Chinese community due the movement control order (MCO) that is keeping Malaysians indoors for four weeks from March 18 to April 14.
This partly overlaps with the stretch from late March to early April – 10 days before and 10 days after April 4, the actual date – which is usually a popular period for the Chinese community in Malaysia to perform their obligatory ancestral worship duties.
Amid calls to postpone tomb-sweeping activities, most people are adopting a wait-and-see attitude.
According to Dr Ong Siew Kian, who teaches culture at Universiti Malaya’s Department of Chinese Studies, Qing Ming holds a special significance as extended families gather at cemeteries or columbariums to pay respects to their ancestors.
“Traditionally, Chinese cultural practices like Qing Ming may be practised as a form of filial piety, but they also serve as a form of family gathering designed to help forge stronger family ties.
“For the community, it also helps to promote a sense of belonging and solidarity that unites those with the same cultural identity.
“The wonderful thing about Qing Ming is how our ancestors found a way to keep the family together even after their demise.
“Even the warning about how ‘one tomb cannot be swept twice’ is rooted in the fact that disharmony in the family unit can arise when there is a lack of compromise among siblings who cannot even agree on meeting for Qing Ming, which only takes place once a year.”
Moving with the times
As society evolves and technology advances, so too do options for joss paper offerings available for this year’s Qing Ming rituals, from new-fangled electronics and glossy skincare sets to fanciful outfits and popular foods.
Joss paper vendor M.L. Ho, 39, who operates in KL, says that some of her customers opt to order from a list while others prefer to drop by to shop for new items.
But now, with the MCO, her shop has to remain shut so most people would have to wait until the situation improves before they can buy joss paper offerings.
“Traditional items are still very much in demand, because those are usually what people get for departed relatives who passed away a very long time ago. But for more recent deaths, people like to look for newer and more contemporary items, especially when the deceased are youths.”
So, instead of traditional wooden chests filled with colourful hell bank notes and gold ingots, there are now modern options such as briefcases and luggage bags, as well as credit cards, passports, and other forms of travel passes.
Nowadays, young people can even have their blue jeans, statement T-shirts, colourful sneakers and even skincare products and electronic gadgets.
For fashionistas, there is a wide selection of colourful shoes and pretty dresses that range from traditional qipao to nyonya kebaya or even gem-studded designer gowns.
Meanwhile, for those who aspire to greater things, there are condominiums and gas stations as well as aeroplanes and luxury yachts.
And the trendiest items on the shelves this year include a generous helping of musang king durian, a coffee-dispensing machine for yuppies and a fancy haidilao deluxe set (a popular Chinese-style hotpot or steamboat meal).
Tour guide C.K. Leong, 39, was in the vicinity of the joss paper shop for work so she decided to pick up some stuff for her younger brother. “My brother is younger than me, so I’ve bought him a new pair of jeans and T-shirt to go with the sneakers I sent him last year. Since I’ve gotten a new laptop for myself, I also got him a new phone and tablet, for a change, ” she says.
Insurance agent H.C. Pang, 48, also went to check out the joss paper shop as she was planning to go for Qing Ming earlier to beat the crowd. “My grandmother was a very fashionable lady, so I am sure she will appreciate the floral nyonya kebaya I’m planning to send her. I will also be picking up some healthcare products and a new phone for her, ” said Pang.
When told about such new trends, Prof Ong expressed that the Chinese like to be generous with their loved ones.
“Chinese people have a very cute and endearing habit. Unlike other cultures, they don’t treat their deceased family members as dead and gone. They want to share whatever good things they have, so that their dearly departed can also have a similarly nice time in the afterlife. Gadgets like phones and computers are already so common in our daily lives, that is why people try to get similar items for their loved ones because they imagine it would facilitate communication between their loved ones."