Observations on ‘Cheng Beng’ in the time of Covid-19

Jerry Choong
·3-min read
Chinese families visit the graves of their relatives during the Qing Ming festival to clean tombstones and burn offerings in Klang April 4, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Chinese families visit the graves of their relatives during the Qing Ming festival to clean tombstones and burn offerings in Klang April 4, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KUALA LUMPUR, April 4 — Tradition is a funny thing. Despite the passage of time, changing values and norms, some traditional practices are honoured as they were in the centuries and millennia past.

One such practice is Cheng Beng (Qing Ming) or Tomb-Sweeping Festival which falls on the first week of April every year.

So firmly does the Chinese community in Malaysia adhere to it that they would go through great lengths of inconvenience and discomfort to honour their departed ancestors.

I am vaguely reminded of when the Communist Party in China finally agreed to let its populace observe their cultural and religious ceremonies in the mid-1990’s, after decades of prohibiting them and labelling them feudal superstitions.

It is said the national air pollution index rises considerably in April, as millions of Han Chinese rush to pay homage at the graves of their ancestors by burning offerings; such is the pull of tradition in Chinese culture and society.

In the sleepy town of Kuala Kubu Bharu (KKB) in Hulu Selangor, the number of people coming back for Cheng Beng is far fewer than compared to previous years.

But still they come, bearing food offerings and paper items to be burned for their departed loved ones.

At previous Cheng Bengs, KKB’s Chinese cemetery would be filled with the hustle and bustle of people milling about but today only a handful of families were seen working diligently to clear their ancestral graves of thickets and weeds.

Family members clean and pray at the graves of their ancestors as a sign of respect and to honour their deceased relatives during the Qing Ming festival at the Kwong Tong Chinese Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur April 4, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Family members clean and pray at the graves of their ancestors as a sign of respect and to honour their deceased relatives during the Qing Ming festival at the Kwong Tong Chinese Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur April 4, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

Some families worked around the restrictions imposed upon them by the authorities, which included a limit of six persons per grave.

My own family took turns at the grave of my great-grandparents, as the sons of my late grandfather and the sons of my great-uncle shared their duties one at a time.

There was much work to be done, as Cheng Beng could not be observed properly last year due to the pandemic. Even now some of the offerings seen are less grand than before.

Gone are the roasted suckling pigs before the tombstones, or the plates of fruits of different varieties. In their place are slabs of roasted pork, with two or three types of fruits. Only the pink and yellow rice prosperity cakes remained a mainstay.

Family members clean and pray at the graves of their ancestors as a sign of respect and to honour their deceased relatives during the Qing Ming festival at the Kwong Tong Chinese Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur April 4, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Family members clean and pray at the graves of their ancestors as a sign of respect and to honour their deceased relatives during the Qing Ming festival at the Kwong Tong Chinese Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur April 4, 2021. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

But for those who managed to come, their paper offerings appeared to be as lavish as before. Chests of hell notes and numinous symbols of wealth, objects of prestige including paper cars, houses and effigies of servants to wait hand-and-foot on the departed souls in the hereafter.

This was followed by prayers and bows before the tombstones, as the mournful faces of the ancestors observed their descendants faithfully carry out the rites passed down onto them.

It was interesting to note that unlike before, the visitors to the cemetery did not bring young children, with the youngest appearing to be in their teens. Perhaps the fear of Covid-19 prevented them from including them in what should be a tradition taught to them.

Neither were the elderly seen, as visitors likely did not dare take the risk of exposing their family members to the coronavirus that has largely counted senior citizens among its victims. The oldest people seen there were those in late middle age, perhaps to visit the graves of their parents or grandparents.

Yet no pandemic in the world could fully dissuade Cheng Beng from being observed.

In KKB’s village of Kampung Asam Kumbang, several households could be seen burning the offerings, ordinarily placed before the graves, in their front yards.

If one would rather not take the risk to travel to the cemetery for fear of exposure to crowds, then this is the next best option.

Chinese families visit the graves of their relatives during the Qing Ming festival to clean tombstones and burn offerings in Klang April 4, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Chinese families visit the graves of their relatives during the Qing Ming festival to clean tombstones and burn offerings in Klang April 4, 2021. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

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