12-10-2016 Historical and Cultural Study of Chinese Cemeteries by Prof Zeng Ling (Xiamen University)

Seminar: Historical and Cultural Study of Chinese Cemeteries by Prof Zeng Ling from Xiamen University

On 12 October 2016, the MCRC was graced by the presence of Prof Zeng Ling, who gave a seminar on the Historical and Cultural Study of Chinese Cemeteries. Among the participants were representatives from the Kuala Lumpur Guangdong Yishan Cemetery Committee, representatives from Huayan Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies, students and academic staff of the University of Malaya, and members of the general public.

Prof Zeng Ling began the seminar with warm greetings and a simple introduction of the topic. During her introduction, she highlighted the early arrival of the Chinese community to Malaysia and Singapore, and how these men and women pioneered the cultural foundations of today’s Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese community.

Prof Zeng Ling shared her experience of her arrival to Singapore in the 1990s and mentioned that she was intrigued with the way Singaporean Chinese dealt with cemetery management. She mentioned the historical significance of Chinese graves, and how graves varied from clan and community, citing differences in the Hakka and Cantonese communities as examples. For the Hokkien community, she cited Bukit Brown cemetery as a site of historical significance. She also mentioned her view on the lack of the Teochew community’s presence with regards to keeping records or archives of Teochew graves in Singapore.

Prof Zeng Ling notes that researching graves can be carried out when the necessary resources are provided by either historical archives or government data, among others. She highlighted that among the contents one would be able to find during grave research include the types of font used in grave carving and the list of donors or people involved in putting the grave together. From grave research, the audience was told that researchers are able to trace the period in which the deceased person spent in Malaysia or Singapore, simply by examining details of that person’s life and death. Prof Zeng Ling also reminded the audience on the importance of acknowledging the Chinese community’s cultural heritage.

Prof Zeng Ling continued with her seminar citing several grave sites at Choa Chu Kang and Yishun, among others. She highlighted several limitations imposed to grave sites which have been carried out by the Singaporean Government. She also mentioned the lack of youth involvement in Chinese Associations which specialise in cemetery work. She continued her discussion on the many mysteries of grave research citing the Fong Yun Thai Association as an example. She mentioned that the year of Fong Yun Thai’s establishment is unknown.

Further into her discussion, Prof Zeng Ling shared her understandings of how the Chinese community rebuilt their cultural heritage in South East Asia following the community’s diaspora. She discussed the significance of the diaspora period by mentioning that the diaspora of some members of the Chinese community occurred during Post-Opium War and Western Colonial times. She highlighted the importance of examining the social-economic circumstances of such times and how it affected the Chinese community’s efforts in rebuilding their cultural heritage after the diaspora. She mentioned that practice of speaking dialects, which many of them regarded as speaking in their mother tongue, is one such example of the Chinese community’s cultural heritage.

Prof Zeng Ling then discussed the establishment of various dialect/clan-affiliated associations and organisations following the Chinese community’s diaspora to South East Asia. She mentioned that this was a reflection of the Chinese community’s sense of belonging and brotherhood shared with one another, and that this carried significant cultural value. Prof Zeng Ling then spoke of the practice of Zhong Yuan Jie (the Hungry Ghosts’ Festival) and how this highlighted the spiritual and religious understandings of the Singaporean Chinese community.

Prof Zeng Ling eventually drew the crowd’s attention to the differing customs and donation mechanisms which were practiced by various cemetery associations, and how the Singaporean Chinese community have assimilated to many local customs. She also noted that some cemetery associations in Singapore don’t just serve a single community by being made up of merely one unified body. Instead, she highlighted that some associations were made up of as many as 9 components. She mentioned that some people were so proud of their cultural origin and heritage, that some of them stressed that they were to be distinguished accordingly even upon death. She mentioned that this was likely due to certain cultural rituals such as a belief in Feng Shui or various Chinese superstitions, when it comes to the place of burial.

Prof Zeng Ling eventually discussed practices during the Qiu Ji Autumn Festival of Remembrance, where it was customary for the Chinese community to pay their respects at the Main Grave before paying respects to other graves. She also mentioned several other customs practised by the Chinese community such as ancestral worship, as an act of remembering one’s forefathers from the land of one’s ancestors, as a practice which has been assimilated to South East Asian Chinese communities. She noted that this practice varied according to the different groups and such variances were as a result of cultural assimilation.

Prof Zeng Ling concluded with her experience of making friends during her researched and how it had enriched her knowledge of the Chinese community. She welcomed the audience to an open discussion and Q&A following the seminar.