Hungry Ghosts

My parents on their wedding day, 1st April 1953
I am ethnically Chinese, for the most part (there’s supposedly Malay and Murut on my mother’s side of the family), and I imagine that, going far enough back, all my Chinese ancestors were Daiost or Buddhist, or a combination of the two.

My father’s parents were definitely Daoist, but my mother’s maternal great-grandparents were Christians — I’m not sure what religion the family was before that.

When my father, Lee Cheng Hong, married my mother, he became a Roman Catholic and was baptised Francis Philip. My mother, Esther Hong, was also baptised in the Roman Catholic church, but I never saw her attend mass and I believe she was raised Methodist by her mother and grandmother.

When I was growing up, I was aware that my paternal grandmother (Amah) disapproved of my parents’ marriage. I was vaguely aware that she did not like that my mother was a Christian. She was also disappointed that my parents had produced four daughters. I knew how important it was to the Chinese to have sons because it’s through sons that the family name and bloodline is continued. I also knew that my Amah was keen that my father take a second ‘wife’ in order to try for a son. My mother was, understandably, unhappy because of this, and her relationship with Amah was, as a result, always strained.

I felt outraged on my mother’s behalf. How dare my Amah insult her in that way! I never spoke to either of my parents about it though, and I don’t know if they would have agreed to discuss this sensitive topic with one of their children.

My Amah did not speak English and so I never had a single conversation with her. To be honest, I didn’t know much about her and I made no effort to change this. I was a very ignorant and silly child who had no interest in the Chinese language and other aspects of Chinese culture. Apparently I used to declare that I was English. Of course I did. I spoke no Chinese and, as a family, we hardly practised any Chinese customs because, I think, my mother perceived them to be linked to Daoist beliefs. We did celebrate Chinese New Year, but to me that only meant the family feast on the Eve and getting money-filled red packets (ang pau) from our parents and married relatives. However, I remember my father being annoyed by the fact that my mother swept the floor on New Year’s day because he believed she was sweeping away all the good fortune. Meanwhile, she regarded his beliefs as superstitious and unChristian.

I can’t remember what I thought, but I probably did view Daoist beliefs and practices as old fashioned. To me, Christianity was thoroughly modern because I identified it as a Western faith (never mind its origins) and I considered all things Western progressive and up to date. These thoughts were never articulated though, and Daoism (or Buddhism as it was/still is called in Malaysia) was certainly never discussed at home. However, I remember my mother’s scorn when my third sister, Christina, started attending a Pentecostal church and declared that she wouldn’t eat food offered to idols. (My mother considered herself a practising Christian despite not attending mass or Methodist service, but she thought the Pentecostals and their beliefs and fears were ridiculous.)

I think it was my mother’s fraught relationship with my Amah more than anything else that made me distance myself from my grandmother’s beliefs and my grandmother herself. Of course I was on my mother’s side and it’s unlikely that anyone, at the time, would have presented an objective view of the situation.

Knowing what I know now though, about Daoist beliefs as far as the sort of Daoism that is practised in Malaysia, mixed in with folk religion, Buddhism, Confucianism and ancestral worship, I realise what a blow it must have been for my grandmother when my father not only married a Christian and became a Roman Catholic, but then proceeded to have four daughters.

In the Chinese tradition, marriage usually means that the woman marries into the family of the man. In very rare cases, a man may marry into the woman’s family, for example, when the latter is of a higher social status. In my father’s case, it was a case of marrying into my mother’s family, not because of social standing, but because of religion. He didn’t adopt my mother’s surname, but he embraced her religion. This meant no longer practising Daoist rituals, including lighting incense sticks and honouring his ancestors.

By becoming a Christian my father would not have been able to fulfil an important aspect of his role as his parents’ only son: he wouldn’t have been able to house their spirit tablets after their death, nor ensure that they would continue to be honoured and cared for in the afterlife. I’m pretty sure that it never occurred to my mother what this would have meant to my Amah. I believe my mother was as ignorant as I was in these matters, and she probably would not have made the effort to understand my Amah’s beliefs, especially as she was probably received with hostility from the very start.

I don’t blame my Amah though. According to her beliefs, she faced an eternity of homelessness and hunger. Also, from the moment my parents married, my father’s father would have ceased to have a son who could honour him. My mother would have forbidden my father to light incense sticks to his father’s memory and to bow to his spirit tablet at the altar. I wonder if my father did it anyway, when my mother was not present. He may have done so to keep the peace with my Amah. I feel that would have been reasonable of him.

I now wish that I had spoken to my father about these matters. I couldn’t possibly have had such a conversation with my Amah. There was the language barrier, as well as the barriers erected by my arrogance, ignorance, and obnoxious youth.

I wish my mother had tried be more understanding, but I think there was a lot more going on there than a clash of beliefs. I will never know as the people in question are all dead.

A friend told me that Daoists joke about the Christian dead only having flowers to eat at Qing Ming (Tomb Sweeping Day on the 5th of April) or All Soul’s Day. They are referring to the fact that Christians place flowers on tombstones in remembrance of the dead in contrast to the Daoist tradition of offering the dead’s favourite food and also burning paper money and other items (which will translate into having cash and material goods like cigarettes, smart phones, clothes, cars, handbags, and even houses in the afterlife). It is also tradition for the Daoists in Malaysia to offer the dead a feast on their birthday and on the fifteenth day of the Hungry Ghost month (the seventh lunar month).

Are my paternal grandparents hungry ghosts? My father is dead and if I were to offer prayers and food, would they mean anything as I am not a male descendant? Could the rules be bent to ensure that my Amah and Gong Gong enjoy a more comfortable afterlife?

My Amah and Gong Gong. Not hungry ghosts, I hope. 😦

4 thoughts on “Hungry Ghosts

  1. M. T. Anderson October 27, 2017 / 4:21 am

    What a moving and fascinating story. Thank you for sharing it!


    • Daphne Lee October 27, 2017 / 10:02 am

      Glad you enjoyed it. It’s taken me long enough to gain some empathy for my grandmother and I feel rather ashamed of how apathetic I’ve been.


  2. Calmgrove October 27, 2017 / 9:14 am

    I too now wonder about the feelings of parents, grandparents and other deceased relatives. I wonder if it is that, as we ourselves age, it is easier to feel compassion for their different sensibilities, products of a different age and of beliefs?


    • Daphne Lee October 27, 2017 / 10:06 am

      For me, it most certainly has something to do with growing older and being more aware of the world. I was so narrow in my views back then but was probably not very different from most children and teenagers 😦


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s