Monday, 14 October 2013

Mourning wear

At dinner last night, our conversation at the table suddenly touched on the topic of bereavement. One of his friends, according to my son, had passed away in the last fortnight or so and he had asked another of his old schoolmate to pass some money as pek kim (literally translated as "white gold" but it means "condolence donation" or a donation to the bereaved family as an expression of condolence) as contribution to the deceased friend's family.

It was good that he felt that way towards a friend. I suppose that after experiencing the loss of his aunt five months ago, he could more or less feel how the family would have felt after losing a loved one.

We gently told him that within the one year of his aunt's passing, there was no necessity to give the pek kim. But since he had already done so, well, just pay back the money which he was owing his old schoolmate.

There's so much custom for us Chinese to follow after the death of a close family member. Apart from the obligatory prayer days - seventh day, 49th day, 100th day, anniversary date and Cheng Beng - we are also not to get ourselves involved with the next Chinese New Year or even the making of koay ee (glutinous rice balls) at the Tang Chik or Tung Chik (winter solstice) festival. Moreover, we cannot attend other people's funerals, weddings and birthdays. All these are the customary taboos which were handed down to us from generation to generation.

I suppose life was so much stricter in the past when we had to follow all the instructions of our elders. Whatever our elders said or decided, we had to follow without question.

For example, even as recent as the 1970s, any one mourning the death of a close family member was not allowed to cut his hair until the 100th day was over. As such, the head could get pretty unkempt rather quickly. But there were boys in the 1970s who took advantage of this custom to keep their hair long while going to school, at the chagrin of the headmaster or disciplinary teacher who couldn't do anything.

Another old custom was that the direct family members were required to show that they were in mourning for three years. Yes, three long years. The first year, it was obligatory to wear all black in and out of the house, whether you were working or not. At the very least, wear a white shirt with black pants. From the second year, you can change to white and blue. Only after the third year can a person tnooi ang or formally don red clothes to signify the end of the mourning period.

When my paternal grandfather died in 1963, I was subjected to this rigorous custom. I had to wear black and white to school for one year, and fasten a small piece of black cloth on my sleeve. Only after the first anniversary was over could I wear all white to school again. In primary school, my sport colour was blue, and so it was quite all right for me to fasten the blue pieces of cloth on my singlet. I wouldn't know how my grandmother would have reacted if red or yellow happened to be my sport colour.

Then in 1966, my maternal grandfather died. We had to change hastily out of our third year mourning clothes of white and blue, did a quick tnooi ang, before donning black all over again. Luckily, this time, my maternal grandmother wasn't so insistent on custom and allowed us to tnooi ang after a year. Still, it was black and white until the 100th day. 

Maybe I should also add that when it was the turn of my paternal grandmother to die in 1967, my family only observed mourning for one year. My father was the eldest in the family by then and so, he made the decision. Similarly, we only mourned for a year when my maternal grandmother died in 1980.

I've always believed that all these traditional customs are only to show other people that we are traditionalists in the mourning process. But to me, it should not matter whether one wears mourning attire for three years or one year or one day; what matters more is how you mourn inside your heart. My father agreed with me on this point and when my mother died in 1985, he agreed to let us wear mourning colours for only 49 days. When he died in 1996, I decided that this outward demonstration of mourning for my family would be a week. It was even quicker when my mother's sister died in Kuala Lumpur several years ago and my father's sister died this year. We did the tnooi ang right after returning home from the funeral. But I must add that it was not done out of disrespect for either of the deceased. It was probably right because they were aunts and not parents.

Nevertheless, despite cutting short this outward show of mourning, my family still maintained the tradition of not getting involved with activities such as other people's funerals, weddings or birthdays. So while we shall not be celebrating Chinese New Year next year, it will also mean not giving ang pows away. My daughter and son probably won't mind but my nephews and nieces will be real disappointed. :-)

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