Holiday honors ancestors and heralds spring

Updated: 2013-04-08 11:26

By Caroline Berg in New York and Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily)

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 Holiday honors ancestors and heralds spring

A mother and her son post a remembrance in a communal collection of family stories in honor of the Qingming, or "tomb-sweeping", festival during an event at New York's Museum of Chinese in America. Caroline Berg / China Daily

New York's Museum of Chinese in America honors the heritage, culture and experiences of people of Chinese descent, much like the Qingming, or "tomb sweeping", festival (on Thursday) unites families to honor and remember their ancestors.

"Family festivals have been an important way of staying connected to the community and also reaching out to families and kids who maybe haven't heard of [the museum] or may not know that much about the history of the Chinese-Americans," said Heather Brady, director of education at the museum in Manhattan's Chinatown.

The museum hosted activities on Saturday to acknowledge the traditional Chinese holiday and celebrate the arrival of spring.

Attendees were invited to embellish their own functional, animal-themed kites; sow parsley, cilantro and scallion seeds in take-home paper cups; hear stories from author and illustrator Mingmei Yip's new book Grandma Panda's China Storybook: Legends, Traditions and Fun" and share family stories through words and images in a communal collection posted on a brick wall of the museum.

"To my maternal grandma," wrote a visitor, Pamela, on a square yellow sheet of paper. "I know you are always watching over me and my family. Keep enjoying the 'yeen wo' tea."

Another visitor made an elaborate drawing of a television with a scene from Chinese programming and wrote: "Gramps, who loved VHS tapes and Chinese operas. Quiet, but ever watchful."

Over the past few years, since moving to its current location from a former school building on the edge of Chinatown, the museum has drawn 100-150 people for its annual commemoration of the festival, Brady said. The museum's most popular event, the Lunar New Year celebration, brought in 500 people this year.

"I think [the lower attendance rate] is because of the nature of the day," she said.

Although the holiday is a time for somber reflection on those who have died, it coincides with the start of spring, making it also an occasion for joyful renewal.

Taiwan native Shu-shia Sanborn was at the museum giving out handmade paper "guardian angel bird" pins and carrying a framed photograph of her grandmother, who died in 2009 at the age of 100.

"She was the most extraordinary person I ever met," said Sanborn, an origami artist. "She was always smiling, no matter how hard things got. That's why she lived to be 100!"

Sanborn has lived in the New York area for 30 years but still remembers the temple her family has in northern Taiwan. Every Qingming, they gather there to clean gravesites and pay respects to their deceased relatives in return for protection.

"Qingming is a very important day," she said. "We really have to appreciate what our ancestors have done to make our lives easier."

A mother in San Francisco said Qingming is an occasion for teaching children about Chinese culture.

"It is not only a time to bring food, wine, joss sticks and paper replicas for our loved ones left behind, but also a day for all family members to gather," she said. "My daughter has never been back to China since she was born in the US, and she speaks English better than Chinese, but she needs to be a traditional Chinese on this day."

Alice Fung, who grew up in Chinatown and has worked as an educator at the New York museum since 2009, said Qingming can be a sensitive holiday for Chinese-Americans.

"A lot of what you see here at the museum is built on the oral history of people from the past, and to get that oral history was not necessarily easy," Fung said. "A lot of people may have a difficult time sharing that type of history."

Telling stories about ancestors is very personal, so the inclination to share depends on an individual's personality and circumstances, she said.

"In some cases, you're asking family members to revisit a difficult period of their lives that they may not even be willing to go back to and share. For some [Chinese-American] families, they'll observe this holiday and do the traditional things, but they don't necessarily talk a whole lot about it."

(China Daily 04/08/2013 page8)