My mother muttered, “okay, now you have to ask the god to let your grandmother come down and eat.”
This morning I woke up early and went to the columbarium with my family to usher out the old year by sharing a meal with our dead. It was a sunny, placid morning. My sister was wearing a t-shirt that said BONJOUR. (“I chose it on purpose,” she explained to me. “It’s so I can say HI to Mama.”) We unfolded ourselves from our cars and gathered awkwardly in the parking lot, one of the first families to arrive. Before us were steel tables under a tarp awning that faced the opening of the columbarium; on our left was the crematorium in which my grandmother had been cremated.
My Malaysian aunt is the one who presides at these rituals: when she reached, she snapped open the boot of the car and the ceremony began. She whipped out rice and curry-leaved chicken and dragonfruit, then smacked her head and said “aiyah, I forgot the huat kuay.” My mother obediently moved toward the sundry shop set up towards the side precisely for these aiyah moments and returned with the fat, steamed cake in question. My aunt put out the plastic containers of rice and stabbed some chopsticks into them, upright. My mouth automatically formed the words, don’t do that, that’s what you do for the dead, but I closed it just in time.
We lit incense sticks and faced the offerings. My mother muttered, “okay, now you have to ask the god to let your grandmother and your great-grandfather and your great-great grandmother come down and eat.” And I said, half in despair and half in jest, “how ah, can I say it in English, what’s the god’s name again?” And she rolled her eyes and said, “don’t worry la, god is multilingual.”
Then we headed up into the shimmery leaves and sunshine to the entrance of the columbarium, where my grandmother’s urn sits, yellow with newness. The inside is cool and dusty, floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with yellow urns, some adorned with red ribbons and flower crowns. I remember the yellow cloth my mother laid over my grandmother’s body in the ICU, to call the attention of the gods…
My uncle cleaned the lightest layer of dust that sat on her urn with a piece of tissue, the same way he wiped her down when she was in that hospital bed, with pragmatic gentleness. My sister cleaned my grandfather’s urn, saying that it had been a long time since she had seen his face. “What year did he die?” I asked my uncle. “The urn doesn’t say.” “2004,” he said, and I struggled to remember being fourteen again, and gazing at his darkening fingernails as his body laid in his bed…
Then we visited our other ancestors, people I hadn’t known. “Come! I show you,” my uncle said, a cheery tour guide, death made historically interesting by time.
My grandfather’s father, Charlie Wee, was first. Today I learned that he was a Peranakan baba who had been educated in English and worked for the British as a translator when we had been colonised. We had gone from Charlie Wee, who, in his photograph, wore a bow tie, whose Chinese name, Huang Cha Li, was a transliteration of his English one; to my grandfather, an unfaithful, hot-tempered, charismatic man who worked at a water maintenance plant and left my grandmother to raise my father and his siblings alone; to my own father, who had graduated out of secondary two and worked his way back to wealth as a renovation contractor; and then to me, a Chinese girl in Singapore trying to apply for a place in a PhD programme back in the West. I thought my narrative was a bootstrap one, intergenerational mobility, but clearly it was not so simple, and I cursed my own naivete.
“Where’s his wife?” my sister asked my uncle. “Charlie Wee’s wife, our great-grandmother?”
“Wah, I dunno leh,” my uncle said. “You better check with him.” And then we burst out laughing, our voices ringing off the ceramic containing the ashes of the dead. It turned out that Charlie Wee had had three wives, and that my grandfather had been the progeny of the oldest, but no one alive had ever met her. Instead they’d known only his youngest wife, whom my father and aunt and uncle called “auntie.”
Then onward to Charlie Wee’s mother, Chen Mu Ying, whose urn we cleaned, too. My aunt told me she had lived with her briefly when her father, my grandfather, took the younger boys up to Johor Baru to work at a water treatment plant. “She was incredibly strict,” my aunt said, as we went back out front to stand in front of our food offerings and wait for our ancestors to eat. “She had these beautiful kebayas, a silver belt, her hair tied up. A rosewood drawer and altar, antique, very beautiful. She pinched me a lot.”
“She pinched,” my uncle said, when I asked him later about her. That was all he remembered. A great-great grandmother’s wry legacy: a pincher of naughty children.
The sun was rising; it was closing in on 9 am. My sister and I watched as other families drew up and began laying out food, their family members’ favourites. The woman next to us had dyed her bone-white bob a burst of purple and pink. She took out a pale green tiffin tin: dumplings. But also next to it, a French press slowly dripping coffee. And next to that, pizza, wrapped in foil. Behind us pandan cake and in front of us bee hoon. All around us families waiting for the dead to eat.
My sister and I told each other what to bring to these occasions when we die. “Bubble tea,” I said desperately. “I want bubble tea. And xiao long bao. And Coke, lots of Diet Coke.”
“You on a liquid diet or what?” she said. “I want pancakes. I want McDonald’s pancakes.”
“Do you want me to pour maple syrup over the pancakes or leave it on the side for you to dip?”
“Siao, I’m dead, how to pour? You better pour for me and cut up the pancakes into star shapes.”
Eventually my father knelt in front of the food we’d brought. He flipped two dollar coins to check if my ancestors were done eating, a glitter in the air that came to rest on the ground in dual decisive clinks. I think that the coins are meant to show heads, a cosmic indication that the food had been imbibed and we could leave.
As my father did this, a titter ran through my uncles and aunts, jokes swapped quickly in Teochew. Apparently last year or the year before my uncle had performed the ritual and the coins kept coming up tails, indicating displeasure. Coincidentally, it was also the year my uncle had determinedly grown a long bob. “They didn’t recognise him,” my mother explained. “I think they didn’t like the hair. He had to keep flipping and flipping and we waited for so long.”
My father stood, coins in his palms, showing them around. Mama was done eating. We could go. We pinched bits of the huat kuay and distributed the fruits and piled into cars. We dropped my mom off at the station. I helped my dad enter his name in for a lucky draw at the petrol station and then my sister and I clowned around with Hello Kitty Instagram filters in the back seat.
But I also took notes, quickly, on my phone, of all that I’d seen and heard, my aunt’s stories, dreaming family trees and genealogical work, thinking about oral histories and photographs and archives, and setting everything I knew and could learn on a website somewhere before it is lost… here I am, then, whoever I am, the product of this smart, pushy, dissatisfied, fiery family, historicised and contextualised by days like today. Here I am, then, at heart the researcher, the archivist, the writer.