“Ching Ming, which means “clear and bright”, is so named because it occurs during a time of year when in some parts of China the air is generally thought to be clean and clear, and when plants and trees are at their lushest.” – The Phnom Penh Post
My host-family’s Khmer-Chinese heritage afforded me the occasion for supplemental sabbay (“joy”) when I was recently volun-told to join the fam for sain, or “offering.” Ching Ming festival, also called “tomb-sweeping festival,” happens every year during March within the weeks before Khmer New Year. It is about two weeks long with a big celebration at the end, much like the Khmer holiday Bon Pchum Ben. During the 14-15 days of Ching Ming, families of Chinese heritage visit the graves of their predecessors to decorate, pray, and pay tribute in hopes of garnering their favor and protection in the coming year. Cousin Sieklin explained only some of this as we huffed on our bikes through the rice fields to meet the family at my great-great aunt’s gravesite.
First things first, as with all outdoor Khmer gatherings, the able-bodied erected a tent under grandma’s watchful eye. A van-full of elaborate dishes, drinks, and other small goodies for the kids was unloaded underneath the tent.
Offerings included fruits of all shapes and sizes, vermicelli noodles with mushroom, baguettes, num ansom, duck egg muffins, crunchy peanut and sesame crisps, half a dozen boiled chickens and ducks, soda, fruit juice, beer, water, fish sauce and the traditional bright red, kvey jrook, a whole roasted pig. Oh, and uh, rice. It smelled as delicious as it looked and certain small kinfolk could not be made to wait for every last rod of incense to be lit before sampling.
Once the sandy grave-mound had been thoroughly wetted down, the many cousins and grandkids delighted in the task of decorating the site with colorful strips of paper. This is meant to represent building a protective and beautiful roof for the home our ancestors occupy in the spirit world.
When I and the rest of the kids had reached a fever pitch, tormented by the delectable aromas of the spread, the monks arrived in a van from our local pagoda. They were made comfortable and we all crowded in front of them for their chanted prayers and blessing. The eldest relatives sat in front to periodically, collectively lift various dishes of the offering to be blessed. We sat and listened and sat and sat and sat some more. all of which is representative of a family reunion with our ancestors.
As the spirits of our ancestors feasted on the essence of our offerings, pa helped prepare the paper ephemera representative of valuables our ancestors surely needed in the afterlife. There were paper smartphones, jewelry, watches, books, clothing, and lots and lots of money. These material goods were all lit afire and burned so as to transfer them to the spirit realm where they might be of use. Other families had also arrived at neighboring grave sites and were doing the same as a gaggle of village kids looked on.
Ready to dive into the food, my cousins and I instead helped load everything back into the van. It was promised to me that we would eat immediately at home. I hadn’t asked but hunger doesn’t hide well on my face. The tent went down and the food towered in neat rice-rafters just as quickly as it had all unfolded onto the landing. Sure enough by the time I biked up to my grandmother’s house, she and my aunts were already deftly hacking the prized pork into appreciable portions. I was thankfully precluded from the squabble that ensued amongst the cousins over who would claim the precious tongue and ears.
While Ching Ming is intended for ancestors, it is not limited to those who came before us but is also extended to those who we’ve lost perhaps before their time. I joined by great aunt, Mak Jiej, as she prepared paper paraphernalia to burn for her eldest grandchild, Sieklin’s older sister, who died of sudden illness about six years ago. Mak Jiej beamed over the pretty paper passport and various international currencies to boot, “So that she might explore,” said Mak Jiej. I was invited to sain again the next day, the site of rest laying right beside the one we visited that morning, but pa had already informed me that I had different plans.
The next morning I tried in vain to help load the rented van but found, per usual, that my every move was being stealthily corrected by a more practiced grandkid. With the last of my coffee tossed down my gullet, we all piled in and headed to someplace of which I had never heard. It was near Phnom Penh which meant at least two hours in the car (ample time for hair-braiding) with additional time for the traffic caused by other families also going to sain. It wasn’t until we stopped midway that I understood the intoxicating smell of roast pig was less so ambient amid the traffic and more so emanating from the whole pig stashed in the back of the van.
In Kandal Province, surrounding Phnom Penh, we arrived to a place called Kombol which had the usual trappings of a metropolitan Khmer community. But a few turns – one through a forest, one through someone’s backyard – and we were queued along with hundreds of other cars feeding into a spot just beyond my vision. Once closer, hundreds of grave-sites came into focus.
I have taken pride in my host-family’s Khmer-Chinese background for as long as I’ve lived with them, feeling that it was a rare distinction that brought with it special celebrations not observed in other communes. Pulling into the mass graveyard at Kombol – already choked with cars and crawling with elated kids and relatives – I felt doubly privileged, a part of a special community within the already somewhat esoteric Khmerland. We performed the entire to-do all over again, my ancient host-grandad delegating from this perch atop the stone marker of great-grandmother’s grave. He’s Chinese born and is our distinguished mouthpiece for the original practices brought in the 1940’s by his grandmother from China, where Ching Ming is thought to have been practiced for as long as 2,000 years prior. Grandad ushered me to the front to say my own prayer with my own incense and even pour great-gramma a nip of beer.
The ride home was peaceful, as it often is when all parties present are stuffed full of noodles and pork and cookies. I hugged the cousins, waved to the grampa, and walked home where I ate the last of the pickled green tomatoes dad sent. I pondered pleasantly about gramma Char eating rice treats and playing Snake on her new paper cellphone alongside my new, faceless great-granny who I hoped was more than a little tipsy on cold beer shots and rice wine balls.
Love you all the time,