March 28, 2010
Foochow Funeral Rites and Customs : Hwang Lian
Relatives and friends can bring another kind of gifts for the grieving family to indicate their compassionate condolences and respect. Apart from these individuals or families associations of which the deceased's family members (and in-laws) are members would also send these as tokens of their appreciation for the dearly departed who had contributed a lot to them in his/her life time in terms of cash donations or holding of certain positions. They would bring the correct length of materials (most shops in Sibu like Ta Sing would know how much to cut) to the bereaved family home and the clan committee or family would make the frame for the funeral procession. The materials are usually cut in the old Chinese measure : suok chien (the Chinese yard) and suok suk (one and a quarter Chinese yard) etc...
(By the normal measurement the material is not enough to make a whole blouse which requires 2 yards or at least l.5 meters).
The materials would be framed up like in the photo..Hwang means "across" and lian means words or phrases written (on material/cloth.) The words would announce the deceased as "female" or "male" as the appropriate phrase would indicate "Great Mother Great Teacher" or "Responsible Wife Dutiful Mother" and I like this..:" Gracious lady Good family" or "Good Teacher of Good Children" etc.....a calligraphist would often be invited to write these gracious phrases (four characters). On lookers would read from the words and understand the significance of the funeral. The one who had passed away had done well for the community and the family in particular.
When I was young and studying at the Methodist Primary School I would learn all those words pasted on the cloth. The Hwang Lian would be lined up on the road in front of the church and some would even recline on the bamboo hedges. The bell of Masland church would toll slowly and sadly announcing a funeral and we would all be alerted to look out of our classroom windows. The white mourners would slowly and respectfully walk into the church. What frightened me in those days were the gunny sack head coverings . The pianist would play mournful tunes or hymns slowly...and then the service would begin. I really liked some of my teachers who allowed us to look for a while. I was never scolded for losing my attention in class. I supposed the teachers knew that I was thinking about the funeral and death.
And I remember I had said to myself more than once :"So much material in the procession!". In my young age I had measured the dead person's worth by the yardage! Perhaps that was the essence of this Hwang Lian in those days.
When the funeral is over all these special materials will be divided amongst the children and relatives as parting gifts. The volunteers would also be presented with some to take home as tokens of thanks. I remember when my grandfather passed away there were a lot of these hwang lian and we small children were asked to fold them. I did try to remove the paper squares but the glue was so good that the paper was stuck there for many years. Eventually my mother used up all her share of materials for making "stomach covers" or Too Heng or pillow cases. I had one skirt made in my Home Science class and indeed wore the skirt for many years. This shows how small I was then. I think many of my cousins cut small pieces up to make quilts and "hidden" pockets in their blouses. The older generations would consider these materials very "blessed".
The words would praise the deceased and would be part of the funeral. How long the Foochows of Sibu will keep this tradition? We will wait and see how strong the clan associations will maintain it and the attitude of each Foochow family.
Perhaps not many of the English and BM educated generation may want to continue this. What do you readers think?