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Death and burial in Chinese Joburg

(Chinese Joburg)  ??  2014-06-06 09:53

White is for death. Red is for luck. Incense guides the spirit to a better place. Like all of us, the Chinese community in Johannesburg has to deal with death and burial. This process turns out to be a journey of the individual, through bureaucratic and language barriers, old and new traditions, and waiting…
(By Mfuneko Toyana,Wits Journalism.)


Johannesburg was a place of new beginnings for many Chinese people who arrived here because of the gold running beneath its skin. But inevitably, beginnings must have endings.
 
“You know this home is long-standing… it started with an Irish priest. They always said he was Irish from without, but very Chinese from within. He is buried in Newclare Cemetery [Chinese section]. He requested it.”
 
Inside the high, cream-hued walls with their twirling barbed wire and a bright orange sign announcing Hong Ning Chinese Old Age Home, Sister Maureen Laiyat bears all intrusions with equanimity: “You see, most of them have Alzheimer’s, they won’t remember seeing you.”
 
Alzheimer’s disease disintegrates the brain, like the burnt-out end of an incense stick, and gorges itself on its host’s memories and mental faculties.
 
Seated around a large rectangular table, in a rectangular room with an unwatched television babbling to itself in the furthest corner, greetings go unreciprocated – between residents themselves, as well as the interloping journalist in search of the details between the beginnings and the endings.
 
The week before, Hong Ning’s advanced-age residents, in the Jeppestown suburb of Belgravia, were lined up on sofas adjacent to the TV room waiting to get haircuts from a smiling nurse with buzzing clippers.
 
The residents insisted on no cameras, no recorders, and no notebook.  “We don’t want to cause any trouble,” said a man, who gave his name only as Yeun. He waved away pleas for some detail about his childhood as a grocery-shop assistant and then later a cook.  His wife nodded her agreement.


“Sorry I can’t tell you more, we are here just waiting to die,”


“Sorry I can’t tell you more, we are here just waiting to die,” was the most Mr Sing was willing to say, before lifting himself up on his walker and shuffling out the door, up the ascending walkway, leaving “Frail Care” behind him.
 
Another Mr Sing, who also refused to give his first name, reluctantly posed for a picture after gentle coaxing by his daughter, who was there to visit the old man.
 
“You see, I’m so ugly,” he joked. Both arms wrapped in bandages from fingertips to elbows, he was seated in a low chair in his narrow room. Today, he only peers back in vacant silence.
 
The tombstone handyman
 
In the maze of hundreds of headstones in the Chinese section of Newclare Cemetery, Chinese word-characters summarise entire lives in three columns.
 
Many of the Chinese tombstones in Newclare Cemetery’s D-section have passed through the hands of George Leong, or in fact began their lives as sentinels of the dead under his watch. Leong began writing tombstone messages for the Chinese community in Johannesburg in the early 1960s.
 
“It’s not my line of business, you see, I’m only doing it as a service to the community.” He points to a “K” etched in black ink on the cover of the flip-file folder, before adjusting the crutch at his side. “I created these files in 1968.” “K” is how far he is in his alphabetic filing system of funeral arrangements.
 
Inside the bulging folder, Leong points out the tombstone messages he has written in Chinese characters. Bold, black typeface and each consisting of three columns.


Chinese tombs at Newclare Cemetery. Photo:Mfuneko Toyana

“I sit at home for hours on my computer doing these. In the olden days we had traditional Chinese guys who used to write these [tombstone messages] with a paintbrush. But they all went, one by one. Now I am the only one left.”

Leong steadies his bent fingers. He slips one of the pages from its plastic pocket. But just as quickly as it appears, the page has disappeared. It is replaced by a BlackBerry cellphone. He is scrolling for pictures of the tombstones he has worked on.

Leong takes long pauses between points, a half-grin on his face as if considering the


“First we write the village he comes from on the right-hand side. In the centre it’s the name of the deceased. And on the left we write ‘erected by…’ If he has no family, if he belonged to a club or a society, or he worked somewhere where there was money to bury him, we put in that name.”



absurd logistics of burial and grief for the first time. These stretches of silence invite you to speculate on Leong’s role as facilitator, conduit between Joburg’s Chinese community and the afterlife.

A process of giving names, at the arrival of death, to those who sought to be anonymous in life? The vague line of inquiry strikes gold. Leong responds with a quip, masking a serious point through a jocular veil of cynicism. “These days it doesn’t pay to live and it doesn’t pay to die either,” he chuckles.
 
Leong has spent 40-plus years in the business of “fixing” funerals for a Chinese community he describes as “too inward” to integrate with other SA cultures, and shrinking rapidly anyway.
Leong jokes often and has a quick, boyish laugh inhibited only by a regular cough. He jokes about his own frailties, the result of a long-term lung disease and about his experiences as a tombstone handyman. “I was very sick. There was a time when I couldn’t get out of bed. So I went to China for the first time in my life, to get treatment.”
 
When he returned from China he was “cured” and ready to continue his funeral hobby. Today he drives a blue sedan, its interior decorated with scribbled notes, sketches and files jammed with newspaper clippings – odds and ends of the burial business.
 
“It’s an unhappy environment to be working in but I’ve been doing it for so long. I don’t want to let them down.”
 
Chinese traditions, such as burying the deceased in flat-soled shoes, burning incense, filling the pew with yellow chrysanthemums at the service, placing a silver penny on the tongue of dead, mostly boil down to personal preference, in Leong’s considerable experience.
 
“There are no fixed-and-fast rules. I always tell the family it’s what the heart feels,” he says.
 
“Today the majority of our Chinese come from different parts of China and therefore they need different things. In the end it’s a personal choice.”
 
He adds that “some of the undertakers don’t even know there’s a Chinese section at Westpark [Cemetery].”
 
Leong’s work typically begins with either a call from the family of the deceased or from an undertaker who deals with bereaved Chinese families. “I know who is more decent and who is easy to talk to.”
 
That afternoon Leong says he has an appointment at the “cop shop” to negotiate acquiring an affidavit he needs to work on a tombstone. “I have more chance of falling pregnant,” Leong predicts.
 
It is one of the bureaucratic hoops Leong says he has to jump through to do what he does, and it is this that seems to exasperate his mirth. “There’s a stupid law that says tombstone masonry is not allowed to enter a cemetery at a certain time. If a tombstone maker gets to a cemetery after two o’clock or when it’s raining, he won’t be allowed in.”
 
Leong again fingers the file in front of him, and inside he finds a price list. “Supposing 10 years ago the husband died and then his wife dies.” Leong points to the figures on the paper.
 
R74.10 to be buried next to her husband. R550 to reserve a place next to her husband. R1 300 to be allowed to erect a joint tombstone. Leong says a similar minefield of “surcharges” is to be found when dealing with undertakers.
 
“Ask any undertaker, have they ever had a default in payment. The Chinese tradition is to pay after the burial.”
 
He explains that the Chinese are always trying to cheat death, so it is bad luck to pay for the funeral before the burial. And when they do pay, they will pay less than the agreed price, “even if it’s only 5c less”.
 
“You see many of the Chinese won’t even have funeral policies or life insurance because it’s bad luck. But they always pay.”
 
Accompanying the dead
 
The duty of “accompanying the dead below and arranging them in their desired place” falls on the family and  particularly the children of the deceased, as it does in most cultures and burial practices, according to Chinese community members interviewed.


The burning of incense during and after the funeral, usually beside a picture of the deceased, is said to lead the spirit to a better place in the afterlife.


According to former chairman of Hong Ning Old Age Home, Timothy Sam, leading the spirit of the deceased home remains important to many Chinese.
 
In Italian writer Italo Calvino’s imagined city of Eusapia, a city that exists above an identical necropolis where the dead carry on their most carefree activities, it is the job of a “confraternity of hooded brothers” to secure this passage. No such brotherhood exists among Chinese in Joburg, not formally or one that is universally accepted.
 
There does seem to be a desire to carry the dead with them, to have them exist simultaneously in this world as well as in a parallel necropolis, as in Calvino’s Eusapia. It is there in individual responses to death and to this city, linked, invisibly, in some places by incense, in others by the colour red – memories of lives lived and desires for a life beyond this one.
 
The lucky packet
 
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My father’s house has many rooms.”
 
Sans incense, first standing behind a church organ before moving to a shiny oak wood pulpit, Sam convenes the memorial service of Mr Tan Lee Chan by reciting this scripture, the Gospel of John. At the entrance of the west chapel at Doves Funeral Services in Braamfontein, young Chinese men in dark suits hand out small, handmade white envelopes to those coming in to pay their last respects.
 
On the way out, mourners are handed a similar envelope. This time the envelope is red in colour. Inside both envelopes is a 5c coin.
 
The coffin is closed. Six men, the pall bearers, stand beside it throughout the brief ceremony.
 
The six men watch mourners walk up the aisle between the chapel benches, to a portrait of Chan, and bow three times. One of the mourners does not bow. Instead, he makes the sign of a cross. 

Finding heaven
 
Shaun Johnson lost his father to colon cancer 24 years ago, at the age of nine. “We knew he was sick but we never [considered] that he would die.”
 
Johnson was born in South Africa, the eldest of three siblings. Both his parents were born in South Africa as well. When his father’s father landed on the Durban shores from China in the 1940s, his surname, Fok Yui, offended the Afrikaner presiding customs officer, who subsequently changed it to Johnson.
 
Johnson’s father died in 1997.
 
“Seven months prior to his death he had a major operation…he basically had to secrete out of bags… His room was next to mine and I could hear his screams of agonising pain.”
 
Johnson and his two brothers grew up in Krugersdorp. They shared their home with their maternal grandmother. She spoke no English and remained very much Chinese in her beliefs, pushing for her grandchildren to practise these in spite of their parents’ wishes.“Some things, like pointing your bed in a certain direction, towards the front door.”
 
For Johnson, the “superstitions” of Chinese beliefs triggers memories of him and his brothers shooting pellet guns at talismans his grandmother would give them, as well as distant arguments over “tradition” between his parents and his grandmother.
 
When his father died, death intruded on the whimsy of childhood, pushing him into an unfamiliar realm where he had not learnt the language of this “superstition” nor of traditional beliefs or religion. “The irony is that, I guess, we were shielded from that [superstition] as children… my parents wanted to shield us from any Chinese culture.”
 
Unversed in Chinese culture or any other religion, Johnson had no ready means to process the trauma. Except that one the day in primary school he had received a Gideon Bible and taken it home. “The next morning after his death, we went to sleep in our parents’ bed. I woke up and I saw that Gideon Bible I had given him three months prior his death and he had signed his name on the first page that said that he acknowledges Jesus Christ as his lord and saviour.”
 
It was then that Johnson gravitated towards Christianity, its landscape offering him solace and a foothold in this world and, to a degree, connecting him to the next. “At that age I was like, who is this, what is this, what’s this all about? It really stuck with me, for about the next 12 years of my life.
 
“It gave me hope that I would see my father one day again, in heaven. I wanted to pursue what this concept of heaven is because, if he’s there, that is something to strive for.”
 
At his father’s burial: a secular ceremony with elements of Christianity and shades of Buddhism from his mother’s side of the family, Johnson says he found his “entry point to the afterworld”.
 
Johnson became a “God-fearing Christian” at age 23. He prays every evening, with his two young sons and his wife. “Take, eat, this is my body that has been broken for you…” 

(Please view chinesejoburg.com for more.)