My Mixed Heritage: Memorializing Events

A series of memories juxtaposing family traditions of Chinese (Wong) and Southern (Fowler) roots. The purpose is to stimulate ideas and conversations about family memories and how they are constructed, modified, and passed on from one generation to another, within or across cultures.

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Contributed by Rebecca Lynn Fowler Wong

My daddy’s funeral was a study in kindness to me.  It offered every good thing about the burial of a southern man who had served his country and strove for happiness and fairness in life. His old friends were there, some I’d only heard of and never met, Lonnie Corn, Fuzzy Blackwell to name a few. One old friend, Charles Karens had only happened to see the obituary that morning so he dropped everything and immediately drove 90 miles to be there. We were so moved. His long time hunting buddies, Glenn and Joe were like two brothers to him and they sat in somber silence. Daddy’s death had been sudden and nobody knew of his tragic brush with encephalitis.

The visitation the night before had taught me so much about how much the amazing support of the community really means. You read about that, see it in movies and Hallmark cards, hear people speak of how they were lifted up by the community but I never really understood it until it happened to me.

As my sisters and I stood in the receiving line with dad’s wife, Lynn, I saw the very long line of people standing in line to say a few kind words to us. The visitation was 6 – 8pm but people were there from 5:45 to 8:20. I was particularly moved by a couple of my cousins who came who were sort of outside of the family. One had married way down and we’d never met her husband but she came along with her sister who had been the wild child in our huge family for as long as I’d known her. A few others had challenging health problems and the long stand in line was very hard on them but they stood. My little sister, Bonnie and her husband Fred seemed to have at least 30 guests there just to support them. These people had never met my father but they were members of her church and they came out in droves to support and lift up a beloved member of their flock. I was impressed with their kindness. Bonnie’s young son was sad but also curious and he asked her the day after daddy’s passing, “Hey, is Grandpa being judged yet?”

At the funeral, daddy’s preacher, Jeff started out his talk with how he considered daddy a buddy. Daddy would’ve liked that. Songs well known throughout the south were performed, first was ‘Amazing Grace’, sung by his great-grandaughter, Tristan, then ‘How Great Thou Art’ was played on the piano.

Preacher Jeff spoke of daddy’s legacy as being ‘Us’. I felt that he was speaking of us 4 daughters. He spoke of seeing daddy’s face out in his congregation and how he had loved the look on daddy’s face and he took great comfort in knowing that daddy had been a Christian. He assured us that our daddy had loved us and that he also knew we had loved him. This was very comforting because our relationship with daddy had been rocky many times (especially with me who had moved to the other side of the world).  The service was touching and there were several muffled ‘Amens’ and ‘Hallelujahs’  called out during it.

Preacher Jeff ended the service with a surprising invitation for anyone who was considering dedicating their life to Christ that right now would be a good time as it would honor daddy. I’ve never ever heard of an alter call taking place at a funeral and I don’t know anyone who would want to remember that the day they decided to follow Jesus was announced at a funeral. After his unexpected alter call I was very relieved that he didn’t bring up fire and brimstone.

The Army song was played to honor my daddy’s service “ Over hill, Over dale we will hit the dusty trail” . . . . Daddy had been very proud of his military service. This was very fitting.

We got into the limousines and headed out to the burial site where several older army veterans were waiting. Our family sat under the tent as my cousins and a couple of nephews carried in daddy’s coffin. The cousins are like my brothers and when our eyes met, we had so many memories between us. All the funny, and crazy things my daddy had done over the years. It was hard not to smile at my cousins and I can’t say whether I did or not.

The flag was folded in a beautifully precise way and handed to Lynn, my father’s wife. The guns fired into the air, there were a few short words spoken by Preacher Jeff and followed by a prayer and it was over.

It was after this that we were able to meet the people who couldn’t make it to the service but came to the burial site. So many loved ones who came together even if we weren’t in good standing, came to mourn together. The most moving was the son of my father’s best friend, Sonny Phillips. One son had come to the visitation the night before and one came to the funeral. Sonny himself had emphysema and was too sick to travel. My ex brother in law also came and spoke of all he had learned from daddy and how my father had been like a father to him.

We ended the day just as we had started the several days of funeral activities – with food. In the south people will take turns bringing food to you for about 2 to 4 weeks depending on the circumstances. Community means a lot there. I hope that when I am buried my children will find the comfort from the community as I did from my beloved, caring South.

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My paternal grandfather, Yeh Yeh, passed away in 2002 at the young age of 85. Though I had experienced the passing of a good friend and a teacher in my childhood, this was my first experience with a beloved family member.

A Chinese funeral ceremony was held for my Yeh Yeh. Our family, possibly influenced by Western tradition with interracial or intercultural marriages among most of my father’s siblings, did not perform all of the traditions according to custom. Usually, when there is a passing in the family, it is common for all statues of deities in the household to be covered with red paper, for mirrors to be removed, and to have a white piece of cloth hung over the main entrance of the house. In many circumstances, a gong is placed to the left of the doorway if the deceased is male and to the right if the deceased is female.

About a week before the ceremony, the Wong family set up a website where Yeh Yeh’s obituary was posted. On the website was an area for us to leave comments: an informal way of taking a moment to reflect and pay respects to him. Interestingly, these comments were first posted by the more westernized members of our family: my mother, our cousins who had grown up in the States, my sister and myself. We posted about the fond memories we had with Yeh Yeh and wished him well in his final resting place. Soon after, my father and his siblings posted comments that began with a few negative events from their upbringing. The comments made me feel a little uncomfortable at first because I guess we had different ideas of how to say goodbye. At the end of each post, however, they concluded with loving words and fond memories. It was interesting to me that they would be so open on a public website about how they felt about their dad, particularly because I thought Chinese people - or at least this Chinese family - did not like to talk about past negative experiences. At the same time, because my father and his siblings wrestled with some of the challenges in their upbringing, I wonder if they gained more closure in these digital goodbyes than those of us who only talked about the good.

The details of the funeral are blurry to me. My sister and I had never experienced a Chinese funeral, we hadn’t even watched them on TV. The funeral was held in a large room near where my father worked. The streets leading to the funeral parlor were always lined with beautiful flower decorations, intricately woven together in perfect shape, arrangement and color combinations (see picture above). I had always admired them from car and bus windows, but this time it was different as they paved the way to our final goodbye.

Stepping into the large auditorium, there were pews on either side of the entrance – just like in a Western wedding ceremony. The pews stopped halfway down the room. At the other end was a large metal machine that resembled a furnace. If I recall correctly, Yeh Yeh’s picture was there – a really nice picture of him in a brown suit before he’d begun losing weight in this past decade. My aunts and uncles (dad’s siblings) had all flown back to Hong Kong from the States and were lined at the door. My sister and I were not expected to join the line, so we didn’t really know what to do. There didn’t seem to be a formal ceremony or eulogy like we’d seen in Western funerals. Instead, family and friends came in to pay their respects. All the aunts and uncles welcomed guests at the door; hospitality is key in Chinese culture. Guests would then walk down the aisle and pay their respects to Yeh Yeh, bowing three times and then finding a seat.

They sat in silence.

Chinese people, in general, value quality time with one another. I wonder if these few minutes of silence in the wooden pews before Yeh Yeh was a way to express love and affection to him. After a few moments, guests would stand up - some with tears streaming down their faces - return to the center, bow three times and then leave, shaking the hands of my uncles and aunties as they left.

Though my sister and I didn’t understand the traditions and rituals very well, we loved Yeh Yeh and wanted to pay our respects. We also couldn’t sit there in silence. To our relief, we were tasked with a very important responsibility, which was to feed (fake) money into the furnace as an offering of wealth and prosperity to Yeh Yeh in his place of rest. In a way, it was nice for us to have a job like this because it was fun and it also allowed us to feel like we were contributing.

At the end of the day, Yeh Yeh was cremated and his ashes returned home with us until we found a space for his final resting place. Cemeteries are multi-storey structures in Hong Kong that are overcrowded with long waiting lists. We placed him in a place of the house that faced the beautiful ocean – a view he loved to see and a place special to him as he was involved in the cargo trade. Today, he rests in a beautiful building that faces the harbor. On the other side of the harbor is our home. We take great comfort in knowing that Yeh Yeh is always looking out for us.