I don’t know my great-grandmother’s name.
When I began writing my novel, I tried to find out what it was. I didn’t need her name to write my story, but I was curious. I knew she was a devout Buddhist who prayed at the Siamese Temple in Tambun Road, Ipoh, so my first stop was the temple, where I hoped to find Great-Grandmother’s ashes. As a Buddhist, she would have been cremated, and I reasoned that if I could find the urn containing her ashes, I would learn what her name was.
The picture below shows what the Siamese Temple on Tambun Road looks like today: a set of beautiful buildings with elaborate roofs built around a serene courtyard. Its architecture is typical of a temple, with a large airy central room serving as the main shrine hall and adjacent buildings housing the wooden tablets set up in memory of the deceased. (In case you’ve never seen a Buddhist tablet, here are examples below. They are the red oblong objects standing vertically side by side, some adorned with photographs of the deceased. Like Christian tombstones, the tablets can be elaborate.)
I visited the Siamese Temple with my aunt and uncle, and it remains thankfully smaller than other temples, which meant fewer tablets to examine. Nonetheless we spent a good half hour making sure we hadn’t missed Great-Grandmother.
To no avail, for it turned out her ashes lay elsewhere.
My search took us next to the Sam Poh Tong (Temple), the second oldest Chinese temple built inside the famous limestone caves surrounding Ipoh (see my blog-post My Ipoh). One of my aunts told me Great-Grandmother had been cremated there, so my uncle and I went straight to see the temple caretaker. He was a middle-aged man who sat all day in his cave office with a notebook, cooled by a whirring table fan which stirred the air from the hills.
The caretaker’s first question was what Great-Grandmother’s name was. When we told him we didn’t know, he looked at us through narrowed eyes.
“Hmmm…then, very hard,” he said.
When our faces fell, the caretaker added, “But, maybe possible from the year of her birth.”
Unfortunately we didn’t know the year of her birth, just the exact date of her death. I proudly passed this information on, and was surprised when it didn’t impress the caretaker.
“That, no use,” he declared.
How could the date of her death not help? I wondered aloud. Didn’t they keep records?
The caretaker looked at me as if I were mad. There were records, but not dating as far back as 1941. Didn’t I know how many cremations there had been since? “Come”, he said, “I show you.”
He led us down steps, past a murky green pond at the front in which turtles floated languidly, half dead from the Malaysian heat. On we went, towards a brick shelter which stood on its own in the middle of nowhere.
“In there-lah”, the caretaker said, pointing to the windowless hut. It wasn’t lit, so the man kindly brought an electric lamp which he hooked up. Then, wishing us luck, he left.
We went inside a dark musky room crammed eerily full of the ashes of the long-dead. It was clearly the room for the untended, and I felt the goose-bumps rise on my skin even though I’m not superstitious. The room was cold and damp and stacked from floor to ceiling with clay urns which glared at us from atop the wooden shelves. Amid the shadows cast by our dim yellow light, the urns looked identical. They were dusty, fusty, as decayed and faded as the building which held them, but some of the vessels still retained a haunting beauty; the Chinese writing on their bodies stood out, as if they could never be erased despite the evident lack of care. We searched for an hour, but my uncle and I failed to find Great-Grandmother. It was obviously not to be, at least not that time.
How is it that I don’t know Great-Grandmother’s name?
In previous generations, people didn’t address anyone older by her or his name. This is a bit like ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ in Western culture, except that the Chinese had forms of address for many other relatives (at one time, probably for every relative).
For example, the woman who inspired my novel was actually my mother’s grandmother, or in Chinese, my Big Maternal Grandmother. In Chinese, it is important whether a person is related to you maternally or paternally; traditional forms of address are as specific as that. They were intended not only as public demonstrations of respect – from the young towards the old – but were also a means of conveying the exact blood relationships between parties, so that any listener would understand the ties at once and have no need to ask embarrassing questions.
To give another example, my mother has five brothers, one half-brother and one half-sister. Her second brother is therefore my Second Maternal Uncle. When I was a child therefore, I always addressed him as ‘Yee Kow’ in Cantonese: ‘yee’ meaning ‘second’, while ‘kow’ is the word for ‘Maternal Uncle’. Anyone who heard me would then have known exactly how we were related. It’s like hearing an echo: you open your mouth to speak and what bounces back are your exact blood relationship, which family generation you belong to and your status within the family.
Similarly to ‘maternal uncle’, there are Chinese words for maternal great-grandfathers, maternal great-grandmothers, maternal grandfathers, and so on…everyone down the line, all the way to maternal uncles and maternal aunts. And then, there is a whole other set of words – for your father’s relations. I don’t know when this strict hierarchical custom began. (If you do, please write and tell me.) I suspect Confucius, though I can’t be sure. Such hierarchy must have served a useful purpose at some point, but by the time I came along, the downsides were only too obvious.
One of these is that no one can tell me my great grandmother’s name. There are still people alive today who remember her, but none of them ever heard her called by her name. She came from a generation which expected to be addressed as ‘Big Madam’ or ‘Big Sir’, even by strangers. And Big Maternal Grandmother, in her role as a leading female entrepreneur in her town, demanded and received, justifiably, the respect that was her due. As a result, her real name remains a mystery.
For a Western reader, the traditional Chinese form of address may actually be a saving grace. All of the characters in my novel address their older relatives according to their familial relationship, such as ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Second Sister’. This relieves the reader of the need to remember a great many Chinese names (see my blog-post What’s in a Chinese Name?). Alas, traditional forms of address were used only for people who were older; those who were peers or younger were called by name (which still means a healthy dose of Chinese names in my story).
How did my great grandmother end up in the room for the untended dead? This, sadly, is one of the results of our cultural loss. Big Maternal Grandmother sent her sons to a leading mission school, where they learnt to speak English and adopted Western culture. Her sons also took on the religion of the West, Christianity, or alternatively, became non-religious. Only the wife of her third son – my Third Maternal Grandaunt – remained a Buddhist, and it therefore fell on this good woman to look after Great-Grandmother’s urn and ashes. When Third Maternal Grandaunt passed away, Great-Grandmother’s urn stopped being tended. It has since lain at the Sam Poh Temple, cast into a dark room with other unloved urns.
Of course, our story isn’t just about cultural loss; my family bears responsibility too. One of her sons could have taken the trouble to re-learn Buddhist rituals and to look after Great-Grandmother’s ashes, as she would no doubt have wanted. This isn’t as straight-forward as it sounds; unless you’re exposed to Buddhist rituals, you wouldn’t know what to do. In any event, no one took the trouble, and I feel sad when I think of it. It’s enough to spur me to continue trying to discover her name. Is there a Malaysian equivalent to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency? If so, I would like to hire this formidable detective.