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Chinese tradition of Qing Ming draws thousands to Whittier cemetery

During the annual holiday, homage is paid to ancestors

April 05, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez

Even before the morning dew dried on the knolls of Rose Hills Memorial Park and Mortuary in Whittier on Saturday, hundreds of Chinese families were lined up outside the gate, their cars packed with bountiful offerings: fruit, noodle and vegetable dishes, whole roasted pigs.

The long procession of cars -- 15,000 to 20,000 are expected through this afternoon -- meandered up the steep pathways to the west side of the cemetery, where many of Southern California's Chinese are buried. In what has become the cemetery's second busiest day of the year, just behind Mother' Day, the families are marking Qing Ming, a centuries-old holiday honoring ancestors.

Entire families -- parents, children and grandchildren -- traveled from across Southern California and beyond to spend time with one another and their deceased loved ones.

By 10 a.m. sweet incense wafted in the breeze and elaborate picnic-style shrines unfolded beneath overcast skies on the cemetery's manicured lawns. Adults, bundled up in sweaters, settled on blankets and under beach umbrellas to pray and reminisce as children ran around giggling in the grass.

"Today is about love and respect," said 33-year-old Scott Tu of Alhambra as he stood alongside his aunts and cousins to celebrate his deceased grandmother, Trinh Tran.

"She loved to gamble," he said. "She thought Vegas was the greatest thing in the world."

According to tradition, the family cleaned her burial site and decorated it with some of her favorite treats -- red wine and mangoes. They also lighted a fire inside a tin container and burned fake dollar bills and other material goods -- some black slippers, two pink outfits and a gold watch -- for Tran to enjoy in the afterlife.

Others added modern touches to tradition, burning iPhones, Louis Vuitton belts and BMWs, all made of paper.

Rose Hills has long been popular for Chinese interments, said Nick Clark, its marketing director.

About 1,117 -- or 78% -- of the people of Chinese ancestry who died in Los Angeles County from January to November last year were buried at Rose Hills, he said. The west side of the 14,000-acre property is dominated by plaques bearing Chinese names because of coveted feng shui features, including high altitude. Some plots are priced at more than $1 million.

Small fires set during Qing Ming are not sanctioned, but "we want to be as accommodating as possible when it comes to people's traditions," Clark said.

Qing Ming, which is usually celebrated on April 5, has long been seen as a way to earn respect and good fortune for future generations. It is derived from Taoism, Buddhism and regional folklore.

There are variations of the custom -- some generational, others based on geography -- but the purpose is universal, said Xin Zhao, professor of marketing at the University of Hawaii.

"It's a way of communicating," said Zhao, who focuses on Chinese consumer behavior. "Loyal piety is a big part of Chinese culture."

Atop a hill with a sweeping view on a clear day, James Tseng, 60, wanted to keep things simple -- without food or fire -- for his deceased parents. He and his son and daughter swept the graves and then sat quietly, remembering the hard-working people who loved to spoil their grandchildren.

"He used to buy me bunches and bunches of orange soda for me to get fat on," said Wilson Tseng, 23, breaking into a laugh.

A few feet away, the Lam family put on a show for their beloved mother and grandmother. Vi Anh, 67, left 10 children and many more grandchildren when she died in 2005.

On Sunday, nine of her sons and daughters, along with their children, huddled in front of her grave. They had tea and coffee, pound cake, roasted pig and cantaloupe.

They knelt, brought their palms together in prayer and bowed to her memory. Then they began to toss the fake money into the flames. "We really miss her," said Tony Lam, 32. "We want to give her a lot in case she wants to invite friends to celebrate with her."

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esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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