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Chinese respect their ancestors

by Eric Jackson

On April 5 Panama's Chinese community gathered at the Chinese cemetery in El Chorrillo, at a mass at the El Carmen Church and at other locations to celebrate their Remembrance Day, or Tomb Cleaning Day. It's an important event for a society whose Confucian traditions include the concept of filial piety, or ancestor worship.

"It's normal for Chinese to have the blessing of the forefathers," explained Juan Tam the president of the Chinese-Panamanian Association. "The basis of society is the family."

Tam noted that in Chinese philosophy, death is not a definitive end, but merely the continuation of a cycle that repeats itself generation after generation. Members of a family lineage feel obligated to pay their respects to their ancestors in many ways, because were it not for those forebears, they wouldn't exist.

Thus on April 5, those who honor Chinese traditions visit the graves of their ancestors if they possibly can. And so it was in Panama City.

On one family tomb, a young man carefully painted in the faded black Chinese characters by which his relatives are remembered, as others nearby set off firecrackers to entertain their deceased ancestors. A few rows over, an elderly woman poured liquor on her ancestors' tomb. People burned incense, and false paper money for the dead to spend in the afterworld. Food, especially roast pork but also chicken, fruit, candy, hampao dumplings, cookies, fried fish, tea and even Coca-Cola, were offered to the dead.

"They eat, they drink, they share with the dead," Tam said. "Most important is a piece of pork," because the Chinese character for "family" is included within the character for "pork."

At the far end of the Chinese cemetery in El Chorrillo, there is a wall with crypts into which coffins are placed. After four or five years, on the Day of Remembrance, these crypts are opened, the coffins are taken out and the skeletons are removed and washed. The bones are then transferred into small concrete urns bearing the names of the deceased, which are moved to family tombs or community ossuaries.

In the El Chorrillo cemetery, fraternal associations, groups from the districts in Southeast China from whence almost all of Panama's Chinese population comes, and extended families maintain various shrines that contain the bones of their elders. An elderly gentleman explained that while families are extremely important in Chinese culture, since 1976 many Chinese have come to Panama from the mainland without their families, and that district associations and fraternal organizations often play the roles of caring for remains that are assumed by clans in the old country. The largest of Panama's Chinese fraternal associations is Fa Yen, which comes from Guangzhou province.

Juan Tam said that Chinese families remember their ancestors not only at graves and ossuaries, but also on genealogical tablets that are kept in most households. Those who are not near the graves of their ancestors try to return, and those who are far away and can't come back pay their respects to the tablets. "You have to do this --- if not, the soul is searching for someone," he explained. It's a matter of honor and duty: "He already worked for you, so now is your time to pay back."

The Chinese cemetary in El Chorrillo, part of which has recently been taken by the government to be used as a graveyard for non-Chinese infants (although the community is suing to get it back), stands as a mute testament to the integration of Panama's Chinese community into national life. Some tombs are inscribed in Chinese only. Some, with notations like "Familia Chan-Díaz," are evidence of intermarriage. Except that they are in a Chinese cemetary, one would have a hard time guessing that the tombs of José Martínez or Héctor Guardia M. contain the remains of individuals of Chinese ancestry.

The graveyard is at the foot of Ancon Hill, over which the Panamanian flag now flies. There was a time when all Panamanians of Chinese ancestry were stripped of their citizenship, and to this day there are many who consider that Chinese can't be "real Panamanians." With the Panamanian flag in the background, I encountered a colleague in the Panamanian foreign-language press, El Diario Chino publisher Jorge Cheng. Discussing the recent legislative hearing about a proposal to license journalists, we compared notes and discovered that neither his paper nor The Panama News were invited to express our opinions about it. "They don't treat us as national media," he lamented. But even though the politicians snub them, the Chinese community here not only has two newspapers, but also broadcasts in Chinese at 1180 on the AM radio band.

You can see evidence of two other communities that established themselves in Panama at the same time that the Americans die in this photo. In the background, above the ossuary maintained by Panama City's Chinese freemasons, there is Mi Pueblito Antillano, a city park dedicated to preserving some of the traditions of the West Indian community. The Chinese, West Indians and Americans all came here to stay during the building of the Panama Railroad during the middle of the 19th century.

The woman shown above offers tea, liquor, chicken, fruit and incense to her ancestors, whose bones are in the family tomb where she pays her respects.

Here, forebears are treated to drinks, incenese, flowers, food, and, a short while later, firecrackers.

The black spot in this picture is where the grass was scorched when the family burned paper money --- symbolically, because they're not THAT rich --- for their ancestors to spend in the afterlife.

© 2002 by The Panama News
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