I found the nailclipper. Relief is at hand.
My father once told me never to clip nails at night. He said it in such a tone I mistook it for a superstition. Like “never point at the moon (or your ears will fall off)”. Yes. Huh? Most of my friends have never heard of this one either. When I was younger (say, a coupla years ago), I used to marvel at the moon, imagining I saw the princess and the hare (another improbable Chinese legend that leads to much celebrative eating) cavorting on the Sea of Tranquility, and would excitedly and absent-mindedly point at it before realising with shrinking horror that I might have to wake up the next morning, earlobes under the bed. So, every so often, I’d do this little charade-dance where I’d point skyward, look horrified, cover my ears, and run indoors in tears.
The more run of the mill Chinese superstitions like “never sweep the floor on the first morning of the (Lunar) New Year (or else you sweep away your luck, presumably together with the rest of the kua chee (melon seeds, for you ang mohs) shells)” were seldom heard around my family.
We had weirder traditions.
I used to put it down to our being Hainanese, until I heard from other Hainanese that they never did ritualise behaviour as odd as our family’s. For the record, I’m only half-Hainanese, which affords me the ability to view Hainanese behaviour from a largely objective position. All I know when I grew up was that Mum was Hokkien, and spoke English, Sis spoke English, my nanny spoke Teochew, my brother’s nanny spoke Cantonese, so my brother and I communicated in sign language. Dad spoke gobbledegook, Grandma (Ah Por) spoke gobbledegook, as did Dad’s brother and his sons.
Ah Por passed on, aged 100, in 1999. In keeping with tradition (so the gobbledegook-speakers tell me), they “marked up” her age at passing to 104, four more years because she had “earned it” by living to 100.
That’s not the bizarre bit.
We had a Taoist ceremony lasting three and a half days at the old house in Seremban, where Taoist priests chanted in gobbledegook, struck gongs, shuffled around the casket, and then later, burnt paper models of a mansion with servants, a car with a chauffeur, a DVD player with DVD titles (Ah Por liked to watch the wrestling, so my cousins bought the paper player – at a bargain, I imagine), before which the priests actually christened (for want of a better word) the paper servants and the chauffeur with nominatively apt Chinese names – Shun Feng (safe journey) for the papier mache chauffeur, and some Chinese term for obedient servant for the servants.
These rituals done, and having parked my (real) car further down the road so it wouldn’t get licked by the bonfire (quite big, three storey paper house with electrical appliances and servants), we had a grand but sombre procession down the old road to Port Dickson to lay Ah Por at her final resting place. It would have been more sombre if not for the funeral procession band picking out tunes from old colonial songsheets such as “happy days are here again”. I think I also heard some Cole Porter numbers. They’ve got a good repertoire, this band. I’ll get their number if you want.
At the cemetary, I was expected to and had expected to complete some of the rituals, as I had been known as Ah Por’s favourite grandson. Then we were briefed by the priests on what we had to do, and I passed the buck back to my cousin (who was older, and actually the one who was supposed to do all this spirit stuff). The instructions were beyond bizarre: the Chief Mourner was supposed to stand on one side of the grave, holding a live chicken (!), mumble something, and toss (!) that chicken across the grave to the priest, who had designated himself the live chicken catcher. Then the grave was filled, and all was done. Simple.
I remember seeing my cousin holding the chicken, which squawked and tried to escape his clutches a few times, glaring back at me (for passing this onerous task to him), then aiming very carefully, giving room for in case the chook tried to fly, and then finally chucking the chook, which let out a god almighty loud squawk as he did, across the void at the priest, who, to his credit, managed to catch the struggling bird which half-flew to his left, which probably was as bewildered as we were.
I’m still glad my cousin did the chook chuck. I’d probably have stumbled, dropped the bird, and condemned Ah Por to an eternity without chicken rice or something.
I’ve asked around. No one else has witnessed this ritual, Hainanese or not.
If anyone has come across this, I’m interested to know if it’s a real tradition or if the Taoist priest was having a meltdown that day.
Oh, and the reason my Dad asked me not to clip my nails at night? Because it’s a little dark, and I might cut myself. Serious.