Academic journal article Western Folklore

Through the Lens of the Grave Custom: The Public and Private Faces of the Western Manitoban Restaurant

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Through the Lens of the Grave Custom: The Public and Private Faces of the Western Manitoban Restaurant

Article excerpt

One week after Father's Day each year in Brandon, Manitoba, Chinese men, women, and children gather to perform a grave custom in memory of the first laundrymen who settled in the region - Bing Woo, George Chong, and Wah Hep, to name a few. Unlike Qingming, the laundrymen grave custom is performed at a different time of year and celebrates the Uves and accomplishments of a group of men who are unrelated to almost everyone who attends. The community, by all accounts, has been performing this grave custom for almost a century since it was first started by the Zhongguo Guomingdang (KMT) (also known as the Chinese Nationalist League in North America). In the past, only the men were welcome to participate, but this unwritten rule has changed in recent years and now everyone is welcome. People walk around the cemetery to the sites of the Chinese graves, bow, and then place sticks of incense (three for those they remember and one for those they do not) and fresh and plastic flowers in front of them. People pause and tell stories at a few of the graves, including the grave of Mr. C, who left his mother behind in China and came to Brandon as a child in 1905, along with his father and younger brother. He went to high school in Brandon and, like all the other Chinese men in the area, worked as a laundryman, and then in a Chinese Canadian restaurant. He never returned to China, married, or saw his mother again. He died alone without family in the area who could take care of his funeral and grave. The annual grave custom that keeps the memory of Mr. C. alive (and his grave free from debris) is followed by a large banquet at one of the local Chinese-owned and operated restaurants, and features traditional southern foods, including the coveted crispy pork.

By remembering the laundrymen the Chinese community acknowledges the contributions of the individuals who suffered through countless harsh winters and racism with litde money, food, or support from their families. With hard work, perseverance, and modesty they laid the foundations upon which later setders built. As such, the grave custom represents an important prairie tradition that is redolent with significance. Through the lens of this grave custom and its food, this paper explores the history of the Western Manitoban Chinese community, the public and private roles of the restaurant, and the importance of food and events in sustaining a southern prairie Chineseness.

Rural Chinese communities have not been the focus of Canadian studies and there are scant studies on the subject. Possibly, this is because the Chinese rural diaspora has never been large enough to sustain Chinatowns, Buddhist and Daoist temples, and large Chinese Christian congregations. These are the places and boundaries that have normally been used to position Chineseness (Yu 2001: 175). Unlike urban Chinese populations, rural Chineseness is less easily located, and is more fluid and hybrid, expressing itself through the public and private face of the rural Chinese restaurant in Western Manitoba.

EVERYDAY RELIGION

The grave custom and other private events of the prairie Chinese community may be categorized as "everyday religion." Nancy T. Ammerman explains, "Everyday religion may happen in both private and public life, among both privileged and nonprivileged people. It may have to do with mundane routines. We are simply looking for the many ways religion may be interwoven with the lives of the people we have been observing" (2007: 5). In my research, I have noticed that everyday religion is related to a many layered Southern prairie Chineseness and the importance of event hosting and organization (Chow 1998: 1-24) . I am not imagining a Chineseness based on Tu Weiming's analysis of Chinese identity rooted in Confucian thought and culture. However, Confucianism is one very important layer of this identity and is related to the significant contributions of the KMT to this region as early as 1913 (Kin 1913: 1383). …

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