Performing Ceremony Amidst the “Yellow Peril”

David Ng
July 1, 2020

In late April the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver’s Chinatown—just two blocks from where I live—was vandalized with anti-Asian racist graffiti, setting off a wave of anxiety and fear that caused many in the Asian community to withdraw and seek protection in physical, social and cultural isolation. There was, and continues to be as I write this, a fear of being visible. The narrative imposed on Asian bodies has become that of the carrier, the cause, the blame for the global coronavirus pandemic. The last four months of quarantine have given way to a resurgence of anti-Asian “Yellow Peril” sentiment, including the “invasion” of ‘yellow bodies’ in the West and the imperative of anti-Asian immigration policies, similar to those imposed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

I’m a second generation settler living on unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam First Nations, colonially known as Vancouver. Both my parents are Chinese: my mother’s side of the family immigrated from Hong Kong and China to Vancouver; my father’s side is from Hong Kong and Indonesia. I continue to have family ties in those regions, as well as in California and Toronto. As someone who identifies as a queer artist and a member of the Chinese diaspora, maintaining ceremonies and traditional cultural practices is a way that I hold onto social, familial and communal bonds, and understand where I’ve come from—it’s a source from which I draw strength. Living in Vancouver, ceremony is a form of resistance to assimilation by the dominant (predominantly white and Western) culture, and sharing traditions with my family and community are ways that we form resilience and bonds. It’s the embodied cultural practice of caring for our families, showing intimacy and holding our ancestors in our shared futures. In mid-March, quarantine abruptly halted these intimate performances, which compelled me to undertake the “Yellow Peril” project.

“Yellow Peril” is a conceptual adaptation of Chinese cultural practices in the era of COVID-19 quarantine. An invocation of ancestral knowledge and tradition reimagined in three contemporary ceremonies, the project is a recalibration of the temporal relationship we have to our genealogical lineages and a reconfiguration of the significance these cultural ceremonies hold within my journey as a son, nephew, brother, queer, Chinese, Canadian (settler) artist. Exploring my cultural practices have been a way to navigate the intersectionality of my queer and cultural identities. 

Some of the traditions that my family have passed on are highly gendered. “Women” are largely tasked with “caring roles,” such as cooking ceremonies, and making soups and traditional Chinese tonics. When I was young, I was usually excluded from learning these practices because I am a (cisgender) male. I was told, though without any antagonism, that it “wasn’t my responsibility” as a “man.” My paternal aunts were holders of these traditions, and they would deliver weekly tonics that were customized for seasonal ailments, age and gender. Preparing medicinal soups was a way that they demonstrated their love, and it played a crucial role in holding my family together through tradition and medicine.

At the beginning of the pandemic, my siblings and I had to have several challenging conversations with our family about quarantine. We insisted that as seniors, they adhere to strict shelter-in-place behaviors and refrain from leaving the home unless absolutely necessary. We implemented a system for weekly grocery deliveries to decrease their risk of exposure. These were challenging conversations, not least of which because my Cantonese fluency is that of a 10-year-old—I can barely order food at a Chinese restaurant, let alone translate words like “pandemic” and “quarantine.” Far weightier were the venerated traditions of filial piety and “face” saving, by which elders resist being a burden on the younger generation, while the younger generation insists on honouring their elders and ancestors so that they can look after them in the afterlife.

It took several weeks for my aunts in particular to understand this. Finally, I decided to make them Asian pear and fig soup—a tonic that is good for regulating body heat in the summer—and sent it along with their weekly grocery package. This was the first time they had tasted a soup I had made and they immediately called me, over the moon, surprised that I knew how to make it properly. We spoke for about an hour—the longest we’ve ever spoken on the phone. I realized in that moment the cultural role that soup making and other Chinese traditions could continue to play during quarantine, and I thought, What might these ceremonies look and feel like under quarantine

Silkie Chicken Soup (黑雞湯)

   

Making medicinal soup is an act of care. Community “care” culture is not given much currency within neoliberal capitalist societies. In reality, caring is an act of survival and resilience meant to strengthen both physical bodies and social systems, as well as community bonds. As Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I see the “caring” act of soup-making as a form of queerness as well, in that I am “queering” the racial and political narrative of Chinese cultural practices for the purpose of serving our communities. Although the dominant capitalist system may view these “caring” practices as superficial and insignificant, they are in fact political acts of survival and resilience.

The first ceremony that I reconfigured was my family’s traditional medicinal soup. While contemplating the pressing health needs of my family, I decided to make something that would help soothe the anxiety and stress caused by the rise of anti-Asian racism and promote overall immune system health. I selected Silkie Chicken Soup (黑雞湯), which is made from a chicken that has white fluffy feathers, but whose meat and bones are black. Silkie chicken meat is a delicacy in Traditional Chinese Medicine renown for its ability to bolster the immune system. I innovated by adding fresh American Ginseng, which contains a sedative for the nervous system that also reduces stress and anxiety. I made three batches of the soup, and had them delivered to my family across Vancouver.

I considered a few other tonics when deciding which soup to make. I make note of this because my immediate reaction to the Silkie Chicken Soup was fear that this “scary looking ingredient” would perpetuate anti-Asian stereotypes around eating strange wild animals (i.e. the bat eating myth). Silkie chicken is, in fact, a common breed of chicken in other parts of the world, and doesn’t taste any different than the domestic leghorn or cochin breeds that we consume here in North America. I decided to go ahead and make Silkie Chicken Soup, resisting the temptation to subjugate my desires to those rooted in hegemony, ignorance and xenophobia. Reflecting on the social pressures that the “model minority” narrative has placed on Asian communities—the pressures to conform, assimilate and not speak out against the dominant system—I found resolve in the fact that medicine intended for the health and wellbeing of my family must never be compromised by regimes of supremacy or fear of alienation.

Ancestral Worship (弔祭)

   

Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist traditions influence how Chinese ancestral worship takes place in different Chinese communities across the world. Offerings of tea, fruit and candles are placed on an altar, while incense and joss paper are burned as an offering or prayer in veneration of ancestors. Offerings will differ depending on a family’s spiritual practices. Having grown up as an evangelical Christian, many Chinese “traditions” were seen as idol worship or pagan and therefore forbidden. This did not mean we didn’t practice them, rather we found ways to modify them in order to avoid violating Christian protocols. We would bow in front of our ancestors’ gravesites, for example, but we wouldn’t burn prayer joss for them, since praying to anyone aside from the Judeo-Christian God is a form of idolatry. Ten years ago, I began to pay closer attention to the tradition of ancestral worship, and started to practice it at home as a way to learn from the teachings of my ancestors and hold them in my daily life. Through these practices I have been able to weave my lineage into my art and activism, envision a future for those who come after me, and honour my ancestors’ dreams for the future, which I embody today.

My great uncle left Indonesia and returned to China during the cultural revolution. He was a clothing factory owner, who was inspired by the vision of Chairman Mao Zedong’s communist revolution, and wanted to return to China to support the building of a new China for his family. However, due to his status as a factory owner, he was charged as an anti-revolutionary bourgeois soon after arriving to China, and publicly shamed by Mao’s Red Guards. This stoked fear in my grandmother’s family who had remained in Indonesia, and this ultimately changed the course of their migration. Leaving Indonesia, they traveled first to Singapore, then Hong Kong, before eventually settling in North America. 

Stories of struggle are deeply engrained in the collective memory of my family. Surviving poverty in Hong Kong under Japanese and British colonialism required participation in underground economies and navigating brutal and discriminatory laws designed to subjugate the “native” population. Strict food rationing during the Japanese occupation is a traumatic story that has been passed down through my family. During the British occupation, two of my father’s eldest brothers contracted Yellow Fever, but because my family couldn’t afford the medication (access was severely limited during that time) both sons died at a young age. My elders shared these stories to convey the sacrifices made for my generation and the longevity of our family.

As I was conceptualizing how to adapt ceremonial ancestor worship to my project, mass protests condemning racial injustice and violence against Black citizens erupted around the globe, intensifying racial and political tensions—already elevated during the pandemic—to new heights. I began to draw parallels between my family’s history and the current socio-political movement, realizing that the protests are a temporal manifestation of our generation’s way of “dreaming” a better future for the next generation.

I therefore sought to centre my adapted ceremony on themes of “dreaming,” as a way of projecting a vision of a future. There are no shortage of debates or public discourse about what “returning to normal” actually means, nor why we would want to return to “normal” when “normal” wasn’t working. Just months prior to the pandemic (and the subsequent spike in anti-Asian racism), the successes of the films “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Parasite” gave the Asian community a sense of hope that we had achieved new heights of representation, and with it, implications of racial equity. The surge of racism against Asians has demonstrated that, in fact, these gestures of representation only reflect certain sanctioned forms of equity, and that when a xenophobic scapegoat is required by a dominant culture, those forms of equity can very quickly reverse. What this realization has revealed to minority communities is that representation is not enough, that we must dream of a world beyond the politics of representation that will champion values of real and meaningful equity.

The ancestral veneration ceremony is at heart a tradition of honouring those who came before you. The underpinning belief is that your ancestors are “with” you—that you have an ongoing relationship with your ancestors and you bring them with you. This is in opposition to engagement with ancestry as a linear temporality (i.e. ancestry as a “thing of the past”), which is common in European cultures. Chinese culture espouses a different alignment between generations, both in the terrestrial world and in the heavens; there is a relationship of reciprocity between those who are living and our ancestor ghosts who are in the afterlife.

I placed on the altar several offerings: oranges, tea, rice, flowers and joss incense. The burning of joss and fragrant flowers are “outputting” offerings—forms of communicating prayers to the heavens—whereas food and fruit (which are ingested) are offerings of alms that are “received” by our ancestors. In placing these offerings on the altar, I offered a prayer of gratitude for my ancestors, and in particular for their dreams of futurity. I lit joss paper and incense and said a prayer to my great uncles and aunts, my grandmothers and grandfathers, and the other ancestors who “dreamed” for the world I inhabit today.

Ching Ming Festival (清明節)

   

Ching Ming festival (Grave sweeping Festival) has been practiced in China for over 2000 years. The ceremony involves cleaning (“sweeping”) ancestors’ tombstones, offering prayers and food, and burning joss paper and incense. Quarantine made visiting the gravesites of my grandparents impossible, so I decided to think about ways I could do this at home. I felt anxious about performing this ceremony in particular, because in some communities there are strict protocols about when this is done and the way that it is done. For example, some believe that if you fail to perform the ceremony in a particular format or at a particular time, it will disturb the spirits of your ancestors.

Even though I’ve been practicing this ceremony with my family since I was a child, the process of adapting it for my project invoked a deep sense of insecurity around cultural knowledge that is carried in the diaspora, and the anxieties we have about how we claim our cultural practices. As I did further research into the Ching Ming ceremony, I discovered how it has evolved from region to region, community to community, and from “the motherland” to the diasporic populations. If this tradition, like many others, will continue to transform, I thought, how will it evolve under quarantine?

The main social component of the ceremony involves sharing stories of the ancestor you are honouring through praying (including the burning of incense and joss paper) and eating “with them.” This year in particular, I wanted to honour my paternal grandmother and grandfather.  My grandmother was one of my primary care givers, and she taught me many of my family’s traditions. She was also obsessed with telling us almost every other day to conserve toilet paper—oh, she would have many things to say about hoarding toilet paper during the COVID-19 pandemic! I had my brother text me a picture of my grandparents, since I don’t have a picture of them, and I imported it onto my laptop. I called my father and spoke to him about my grandmother and grandfather for about an hour. We shared stories about who they were and our fondest memories of them. We talked about toilet paper. When we hung up, I prayed to my grandparents. I thanked them for dreaming me into existence. I asked them for resilience during this frightening time. I burned incense to bring my prayers to them, and then we “shared food” together.


Reflections

This project began as a response to the resurgence of xenophobic “Yellow Peril” narratives that have emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a way to cultivate cultural ceremonies in a racial context that marked my body as a threat. The ceremonies I chose to adapt fundamentally involve reassessing and reformatting human, spiritual and emotional interactions under quarantine conditions. As I reflect on these three ceremonies, I also want to make note of the number “three,” which is a theme that emerges in this project. Three ceremonies, three themes, past/present/futurity. The significance of the number “three” in Chinese culture is that it phonetically sounds like the word for “birth” (). It is therefore viewed as a value of prosperity, in that the act of reproduction signifies the futurity of ancestral and familial lineage. 

Arundhati Roy writes, “the pandemic is a portal,” in which social, political and economic ruptures have opened up opportunities for dreaming and imagining new worlds. In the past four months of quarantine, I have already witnessed sweeping political and social changes in my community that have been expedited due to pressures from the pandemic. Vancouver has implemented (temporary) universal income, overseen safe supply for drug users, addressed housing needs for many people who do not have a home–amongst many other policy shifts. While this is not to ignore the fact that the sociopolitical upheaval has also been a way to covertly execute regressive actions (i.e. increased protections for resource extraction), it is clear that the pandemic and “quarantine” have caused us to ruminate about the world we want to birth——when we emerge from COVID-19 isolation. For me, adapting these spiritual ceremonies has been an elemental aspect of rethinking and reimagining the world I now “dream” for.

David Ng

David Ng

David Ng is the Co-Artistic Director of Love Intersections--a media arts collective of queer artists of colour. His current artistic practices grapple with queer, racialized and diasporic identity, and how intersectional identities can be expressed through media arts. His interests include imagining new possibilities of how queer, racialized artists can use their practice to transform communities. His work has also recently included collaborations with Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires, which is an initiative to put Indigenous arts practices at the centre of the Canadian art system through the leadership of Indigenous artists, supported by artists of colour.

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