The author’s grandaunt Zeng Wen Juan (second from left), daughter Ang (洪), right, with relatives. Despite being half-Filipina,
Zeng had small feet, indicating her parents practiced feet binding. Photograph is probably taken late 1910s or early 1920s.
(Left) Li Hao Jie and wife Zeng Wen Juan and daughter Ang; (middle & right) The couple in later years.
Li Hao Jie’s funeral (above); the address of his tomb at the Manila Chinese Cemetery (top).
The author and his cousin Zeng Na Na and perform ha-ha-po-pi for Granduncle Li Hao Jie in November 2010.
By Eduardo Chan de la Cruz Jr.
Published by Tulay Fortnightly
Chinese Filipino Digest – December 4-17, 2012 ~ Volume 25 ~ Issue No. 11
In 2010, one of our relatives in China, my cousin Zeng Na Na (曾娜娜), visited us in Samar (see Tulay April 3-23, 2012 issue). On her last day with us, she said she wanted to visit the tomb of Li Hao Jie (李豪傑). Her father, Zeng Huan Zhang (曾焕章), specifically requested that she visit the tomb. I understood her request. Years back, I would not have fully grasped its importance. Why was it so important to locate the tomb of someone who died almost half a century ago?
Old photographs My sister Christine brought home some very old photographs after her surprise visit to our ancestral village, Eni, in Fujian, China in May 2005 (see Tulay Feb. 7-20, 2012 issue). Since she did not know any Chinese, the stories surrounding these photographs were lost in translation. We just knew our relatives’ neighbor gave it to her. Among the pictures were photos of a funeral. Who died? Was I related to him? I tried to find out by visiting the tomb itself. My search for Li’s tomb brought me for the first time to the Manila Chinese Cemetery (華僑義山). I showed the caretakers the photos but they insisted these would not suffice since the cemetery had gone through tremendous physical changes. They needed the tomb’s exact address. Address, I say? Why would there be an address for a dead person? They directed me to the Philippine Charitable Association on Soler Street in Manila’s Chinatown. Inside the association’s office were shelves holding large hardbound books of identical sizes and color. Dates clearly marked their sides. I guessed these were “books of the dead.” The place was dimly lit and looked gloomy, scary even. At the front desk stood a group of elderly Chinese men and women who looked, despite their age, like great protectors of the underworld. I felt as if I was in an inquisition during the Dark Ages. I showed my photos and said I wanted to look for the tomb. They asked in mixed Hokkien and Filipino why, how I was related to the deceased person and when the photos were taken. I explained, but I was not sure if they understood me, because I was talking in Tagalog, that I was doing it for the dead person’s relatives in China. But I could not give them the date. And I did not know how I was related to Li. They looked at me with suspicion and denied my request.
Number 64 I went home in frustration. To distract myself, I scanned the pictures to archive them. I browsed each frame on my computer closely, zooming in to understand each minute detail that showed Manila as it was 50 years ago: the fashion, streetscape, car models and even plate number’s format. Most of it looked like a world away, except for the plate number formats. It was the same and on the lower portion there was a number: 64. I began to inspect current plate numbers and I noticed in the same spot were stickers indicating the year a car had been registered. So, the picture must have been taken not earlier than 1964! Eureka! I returned to the PCA with this information and, despite the insulting looks and pessimism of the staff, I insisted on looking for the name. One of the staff, an old woman, took two large books labeled 1964 and went through each page starting from the last as arranged in sequence of the date of burial. It was amazing to see these records and how they gave emphasis to recording a person’s burial. Each page was made of thick paper. The deceased person’s Chinese name was written in large characters at the center of each page with details of the burial, all in Chinese characters, consuming the rest of the page. After 15 minutes, she finished scanning the first book without finding the name. She complained it was a waste of time, but I urged her to look in the other book. Looking irritated, she started with the second book, still complaining as she quickly glanced at each page. She finished through September, October, November and then December. Did I really make a mistake and waste her time? We were almost done with the second book. Then I sighed with relief: we found Li Hao Jie’s name! Back in the Chinese cemetery, I showed the address to the cemetery caretaker and he assigned it to a man. I was asked to return the next day. It was cloudy and nearing dusk the following day when my girlfriend and I went back. The man had found the tomb. As we followed him, I was awed to see huge mausoleums all over yet I had a creepy feeling of being stared at by other-worldly beings: almost every tomb had a picture of the deceased on it. As we moved on, the mausoleums disappeared and the tombs became smaller. The further we went the older and more unkempt the tombs became, as if they had been abandoned. After passing an area filled with burning coffins and paper-mache furniture, we stopped in front of a tomb whose protective roof had collapsed, weeds had grown around it, and the spot where the deceased picture would have been posted was now a spot of rust. The tomb marker where the name was written was hard to read. I bent down and read the name: Dy Ho Kiat (in Hokkien, Li Hao Jie in Mandarin).
Relations I told my cousins I found the tomb. Later I learned that Li was our distant granduncle and from then on, if time permitted, I visited the tomb to say a prayer and have it cleaned. Perhaps it is hard to understand from a non-Chinese’s perspective why it is important to pay homage to one’s ancestors. Even I cannot explain it properly. According to cousin Zeng Na Na, their family, particularly her parents – Uncle Zeng Huan Zhang (曾焕章) and Aunt Du Li Hua (杜麗花) – had been taking care of the tomb of Zeng Wen Juan (曾蚊娟), my grandfather’s cousin and wife of granduncle Li. When he came to the Philippines to earn enough support his family in China, she had stayed with my aunt and uncle in the same house my great-grandfather Zeng Xiao Mu (曾小目) built in Eni village, Fujian province. Perhaps Uncle and Auntie witnessed grandaunt’s difficulties with her husband so far away. In 2005, the first time I visited China, we met a distant cousin, Li’s grandson Li Liu Bin (李柳彬). I had brought the stencil I made from scratching pencil on the bust of Li Hao Jie’s tomb marker the previous year. I gave it to him, explained the tomb’s condition, and that I had already cleared some of the weeds off the tomb. “You’re a good man,” he looked at me with tears in his eyes.