When my mom was a little girl in Hong Kong, her Por Por, her grandmother, lived with her and very much ran the household. With a team of young girls she took in off the streets in order to give jobs and teach life skills, Por Por made sure the house was clean, my mom and her siblings were fed, and that the spirits were were pleased.
No house Por Por ran would be complete without the watchful eyes of gods, spirits, and ghosts.
Blessed with "ghost-seeing eyes," Por Por cultivated an awareness of her home that transcended the four walls of my family's old creaking flat. A breeze on the stairs, a shadow in a mirror, the smell of cigarette smoke when nobody was smoking — Por Por noticed the dead and otherworldly almost as much as she noticed the living.
Perhaps because they were drawn to each other, or because ghost-seeing eyes see other ghost-seeing eyes, many of Por Por's girls also "noticed" things in the home. One of those girls was Ping Ma.
Ping Ma helped Por Por with the children — feeding them, taking them to school, making sure they behaved. Of course, good behavior in Por Por's house went beyond cleaning your room and staying out from underfoot. The children were also expected to behave properly toward the deceased.
Every year during a birth anniversary, a death anniversary, or the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, Por Por would instruct her girls to make special dumplings for the dead. The dumplings would be put on a white plate and placed at an altar to our ancestors, along with some cups of tea. (The Double Seven Festival is a sort of Chinese Valentine's Day that celebrates the yearly reuniting of two legendary lovers, Zhinü and Niulang, separated by the gods — a story that vaguely echoes Por Por's own love story with her husband, if you remember.)
Ping Ma would make sure the children properly observed this ritual. Whether they liked it — or were frightened by it — or not.
On the night of one of those special days, Ping Ma and the children would go down to the basement where the altar was and carefully place the food and drink for the ancestors to taste. Ping Ma must have had a way with the food and the ghosts, because they seemed to respond to her best.
How did they respond?
In the morning, Ping Ma would take the children down to the basement to see if the spirits of their ancestors had tasted the food. If the spirits had graced altar with their presence, there would be a little fingerprint or fingernail print in the food, the cups would be moved.
Once, the family put out some lo bak go, or "turnip cake," and Ping Ma pointed out that there was a tiny "baby toe" print in the glutenous texture of the cake.
"She said that our ancestor must have had a 'mischievous baby ghost' for a companion," said my mom. "Chinese believe that ghosts often travel in twos and threes and that the spirit of an ancestor may have a companion ghost and/or a guardian ghost traveling with them. The problem is, sometimes the companions or guardians don't like the living."
One morning, Ping Ma and the children came down to a mess at the altar. Food tossed about, broken plates and cups, cakes and dumplings "smashed."
I know what you're thinking: Ping Ma and the girls were having some fun at the expense of their boss's grandchildren. The same thoughts crossed my mind, and even my mom admitted that she thought that sometimes Ping Ma was screwing around with them.
But such a disrespectful act — desecrating a family's altar, especially the family that gave you a home and livelihood — would never come from the likes of Ping Ma. Fearing retribution from Por Por or the dead, she wouldn't dare.
Upon seeing the state of the altar and offerings, Ping Ma told the children that the companion ghosts had somehow been angered by the family; they felt slighted.
Frightened, Ping Ma immediately went out that day to buy some fancy roast duck to offer at the altar that night, along with more homemade dumplings and tea. The tempting aroma of the expensive food wafted up the basement stairs, making everyone's mouth water, but nobody was allowed to touch the treats until the dead had tasted first.
Early the next morning, Ping Ma and the children crept into the dark corner of the basement where the altar stood. "It was the darkest hole in the basement, where the altar was," Mom has said many times.
The altar and the food looked untouched at first — still placed just so, orderly, tidy.
But when Ping Ma looked closer, she saw some small indentations in the dumplings, fingerprints in the sticky glaze of the roast duck — even a small footprint (mischievous baby ghost companion?).
The offering had been successful! The ancestors and their companions had tasted the food and been pleased.
My mom's ghosts were then thanked, and the food was gathered up. The food that had been sampled by the ancestors was burned in the backyard as further offering, and the food that had not been touched by the dead was enjoyed by the Ping Ma, the house girls, and the children.
Mom admits that the whole production of Ping Ma, the food, and the ancestors "tasting" the food may have been theater — a way to impress a little healthy respect (and fear) for the departed, upon Por Por's grandchildren. Could Ping Ma have been going to the altar at night and pressing her little fingers into the dumplings, drinking the tea, to "stage" the altar for my mother and her siblings in the morning?
Does my mom think she did this sometimes? Absolutely.
But does my mom also think that there was something "otherworldly" occasionally taking place between the altar, Por Por, Ping Ma, and some visiting spirits?
"I just can't say, really," says Mom. Mom has often wistfully remarked that her Por Por seemed to drift between worlds. She dutifully, lovingly lived with my mom and her family, but her face was always turned longingly to what might lie beyond. She was an open person — open to kindness, open to despair, open to things that defied rational thought. She was open to belief.
There's so much more to this ritual than the ABSOLUTE REALNESS of it all. There's the act of reaching out to those who came before you, offering acknowledgement, care, respect. Por Por would argue that though we offer sustenance to the dead, it is the act of offering that sustains the living.
Really I don't see too much distance between Por Por's food and the placing of flowers at a grave. While we don't expect a response (necessarily) from the dead, it is still an act of respect; it's ritual. We do it for us as much as for the dead.
Whether it's flowers on a grave or dumplings at an altar, we still make our offerings.
And if our ancestors accept those offerings, all the better, right?