Incense and Ancestors
I CLEANED BA’ S ALTAR EVERY FULL MONTH when I was growing up, sweeping away grey ashes from the incense holder, sweeping away last month’s prayers and wishes. My late dad peered through his black and white photo behind glass while I worked. Standing on a kitchen chair so I could reach the altar on top of the wall unit, I dusted the two red, plastic candles, each topped with a red light bulb to simulate candlelight. Each one stood guard on either side of his framed photo. I wiped down the red and gold incense holder in front of his picture, manoeuvring around the spot for the real incense to go and around the three joss sticks made of plastic, each complete with a miniscule glowing bulb. I always tried to clean the black singe mark on the middle plastic joss stick, never surprised month after month that the stain remained, but I always tried.
Ma made offerings to Ba and to all the ancestors. On death anniversaries and at Tet, the Lunar New Year, and every full moon, she made offerings of flowers and food. There was fruit if nothing else. She made offerings to our loved ones who had passed beyond the land of the living. Ma lit incense in front of Ba’s altar. My mom’s palms with cracked skin pressed a fragrant joss stick between them to her heart. Prayers on her lips, eyes focused, looking through the earthly objects into the spirit world. She passed an incense stick to me, the tip a ring of red and curling smoke. My turn to pray? I mimicked as best I dared. The ancestors knew I was a fake.
Ma never sat me down and said, this was how we prayed, this was why we prayed, this was why we made offerings to the ancestors. I wondered what other kids did. Did they ask questions? Mommy,
why do we have a Christmas tree? What’s heaven? Why do we go to synagogue? How does God hear our prayers? Were there other kids like me, rooted in the rituals of the belief system into which they were born, questioning?
I pieced together what I could. There is a connection to those who have passed beyond this life; a connection that transcends death. Cung is the ritual through which we connect with the spirit world; by making offerings, we symbolically share a meal with those who are no longer alive. In doing so, they remain with us. Perhaps the incense smoke opens the gateway between the visible and the unseen, where spirits know each other without form. The spirit world does not belong in a house of worship. Spirits live alongside us, waiting to be invited into our houses, to be called to our sides. This is what I grew up knowing. Knowing is not the same as believing.
I was in junior high when I discovered my own connection to the spirits of my ancestors. My sister was a part of the Saigon Pavilion during Folklorama, a multicultural festival unique to Winnipeg that highlights cultures and countries of the world. At community centres, high-school gyms and other venues, cultural societies and associations in the city invite us to step into their worlds. In one dance, the dance of the Trung sisters, my sister played the part of Trung Trac. Jen wore a red tunic and a golden headdress like a halo signifying she was carrying out the will of heaven. Her face was firm, eyes gazing beyond the audience and tension in her lips. During the first half of the dance, she stood still on wooden steps behind an elephant constructed of wood and construction paper, one arm bent on her hip, the other arm wielding a sword pointed straight out in front of her. A fellow dancer playing Trung Nhi stood behind Jen on more wooden steps behind a second constructed elephant. The elephants were painted in shades of grey, tusks ivory, with colourful ribbons down their backsides. This gave the audience the impression that Trung Trac and Trung Nhi rode on the backs of these mighty beasts. War elephants, ready for battle.
Their soldiers wore yellow tunics, red sashes and black boots, and held shiny metal swords. In this dance, the choreographer Co Ly had instructed them not to smile. For other dances, she usually highlighted the opposite. Smile during the fan dance. Smile during the drum dance. And smile during the umbrella dance. Those dances showcased femininity and gentleness, graceful steps, soft arms and long lines. A slow backbend. Shuffle, shuffle and turn. Swoop the
arm across the chest and down to the floor. In contrast, the dance of the Trung sisters had strong and swift motions. Quick and controlled movements. March, march, look right, look left, sword out, bend knees, brisk turn, blade thrust forward and advance the line. Not the movements of girls but the movements of warriors. This was war, a battle to preserve Vietnamese identity.
Jen must have performed this dance more than a dozen times over the week. There were three shows a night, and the dance of the Trung sisters was usually performed at each show; it was the Pavilion’s most popular dance. It seemed like every Vietnamese person knew the tale. When the emcee described the upcoming dance, the Vietnamese in the audience nodded their heads, “Of course, of course, we know, get on with it.”
Long ago and far away, in the land of my ancestors, the people of Vietnam prayed to be free. It was a tale told time and time again throughout the ages, both in the old world and in the new world—a distinct culture fighting for independence against a foreign power. The mighty Middle Kingdom of China had cast its shadow upon Vietnam in the first century BCE.
Two sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, fought back. After 2,000 years, the historical truth of the sisters has been intertwined so fully with myth, it may not be possible to tell where truth ends and folklore begins. In the most traditional account of events, they were born into a noble family in a province close to present day Hanoi in northern Vietnam. After Trung Trac’s husband was executed for insurrection, Trung Trac set aside her mourning clothes and took up sword and shield in 40 CE, raising an army of women and men. The sisters led the first major rebellion against their Chinese rulers. Trung Trac was crowned queen and established independent rule for the first time in over 200 years. She ruled until their defeat at the battle of Lang Bac three years later. There are different accounts of their deaths. The account closest to the hearts of the Vietnamese states that the sisters drowned themselves in the Hat River, keeping their honour.
The first time I saw the dance of the Trung sisters performed, tears welled up in my eyes and goose pimples dotted the back of my neck and my bare arms. Mighty warrior women. Mighty Vietnamese women. I felt this story deep in my bones, resonating through my blood. This was my introduction to the two sisters. My first glimpse into my own history. The Trung sisters were certainly not part of the curriculum at General Wolfe School in the West End. Growing up in
Canada, I knew about European explorers and I knew about ancient Egypt. And I knew very little about the history of the country where I was born. I was three when we emigrated, and I had visited only once before entering junior high. The Vietnam War, pho noodle soup, and people on motorbikes came first to mind when I thought about where I was born.
I focused on Jen standing stationary on her war elephant. What was going through her mind? She had just deployed her army to battle the Chinese, a greater force. Was she fearful? Was she determined to see this to the end? When did Trung Trac know she was going to be defeated? When did she decide to give up her mortal life? Trung Trac, channelled through my sister, reached out from the past. She illuminated my path through the mists of the spirit realm, highlighting the Vietnamese pull to the otherworldly.
Trung Trac has not faded from existence. She is revered 2,000 years after her death and she watches from the otherworld. Her influence and her power burn bright. The Trung sisters live on as the spirits of Vietnamese freedom and feminism. Today, they continue their reign from the afterlife in Vietnam: temples, shrines, statues, streets, buildings and an annual festival all bear their names. Whispers of their reappearance and intervention in the lives of emperors and ordinary folk alike have also been passed down for centuries. Throughout Vietnam and other places in the world where Vietnamese people have put down roots, people cung to the Trung sisters, offering what they have and praying for what they do not have.
Cung only happened once a month, but I didn’t know much about the cycles of the moon growing up. I was nervous searching through the fridge for fruit to eat. “Ma, have the apples been cunged?”
“No, don’t touch them!” she would yell.
I’d shut the door quickly and jump away from the fridge. I didn’t mean to touch them. Eating un-cunged fruit felt like the ultimate sin, like I was stealing out of the ancestors’ own mouths.
On cung days, Ma puttered around the kitchen before the sun came up, slamming drawers and clinking dishes with extra vigour to ensure her daughters dared not sleep in. She was the chef and house manager and I was the server and dishwasher. Three place settings at Ba’s altar. Three place settings at the dinner table. Five place settings at the coffee table. Each place setting had a bowl of rice, chopsticks, tea and Coke. And condiments—small bowls of fish sauce or soya
sauce, some with chili, some without. Platters of fresh apples and oranges and other fruit in season. The menu would change. It could be vegetarian or meat-friendly. Egg rolls. Fish maw soup. Chicken curry. Stir-fried noodles. Tomatoes stuffed with tofu and rice paper wraps were my favourites. And dessert of layered gelatin or cassava cake. I brought the food from the kitchen and did my arrangement. When Ma did her final inspection, she always rearranged what I did. No, the curry should be next to the fish, the fruit at the head of the table.
Once she was sure the ancestors would be pleased, she lit the joss sticks and said her prayers. We were allowed to eat only after the incense burned away completely. I sat in the kitchen wondering, was the incense an invitation to the meal? Was that how our family knew to stop their wanderings and come to our house? Or were they always with us and the incense was the vehicle through which they could consume the offerings? I always wondered, did kids who grew up in Filipino or Indigenous or Ukrainian homes in Winnipeg have questions about their rituals?
I opened every window and opened the front door, yet the incense clung to us, the air smoggy. Grey ash collected under the burning joss stick. On every inhale, I tasted the smoke at the back of my throat, bitter yet fragrant, as if swallowing a rose petal. I studied the shapes and images in the dancing incense smoke. From the redringed tip emerged a column of smoke that morphed into a dragon that was chased by a snake that was pursued by a war elephant from the distant past, carrying Trung Trac on its back.
Ever since the summer of the Saigon Pavilion, Trung Trac has been nearby. She became my role model; I was a shy girl who loved to read and play imaginary games and did not see myself represented in my cherished Lucy Maud Montgomery books and blonde Barbie dolls. She was a whisper on the wind after I closed the front door. She was a flash of light after I turned off the lamp in my bedroom. She was a heroine from the land of my ancestors. Powerful and proud. A thread wove its way from Trung Trac through the generations to me. She was not far, she was close.
When I envision their last stand, the Trung sisters ride side by side at the battle of Lang Bac, each one on the back of an enormous elephant decorated with war paint and with bloodied tusks. Both women have their swords drawn. Trac raises her sword above her head, wanting her troops to see she is well and fears nothing, to
fortify their hearts. The sunlight reflects brightly off the sharp metal, a flash of heaven on earth. Nhi points her sword straight in front, her hand steady, signalling attack. The enemy is advancing, a shadow stretching across the field, the earth shuddering under thousands of footfalls. Upon the grasslands, soldiers fall. Dark earth churns with hot crimson blood. Trac and Nhi are on foot after being tumbled from their elephants, swords tossed to the earth in haste. The rhythm of the river calls to them. Waiting to embrace them for eternity.
“Sister!” Nhi calls out to Trac, stretching her arms out to her older sister.
“We will be together again, Sister!” Trac responds as she reaches the water’s edge.
The Trung sisters have passed from this world into the spirit world.
I followed the thread that linked me to Trung Trac. Through her, I discovered the threads that bound me to my family, that bound me to my dad, in the realm of the spirits.
Ba passed away before I turned eight. He went into the hospital and never came out. My memories of him as bone and flesh are faded and fragmented. And yet, after his passing, I saw him every day staring through his photo from his altar. We shared meals together after Ma cunged. I saw him when I cleaned his altar every month. When I envision Ba, I see him in black and white as a young man in his mid-twenties from his altar picture. Even though I never knew that man, the man from the picture has been a presence in my life.
The veil between the living and the dead is thin. Family passes on and yet they remain. My family swirling around me, ghosts without form yet true to essence. A hand at my back, a caress on my cheek. Whispering to me, steadying my feet. Never so far from this world. Not peering down from heaven but walking alongside me. Slipping in between the veil of human breath and shadow existence.
A crack in the window, a doorway not quite shut, a lid slightly ajar.
Enough of an opening through
which light may pass,
air may flow,
water may seep,
and spirit may come.p