There have been many times when I wished my knowledge in Chinese traditions matched my physical appearance. However, truth is that I grew up in a country town in South Western Victoria and didn’t really have strong interactions with my Chinese heritage, except visiting my grandparents and relatives on school holidays. This past weekend presented one of those “learning” opportunities. Since I arrived in Melbourne a few months ago, my mother had been constantly reminding me that this Sunday was the day that my father’s name plaque was being put into the ancestral memorial hall at the Chinese temple. This was my first visit to the See Yup temple in South Melbourne. I didn’t even know that it existed or what to expect. Should I be ashamed to admit that the only Chinese temples I’ve visited were the touristy ones in Hong Kong, China and possibly, San Francisco?
The See Yup temple in located in a beautiful neoclassical building designed by George Wharton and is recognized by the Australian Heritage Commission for it’s historical and architectural importance. It was built in 1866 by the See Yup society, which is a Chinese society which represents the migrants from four districts (Xinhui, Taishan, Kaiping and Enping) in the Southern Guangdong province of China. The temple incorporates traditional beliefs from Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism and remains as a functioning temple and social centre for the Chinese community in Melbourne. It contains two altars for worship and three memorial halls. Memorial name plaques are placed onto the walls to commemorate the Chinese migrants and descendants who have died in Australia. Some name plaques exist from the early Chinese settlers who arrived during the gold rush period.
My father was born in a small village near Taishan and moved to Australia when he was 11 years old. He died earlier this year. On Sunday morning, my family visited my father’s gravestone in the Springvale cemetery before going to the temple. At the cemetery, we setup an offering of fruit, nuts and candy (and donuts since dad loved donuts!!). We each lit three sticks of incense and bowed three times. A large incense stick was lit and was brought to the temple under an umbrella to symbolically lead my father’s spirit to the temple. The eldest son was to hold the umbrella and the eldest grandson from the male side was to hold the incense (it’s a very patriarchal tradition). When we arrived at the temple, we placed the still burning incense stick at the altar in the memorial hall. The room was full with smoke from the incense and burning joss paper. Hundreds of name plaques were already hanging on the memorial wall. There was an entire memorial hall which was already filled with name plaques from my father’s district. My nephews were very intrigued with the ancient dragon’s head which was over 100 years old.