Disclaimer: Though there is still a long way to go, movements that push for marriage equality have swept through Asia in the last decade. It is important that we take an active role in condemning homophobia and discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Note that I use the general terms “bride” and “groom” throughout in reference to my own experiences with my uncle’s wedding.
Since turning 20, the questions from my parents and extended family have shifted from “Where do you want to go to university?” or “How are your grades?” to “Do you have a boyfriend? Are you seeing anybody? When are you having kids?” and so on. While I don’t know how to respond to their questions, I’ll admit that I often think about getting married.
My parents are from Malaysia and Singapore. This means I not only imagine wearing a white lace ball gown, but I also see myself walking down a banquet hall adorned with glowing red paper lanterns and walls that shine with golden Chinese characters which promise good fortune.
Back in 2013 when my uncle got married, I was fortunate enough to get to witness some of our unique wedding traditions in action that I hope to repeat when it’s finally my turn. From the seemingly wacky to the traditional, each ritual emphasizes the importance of family and promises a prosperous future.
Starting with the date of the wedding, it is a fairly common practice for couples to seek the advice of a fortune teller monk or feng shui master to choose an auspicious date based on the couple’s zodiac signs and birthday details. The lunar month of March is considered an unlucky time to get married because it is the month of the Qingming festival, also known as “Tomb Sweeping Day,” that honors deceased relatives. Generally, from my experience, any talk about death — even as a lighthearted joke and especially on special occasions — is highly taboo and likely warrants you stern or horrified looks and might even put you at risk for being the subject of the next neighborhood aunties’ tea group.
Likewise, couples might avoid the lunar month of July because of the Hungry Ghost Festival, in which it is believed that the gates of the afterlife are opened up for spirits to roam. Lucky dates include the numbers eight and nine because their pronunciations in Chinese are similar to the words “prosper” and “long-lasting,” respectively. For example, my parents got married on the 19th in the year 1999.
A couple days before my uncle’s wedding, the An Chuang, loosely translated to “bed-setting,” took place. During this ritual, the groom’s parents and grandparents will make the matrimonial bed with new sheets and blankets in a lucky color — typically red or pink to represent the start of a new life. This job might also be undertaken by a “lady of good fortune,” someone who is happily married and has many healthy children and grandchildren, as she is said to pass on the good fortune. The bed will then also be decorated with dried fruits to represent a “sweet” marriage as well as other grains and nuts. Children might also be invited to roll and jump on the bed to bless the couple with fertility. My brother and I were assigned this job in 2013. The best part? My aunt and uncle gave everyone who participated in the ritual lucky red envelopes filled with money, which are known as “hong bao” in Chinese.
Based on the birthdate of the bride and groom, going down to the exact minute, the fortune teller monk came up with a unique and detailed analysis of what zodiac animals were considered auspicious for my aunt and uncle. Fortunately for me and my brother, we were just the zodiac animals they needed. We got special tasks during the wedding such as opening doors for the couple and holding the bride’s dress, which earned us extra red packets. Unfortunately for my cousins, who were both zodiac animals considered inauspicious for the couple, they weren’t allowed to participate in some of the smaller activities like jumping in the bed.
Before the couple returns at the end of their wedding day, a chicken and rooster might also be kept under the bed. When released, if the rooster emerges first, it is said that the couple’s first child will be a boy. If it is the chicken that runs out first, the first child will be a girl.
The night before the wedding, the hair combing ceremony took place. The bride’s mother or an invited “lady of good fortune” will comb the bride’s hair three times while saying three Chinese phrases. The first is something along the lines of “May you stay together all your life.” The second is “May your hair and eyebrows turn white together,” meaning that the couple will grow old together. Finally, the third is “May your home be filled with lots of children and grandchildren.”
This touching ceremony symbolizes that the bride is entering a new stage of adulthood, and she might wear white to represent purity. It’s at this point in my future wedding that I imagine I’ll be tearing up while my mom is full-on crying. Everyone will indulge in tang yuan –– a simple dessert that consists of chewy and colorful glutinous rice flour balls served in a sweet soup infused with pandan leaves. My description doesn’t give this dessert justice, but trust me — it’s delicious. My favorite is when they’re filled with red bean paste or ground peanuts. Also eaten during other festive occasions such as the Lunar New Year, the round shape of the balls represents the full moon which, in turn, symbolizes wholeness or completeness.
In my opinion, the wildest tradition is the wedding gate crash. On the wedding day, my uncle went to his bride’s house and, with the help of his groomsmen, had to prove his love and commitment to his bride and her family. Only after completing a list of oftentimes embarrassing and disgusting tasks — such as waxing the hair of your legs, learning ridiculous dances, eating bizarre food combinations and trying to pick the right key out of a pile from a bucket of freezing water — was he able to see her. Anybody is also allowed to demand bribes from the groom to let him pass the front door, which I unfortunately didn’t discover until after the game was nearly over.
When my uncle finally managed his way to my aunt, the first of two tea ceremonies took place to welcome the groom to the bride’s family and vice-versa. This is a way for the families to give their blessing to the couple, and it is also the first time proper titles are used. For instance, this was the first time that my mother called her brother’s bride “sister.” The couple started by offering a sweet tea to the bride’s parents and then to elder relatives and siblings in order of descending age. They then gave hong baos and sometimes gold jewelry. Then, those that are younger than the couple took turns serving the bride and groom tea.
After this, the couple made their way to my uncle’s house where the second tea ceremony took place with the groom’s side of the family. Typically with this ritual, when the bride exits the car, or carriage in the olden days, a red umbrella is opened to cover her which is said to shield her from evil spirits. Rice, which is meant to represent money, is thrown at the couple to symbolize them bringing wealth to the family.
After all these activities with family and close friends, it is time to welcome other friends to a big dinner. When wedding guests arrived at the restaurant, in place of bringing gifts from a registry, they gave my uncle and aunt hong baos. Again, the amount of money given will usually have the number eight in it because of its auspiciousness. Amounts such as 44 or 64 are avoided since the number four in Chinese sounds similar to the word “death.” Generally, even-numbered amounts are preferred because they indicate balance and the concept of the yin and yang. This is the same reason my mom once told me to add one more pillow when she saw that I only had three on my bed.
Sitting at the entrance, bridesmaids collected the hong baos at the door and jotted down the amount of money each party gave in a big record book for later reference. While this frankness about the exact value of gifts might seem very different from Western customs and perhaps presumptuous to some, what can I say? It’s practical and definitely easier than having to go out and buy a gift.
During the dinner, in place of a simple “cheers,” Southeast Asians have their own version of a toast known as “yum seng,” (the spelling differs depending on who you ask). Everyone will say, or yell rather, “yum” and hold it out for as long as their breath can go before ending with “seng.” In my favorite Singaporean sitcom “Phua Chu Kang,” there is a funny scene where two men get competitive and try to be the one to hold out the “yum” the longest.
If all this information seems overwhelming, it’s because it is. I spent about an hour talking to my mom to fill in the gaps of what I couldn’t remember, and there are so many other traditions that have been practiced for hundreds of years that I didn’t have time to include. Couples with the means to do so will often hire a professional –– typically a woman who functions similarly to a wedding planner –– that will guide them through each ritual throughout the wedding. That being said, I’m thankful that I’ve been able to learn more about my heritage through these traditions, and I believe it is important that they do not die out as modern weddings are increasingly favored –– each custom tells a deeply significant story
Even so, the power of love is something everyone can understand, regardless of culture or language. No matter where you are in the world, weddings are about more than just romantic love, but also familial and platonic love. As much as they are a way to affirm the couple’s commitment to one another, weddings bring together groups of friends and families, and that’s beautiful.
As a message to my future groom: my family loves Costco, never stops eating, constantly makes dad jokes, has a strange fascination with the movie “Matilda” and will want to include you in it all. I can’t wait to meet you and am excited to share these traditions with you. I’m looking forward to the day when my grandmother doesn’t have to call me out in front of everyone in the family group chat to ask if I’ve found a boyfriend yet anymore.
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