Customs, Rituals, And Practices

The one thing I hate about Chinese custom is the “show”, the “wayang” that accompanies traditional practice.

But more on that a little later.

Mrs K is the clerical officer in my office, and she was diagnosed with cancer early this year and had been on medical leave since February. She just returned to work this past week.

She caught up with her emails and found the email where I announced my wedding to PL, and congratulated me. So we got to talking about the wedding preparations and the Chinese and Teochew customs for the wedding. Mrs K is Teochew, just like PL.

So, apparently, the bride has to “return to her mother’s home” three times as part of the ritual. The first time is to have the tea ceremony. The second time can be a perfunctory walk around the house (or the void deck of the flat), and the third return is usually done within 12 days of the wedding, and should be a proper visit with gifts. Since we would be on our honeymoon for two weeks after the wedding, I guess we would only be returning sometime after 12 days. With souvenirs. From New Zealand.

As for the first return, I asked PL about it. The discussion at her home had her mom wanting the tea ceremony at home. However, her father pointed out this was usually done in front of the ancestral altar or shrine, which they did not have. So they agreed that it was more convenient to have it at the Church, after the wedding mass, in a small room.

Besides, we’re catering food so that’s one logistics that they would not have to deal with.

Mrs K also said that in the morning (early in the morning, like 4 am!) I was supposed to bring my new wife to my home.

I live alone. My father has passed on, and my mother lives with my brother. And I too have no ancestral shrine at my place because my family is Catholic.

So Mrs K conceded that this step could probably be done away with.

The plan was just to pick up PL at about 9.45, and bring her to the church. This was a slight variation on the Catholic church wedding, where I would wait for PL at the Church. We “married” the Chinese custom with the Church custom and so I would go fetch her (like the Chinese custom) to the Church.

The advantage of this variation is that if we really felt stressed out by the whole thing, we could just elope at that point! Yes. I am keeping our options open.

So the tea ceremony, which is usually done over two venues – first the groom’s parent’s home, and then (the first return) the bride’s home for the tea ceremony for her family and relatives – would be conveniently done at one venue with both sets of relatives, on church premises.

Mrs K asked if PL’s family might have any sensitivity about entering a Church compound. PL assured me that there should be no issue. Her parents are non-practicing Taoist/Buddhist, and the relatives are probably used to those apostates and their weird practices… or non-practices!

The point is, PL’s parents are very easy going people, and while they do feel the need for some ritual and custom, they are flexible.

I had wrote about it in this post.

Mrs K also provided a little more details about “Quo Da Li” or the “Day for Delivering the Bridal Gifts” (not a literal translation). So she confirmed that there would be pig trotters. Canned. And 12 oranges. With the auspicious word for weddings in red paste onto the oranges. And other gifts, which in this case has been simplified to one ang pow to cover the costs of all the gifts.

This pragmatic and practical side of Chinese custom is one that I appreciate a lot!

In addition, the “Bride Price” would be in another ang pow.

Mrs K said that traditionally, the parents on receiving the ang pows will return part of the content. So it doesn’t matter how much you give in the ang pow, you will get some of it back.

And this is the “show” or “staged generousity” that… irks me. It tends to “inflate” ang pows” Say you wanna give $300. But you know you will get back some of the ang powe, so you give more than $300. Say $500. But since the giving back is a practice, a guideline not a rule, you may meet someone who is not familiar with the practice and keep the $500.

So you can’t count on the “give-back”. But you should.

The other thing that would be delivered that day is the “Four Gold”. This is a set of 4 gold jewellery – a gold necklace, a gold pendant, gold ear-rings, a gold ring or bracelet (any four). In an auspicious red box. Which the groom’s mother gives to the bride on “Quo Da Li”. This four gold serves two function.

My friends tell me it is a custom from times gone by to provide “insurance” for the newly weds… If they ever fall on hard times, the wife could pawn or sell the “4 gold” to keep the family going. So that is the other function.

I suggested getting the four gold from a pawn shop. Everyone laughed. They must’ve thought I was joking.

Seriously, four gold from a pawnshop has been tested and passed the test! The previous owner had truly resorted to selling her four gold to keep her family going. It was gold ennobled by sacrifice! And it would be cheaper too!

Sigh.

Anyway, it’s from the groom’s mother, so my mom and PL went shopping for the “4 Gold” on Sunday.

PL was tossed between buying for show, and buying to wear. You would think that it should be a simple matter of buying to wear, but the “4 gold” is also meant to be displayed for relatives to “oooh” and “aaaah” over them, comment on the thickness of the gold, the heaviness of the gold, and the obvious worth of all that GOLD.

So if you’re buying for show, the thickest chain of gold, with the heaviest gold pendant, huge rings and bling-blings would be the way to go.

Except that PL is not an ostentatious person. So she was actually leaning towards a VERY presentable necklace but one which fails the “show” category. Too silver, not gold enough, and much too fine, too delicate.

Sadly, she had to choose a compromise. Not a BAD compromise. I will post pictures when the set is complete (the ring is being sized, and is ready for collection, but not yet collected as I write this).

It is a tasteful, understated, necklace and matching bracelet, with ring and ear-rings. She has good taste.

Of course, if the point of the “4 gold” was to provide insurance for hard times, I might have asked for a few shares of Apple stock.

But the problem with customs is that it is not very flexible.

The other function of the “4 gold” seems to me the serve as “betrothal” gifts – the Chinese version of the engagement ring. Except given by the groom’s mother/parents to the bride-to-be. About one month or so before the wedding (less chance of the bride running off with the gifts). And with the focus on gold rather than diamonds. (Diamonds don’t feature in Chinese customs and tradition).

I can reflect on the difference between Chinese and Western practices. The Chinese custom is much gentler on the couple (though maybe not so on the groom’s parents). Certainly, it is helpful for the couple for their parents to help set them up as well as possible financially and customs like the “4 gold” helps. Conversely, the engagement ring custom of the west has been hijacked by the diamond industry (a monopoly) who has brainwashed western society into believing that the ring should be about 3 – 4 months salary of the groom to be appropriately priced. And the prices are completely determined by the monopoly. So you can’t even sell a diamond if you fall on hard times. Or rather you could, but you won’t get much for it.

So PL & I are in a confluence of cultures and customs. In a sense it is rather satisfying to tick off these customary obligations off the list. But I can’t help feel that I appreciate them more while at the same time being able to detach myself a little more because I am able to see the social function of two customs at work. I can see how the Chinese custom works to reinforce the participation and contribution and involvement of the whole family. In Chinese custom a wedding was more than a joining of two persons, it was a joining of two families.

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