A wedding is a treasured event to customarily formalize and publicly announce the matrimonial bond between man and a woman. The wedding is not only a joyous moment shared between the bridal couple, the occasion is also made merry and memorable with the presence of beloved relatives and friends. It is a day to profess the couple’s love to the world and therefore it is no wonder that many couples looked forward to making the day special with personalized touches and selections.
The wedding event planning may begin many months in advance right the moment the proposal for marriage is accepted. The modern couple is normally bogged with numerous priorities i.e. wedding cost, installments for new home and vehicle etc. and thus will opt for western wedding package that best suited their limited budget. A typical modern wedding will minimally consist of western attire for the formal event with a possibility of a change of gown or costume for the post formal ceremony reception.
With proper planning and budgeting, the modern wedding can be personalized with the Peranakan heritage and feel. It will be an opportunity for the bridal couple to reconnect to their roots and also to learn and experience relevant wedding customs firsthand and hopefully in time to come, to perpetuate and transmit these practices to their children.
The Peranakan culture has evolved through natural adaption and adoption of the best of the various cultures without coercion. Our ancestors kept an open mind when broaching foreign cultures and religious belief and in the process they manage to enrich the Peranakan culture as a culture that is highly tolerant and meaningful. There are recorded instances up to today where the Peranakan wedding costume was worn not only in traditional rites but also in church during holy matrimony ceremony.
The traditional Peranakan wedding is deeply embedded in Confucian tenets of honouring and respecting deities, ancestors and elders. So it is important to distinguish cultural and religious practices as some of these customs may run contrary to the religious beliefs of some bridal couples. Some Catholics may accord respect to ancestors but this is not acceptable for Protestants. Most of the items listed here are steeped in Chinese culture symbolism. In this paper, I will discuss about neutral practices that transcend the spheres of religious beliefs so that modern Peranakan can still observe these customs.
a) Portrait photography
Amongst the must-haves nowadays is the official bridal photography normally shot within the confines of the photo studio and depending on the suitability, the shoots can be executed outdoors. On top of the usual pictures featuring modern attires, the photography session is the perfect opportunity to capture the Peranakan heritage for posterity and to avoid donning the extremely warm formal traditional costume on the actual day in a non-air-conditioned environment.
Brides may opt to wear the Peranakan traditional wedding attire i.e. the formal koon or the informal hock chew with the groom donning the tng-sah beh-kua. Additionally they can include the synonymous kebaya and/or baju panjang complete with Nyonya period hairdo matched with baju china or the western suit for the groom into the list of photos to be taken. The couple may also elect to shoot the traditional segment in typical Peranakan home interior or sites as backdrops especially if they are staying in Melaka town. These photos make excellent wedding thank you gift especially to non-Peranakan friends.
b) Ann Chng (Decorating the main bedroom and bed)
This is an event where family members and friends can be involved. The act of furnishing the bridal bed is to encourage acts of procreation that ultimately leads to the production of progenies. In the past, generative symbols such as comb of banana, yam plant and stack of lemongrass plants were placed near the bed as the bed was dressed. However this inclusion of theses plants have been dispensed with due to the problem associated with sourcing the necessary plants. Perhaps the best segment to enact is the rolling of a young boy on the readied bed as a fervent wish that the first born will be a boy to perpetuate the family’s name. Upon the completion of the rolling process, a platter of bunga rampay may be placed on the bed to provide sweet fragrant in the room. This is also not to leave the bed unoccupied until the wedding day.
c) Lap Chai (Exchange of wedding gifts)
The Lap Chai ceremony is normally held on the weekend prior to the actual wedding day which may coincide with the prenuptial dinner hosted by the bride’s family. This is a convenient arrangement especially if both the bride and groom’s family are staying in different states. Officially, the red bunting or chye kee is hung at the main door beginning from this day up to the day after the wedding is over. The hanging of the chai kee indicates that an auspicious occasion is about to occur in that home.
In most instances, both bride and groom’s representatives had determined and finalized the list of gifts to be exchanged and these gifts may differ from family to family. Traditional gifts will include a pair of red candles emblazoned with dragons and another pair attached with the phoenix cutouts. The candles may be dispensed with and replaced with an angpow instead. Also included is the dowry and ‘wang tetek’ (breast money – money remitted to the bride’s mother for her breast-fed milk), a set of clothing, jewellery and foodstuff. A general rule to follow is to return half of what is given and replaced with other similar produce in the case of foodstuff and candles; or to be replaced with something similar or same value for articles of clothing and accessories. The dowry is usually returned as accepting dowry is akin to the parents selling their daughter. If the dowry is taken, then the money should be channeled to purchasing items needed by the cash strapped bridal couple.
d) Khui Tiah (Bridal shower)
It is now a common practice to host respective relatives and friends to the bridal shower dinner held in the homes of the parents of the bride and groom the eve of the wedding. Particularly on this very day, the bride and groom are suppose to refrain from contacting one another as a quaint enactment of earlier practice of arranged marriages where the couple were supposedly to had never met until the wedding day.
e) Cheo Thau (Hair combing ceremony)
This is a religious ceremony where the couple individually undergoes the traditional rites of hair combing as a sign of stepping into the world of adulthood. Symbolic articles such as the gantang (rice measure), nyiru (large woven rattan tray), scales, scissors, razor, comb, ruler, mirror, a basin of water and sprig of ixora and spring onion formed an integral part the ceremony. The ceremony requires the professional services of the sang-keh-mm (mistress of ceremony) and koo yah (a young boy) to lead the ceremony. For this ceremony, the double tiered sam kai table must be raised complete with the necessary votives and prayer paraphernalia.
There were instances where the bride and groom wore modern suit and gown complimented with modern bridal hairdo for the ceremony. The ceremony may continue onto the Pai Chew (wine libation) and the veiling ceremony. The Cheo Thau preparation is rather time consuming and requires the aid of experts. Coupled with the fact that the ceremony may be scheduled to begin at the unearthly hour of between 11 pm to 7 am the following morning, it will of no surprise if bridal couple rather forgo the ceremony for a good night sleep.
a) Veiling of the bride
The veiling of the bride is a poignant moment signifying the parent’s sadness as the daughter is going to leave their home. After the make up and hairstyling session, the bride’s parents will affix the veil to her hair and thereafter veil her. The bride will then await the arrival of the groom or may then proceed to the church.
On the other hand, the parents of the groom will see to the grooming of the groom and to finally help him putting on his coat as symbolical sign of the final grooming accorded to him as a single person under their care. This is also performed in lieu of the Pai Chew (wine libation) during the traditional Ki Beh (mounting of horse ceremony) as a wish for a safe journey before he embarks on the journey to the bride’s house.
b) Chim Pang – Unveiling the bride
The unveiling may be held in the confines of the bedroom or for Christians, in front of the congregation in church. If it is held at home, the couple is encouraged to partake (one red and one white) kueh ee soaked in syrup and then a cup of tea. If an elderly couple with living children and grandchildren is available, they can be invited to feed the kueh ee to the bridal couple with the wish that the bridal couple will together be surrounded with happiness and be blessed with longevity and many descendants. The meaningful event is to be enacted at near the bed or even in the midst of the congregation immediately after unveiling. In the past, this is considered the first meal as husband and wife denoting a sweet beginning.
c) Sohjah Tiga Hari (Respecting the elders)
The next step is to pay homage or respect to deities, ancestors and elders, whichever applicable. The most suitable actions to pay respect in their modern outfit will be the traditional sembah and sohjah for the bride and groom respectively in both standing and kneeling postures.
The Sohjah Tiga Hari ceremony showcased the importance of Confucian tenets of rank and file in the family. When everyone understands their position in the family hierarchy, order and peace can be achieved. This ceremony is much feared during olden days as it is very taxing on the couple having to stand and kneel continuously for many cycles to many elders on individually couple basis especially in a rather extensive families and relatives. Nowadays, complete cycles of homage are accorded to direct elders i.e. grandparents and parents while close relatives are cloistered together according to generational and patrilineal or matrilineally related groups. With the coordinative aid of bridesmaids and bestman, paying respect on group basis has greatly reduced the strain and time allotted to pay respect.
d) Tuang Teh (Tea ceremony)
This event is equally important to impart the correct form of address to everyone in the family. The usage of ‘Uncle’ and ‘Aunty’ are much frowned upon especially if they are closely related; so correct form of address clearly indicates the blood and perhaps marital relationship between the addressee and the person being addressed to. In keeping with the correct form of address, it is vital to have an elder or person is who able to guide the couple especially the person marrying into the family to note the proper form of address. The point here is to execute the moot the correct form of address correctly right from the start.
According to tradition, the couple has to offer tea to the groom’s family first and thereafter the bride’s. There are variants to the method offering tea to the elders according to families; some insisted on having both bride and groom to offer tea while others preferred the traditional Peranakan style of having the person marrying into the family to serve only. The latter version was introduced as the person marrying into the family is treated as an outsider until being formally introduced and offered tea to the elders.
The Peranakans do not use Chinese tea for this ceremony. The ‘tea’ is actually a concoction of boiled ang choe (red dates), dried longans and rock sugar.
Similar to the sohjah ceremony, the elders will be served according to seniority. Grandparents and their siblings and cousins will be served first followed by parents and their siblings and cousins. Lastly will be elder siblings and cousins of the couple. Also note that the father’s side will be given the honour first and then followed by mother’s family in each generation.
e) Bikin Duabelas Hari (Twelth Day ceremony)
The traditional programme of determining the status of bride’s virginity has been discarded. However the tradition of visiting the home of the bride after the completion of the formal ceremonies is usually encouraged. The couple will usually change their attire to something less formal; perhaps a kebaya for the bride and a long sleeved shirt and tie or Chinese tunic for the groom, before returning to the bride’s home. Usually they will carry along a bakul siah laden with fruits and cakes for the bride’s parents. In return, the couple may be presented with a pair of fresh stalks of sugarcane plants and a pair of chicken. The sugarcane is usually a votive of thanksgiving and represents the hope for quick and high productivity from the couple. The chicken are used to determine the sex of the firstborn child but due to the problems associated with rearing the chicken, modern couple is usually given an angpow in lieu of the chicken.
f) Refreshment and meals
It will be an interesting attempt to offer guests, especially non-Peranakan friends from outstation, a glimpse of the delectable spread of the Peranakan cuisine. Bridal couple should rope in relatives and friends to secure some of these special Nyonya cakes as refreshment. Amongst cakes synonymous with the Peranakan wedding are pineapple tarts, pulot tekan complimented with the special viscous home made kaya, onde-onde, apom berkuah dipped in the tantalizing pengat pisang mas and kueh dadar topped with the creamy santan. Some of these cakes are said as physical manifestation of the vital reproductive organs but more importantly, they are home made using natural colour pigments and tantalizingly delicious.
Instead of a regular buffet, lunch may consist of the main fragrant nasi kemuli and the complimentary spread including curry chicken or mutton, udang goreng asam, terong parchalis, lobak puteh masak lemak, sambal timun, kuah hee pioh, fried chicken and whole boiled eggs. Dessert may include the infamous Nyonya jade green cendol or red and white taibak. Thus guests and family members alike will have to chance savour interesting cuisines related to the traditional wedding.
The wedding reception is the climax of the wedding celebration and an opportunity to flaunt the Peranakan identity of the family. It is becoming a welcome sight for the ladies to be attired in the lovely embroidered kebaya and sarong. Whilst the bridal couple may select a modern theme for the evening, there is a growing awareness to include the traditional segment into the evening. There is a growing preference for bridal couple to march into the main ballroom or dining hall dressed in traditional Peranakan wedding attire and probably led by little Nyonya flower girls sprinkling bunga rampay or even a full wedding processional entourage. Prior to march in, the couple garbed in the traditional wedding costumes should grab the opportunity to arrange for a quick family portrait session after which they can retire to the holding room until dinner time. Following closely after the march in, they can choose to enact a simple sohjah onstage to thank their guest before taking their seats for the first 2 courses and then slip away to have a complete makeover to modern outfits in time for the toast ceremony.
The evening’s programme can include Peranakan entertainment. Versatile bands providing joget and oldies songs are currently available to serenade and provide dance music to the diners all night long. However due to the high demand for such bands, they must be booked at least 6 months to a year in advance. The evening can be made very Peranakan if the master of Ceremonies can banter in patois and liberally toss some pantuns as the event proceeds during the evening.
As door gifts, the couple can select to present sachets of bunga rampay as tokens of appreciation to guests for their kind presence. Other gifts can be incorporated such as souvenier bakul siahs, fridge magnets with Peranakan objects or something current e.g. cupcakes or chocolates with Peranakan motives.
It is a foregone conclusion that we will not be able to practice everything of the past in these modern times. The changes in the modern family structure and disappearing hands-on knowledge and artifacts do not permit such detailed forms of wedding ceremonies and observances. However if effort is made to include simple practices in our lives, then what is left of our glorious culture will remain relevant and vibrant. The Peranakan wedding is still the most glamorous event in the Peranakan calendar. Imbuing the culture essences into modern wedding helps in educating the deeper symbolism and messages to all concerned and also to encourage the continuity of the tenets of respect. The day we discard our roots and these tenets is the day we loose our identity as being Peranakans.