To inform entertain and excite my kids, Jamie, Patrick, Aaron & Sarah Middleburgh, our family and friends.about me
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I have been privileged to attend weddings reflecting many different cultures, (Jewish, Greek, English, Irish, Chinese etc) and whilst there are universal similarities, such as whinging relatives who complain about this or that, or lovingly nurture longstanding family feuds, I particularly delight in "local" wedding "rituals" such as the Jewish tradition whereby the groom stamps on the wine glass to formally seal "the deal".
And Chinese weddings are especially rich in such parochial customs!!!
The day starts with the bridegroom and his "brothers" (real brothers, best men and friends) going to the brides home to carry her off to the wedding ceremony. - None of this "will she or won't she turn up at the church on time rubbish" Of course in reality the bride's day started earlier since she had to get her 'hair' etc done before being abducted.
When the groom and entourage turn up on her doorstep they are ritually denied access by her “sisters”( real sisters, bridesmaids and friends ) - in practical terms this may buy time for the bride to finish her "hair". They also demand "gate money” ie money to let the bridegroom's party in ie demanding a nominal dowry. There is some negotiation on the amount which must always end in “9” ie 9009 US$ The word "nine" in Chinese sound like the word "long" and therefore an agreed amount ending in 9 implies that the wedding should endure for long time. The bridegroom and/or best men will also be subject to a number of tests/tasks devised by the bridesmaids to ensure they are "worthy" to take the bride away. These may consist of doing embarrass/silly things such ad 100 press ups or dressing up and belly dancing. In reality this is an opportunity for the bridesmaids to "get to know' (ie qualify) the best men and is really nothing to do with the happy couple.
When access is finally granted the bride and groom will formally serve tea to their seniors ie the bride’s parents, uncles and aunts. It requires formally offering tea to them whilst kneeling, effectively to get their blessing for the marriage. All very serious!! Coincidently I was treated as such a “senior’ at my partner's niece’s wedding. As I was offered the tea I asked the bride in English if it was Sow Mee (a particular type of Chinese tea) - she and the groom almost dropped the cups as they tried to suppress the “giggles”(it seemed a perfectly reasonable question to me – It wasn't as if I'd asked for milk and sugar)
Anyway tea ceremony at brides home finished, the bride is whisked away to the groom's home where it is repeated with his parents and relatives, after which they are then forwarded to the "service". About 15% of the population, in the South of China, are Christian (of one sort or another), the rest are either Atheists, Buddhist or Taoists. I haven't been to a wedding service in a temple but those in the Registry Office and Churches are the same as in the West except conducted in Chinese..
Frequently non Christians ask me (since I am a Gwaillo and therefore assumed to be knowledgeable) to explain the church services. Invariably I point out that the only link I have with Christianity is that like myself, Jesus was Jewish; that like them, the church (at least the Catholic bit) considers me a heathen, and whilst I count many Christians among my friends, I follow traditional Judaic teaching and basically consider Christians to be a heretic sect. This normally lifts the discussion to interesting new levels!!!
After the service depending on the day and time people either go
Guests sign in on a large red "board" which is kept as a souvenir by the couple. Red is considered a lucky colour and the Wedding Invitations and envelopes are also red. The bride may also wear at the reception (and in formal photos) a tradition red Chinese wedding robe.
There are normally soft drinks, tea, beer and wine to drink whilst waiting for the meal to start. If guests are not chatting or playing mahjong they queue for group photographs with the couple or look at the official photos which were taken earlier. Essentially there are two sets of photographs - those taken on the day and the formal official posed shots taken before ... maybe months before..
Guests also take the opportunity to seek out the couple to congratulate them and give them a "red" packet (LYCEE) This is a red envelope containing a cash wedding present to the couple from the guests (toasters ?? rice cookers ?? – no way .. It’s like at a Jewish or Greek wedding!!) At minimum it will cover the cost of the guests meal!! That’s why there are so many guests at a Chinese wedding reception: they are not a burden on the hosts.
One of the quainter customs is that along with your wedding invitation the bride and groom will send you - the guest - a red pocket containing some money: The rationale is that it is impolite to receive a gift without reciprocating and since it is implicit that you - the guest - will give them a wedding gift they are preemptively giving you the reciprocal gift up front.
Before the meal actually starts the couple “leave” and formally reenter to be toasted by those assembled. My "MAZLTOV" is always a lone cry. The guests are then briefly "welcomed" by the hosts (yesterday by the bridegroom’s father) There normally aren't speeches in the western tradition although yesterday the priest did say a few words and on previous occasions I have seen the brides father has also greeting guests.
In lieu of speeches, guests are entertained by the "babyshots" This is a presentation which introduces the wedding couple to the guests. A power point/video clip presentation put together by the bridesmaids/best men and the couple’s families, starting with pictures of them growing up from baby on rug or equivalent through pictures at school (the one at the back or the one with the goofy teeth etc) and with family (dominated by elder siblings) to college graduation, and then photos of them as a couple etc (lots of ooh'ing and aah'ing!!). The tales of how they first met and how the groom proposed are also told.
Food is then served following a traditional format (or close variations thereto):
Course 1: Barbequed/Roast Suckling Pig; presented 'flattened" cut up into little squares. If it’s really good the skin is all crispy and the meat is lean. Yesterday - to every ones amusement at my table since they all knew I can use chop sticks! - the waitress very kindly asked if I need a knife and fork!!
Course 2: Steamed Prawns: rip off their heads!! , tear of their shells and legs!! then plunge their naked little bodies in soy, sesame oil and vinegar dressing - delicious. Then comes the exciting bit - instead of bowls of lukewarm lemon water to rinse fingers – it’s bowls of HOT Chinese tea. (not Sow Mee !!)
Course 3 ; Stir Fried Scallops, Squid, Sugar Snaps and Water Lily Bulbs: Now I'm very partial to fresh scallops and the sugar snaps were out of this world !!
Course 4: Buk Choy, Hairy Melon and Dried Scallop; The difference to the previous dish is that the scallops here have been dried and then rehydrated .It gives them a really rich flavour. Buk Choy is a traditional Chinese green vegetable and hairy melon is related to marrows/courgettes and… bitter melons.
Course 5: Sliced Preserved Abalone with braised Chinese Lettuce: normally this dish comes with Black Mushrooms. The abalone is dried like the scallops, reconstituted and cooked. It's very expensive and very tasty.
Course 6: Sharks Fin Soup (with red vinegar): Yesterday it seemed to contain a bit more shark than fin: There are 2 styles of shark fin soup. One is thick and glutinous - which I don't particularly like - the other is more fluid and cut with the right amount of vinegar quite "scrummy" (if not environmentally friendly)
This marks the half way point in the banquet and the bride and groom ushered by best men, bridesmaids and family will visit each table to drink toasts with their guests. The traditional manner is that that glass frequently brandy is finished ...!! Imagine working your way around 300 tables (not unheard of on the mainland!!)
Prior to this point the bride has worn her white wedding dress and before doing the rounds, she will typically change into another usually red dress. In very traditional weddings this will be a traditional red Chinese wedding gown accessorized with “Gold" dragon and phoenix bracelets and necklaces
Historically brides would be given gold jewelry by "seniors" from either the bride or bridegrooms family. Some of this would have been handed down through generations. Effectively it's the bride’s dowry and unlike gold jewelry in the west this is 99.99% pure, very soft, not really intended to be worn except on such special occasions. Pieces are valued by weight with only a slight mark up for manufacture. I gave such a dragon and phoenix bracelet to my friend’s wife on the occasion of their marriage in Kent a couple of years ago. If a bride has not got enough gold to wear she can rent some (with the robe) for the day!!
After toasting the guests the bride will normally change again into a party frock and the guests will be entertained by the wedding party. This may be in form of party games where the bridesmaids playoff against the best men or variations thereon. Yesterday instead of games the groom sang to the guests and I realized that what I had thought of as simply Chinese having fun playing party games at office parties or going after work to Karyoke bars for a night out is in fact absolutely vital rehearsal and practice for wedding days!!!
When the frivolity was over.. the banquet recommenced
Course 7: Steamed Garouper with Soy and Spring Onions:Again not environmentally friendly since these are a coral fish but they are immensely popular in Hong Kong and no formal meal would be complete without them. The fish, sufficient for the entire table (about 10-15 people)is served whole.(on the bone). Where I was sitting yesterday I could see live fish swimming in the tanks at far end of the restaurant.
Course 8: Roast Chicken: This is both steamed and roasted and then presented like the suckling pig chopped into pieces (on the bone)which can be picked up with chop sticks. Skin is not crispy and the meat is very juicy. I cherry pick the breast pieces which have less bone in them
Course 9: Fried Rice: up to this point we have had the traditional and relatively high cost dishes and the last couple of dishes before the sweet are essentially fillers/stables. Interestingly in Yorkshire, home of Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding, I was told that the pudding was traditionally served FIRST, as a filler, when there wasn’t much meat available.
Course 10: Noodles not everyone, even if they are Chinese eats rice all time. These are usually the flat egg noodles used in Lo Mein,
Course 11: Sweets ie Red Bean Pudding, Lotus Paste filled buns; Black Sesame Jelly etc: Personally I find Chinese sweets .....“unappetizing” . (I am being very polite) … Bottom line is that I consistently give them a miss
Course 12: Fresh Fruit: slices of water melon, pineapple (occasionally) and oranges with cocktail sticks as “tools” to pick them up. The trick is to use two (cocktail sticks) to spear the desired slice. There are also unpeeled oranges and the restaurant normally gives out plastic bags and any unconsumed oranges, buns etc get bagged for carry out .
Unlike western weddings where dancing and music follows the conclusion of the meal, in Chinese weddings the wedding party and "seniors" typically line up at the exit to thank leaving guests for coming and this triggers an exodus. Young things may go off clubbing and the bridesmaids and best men may go off to get to know one another better but everyone else goes off home clutching their bag of oranges.
The discerning reader will by now have worked out that yesterday I went to my colleague Lester's wedding here in Hong Kong. I wish both him and his bride Jacqueline all the best for the future. I also trust he won't take any matrimonial advice from me or follow my example !!!|