Inside A Chinese Wedding

Barbequed piglet The banquet finished at 11.30pm, and by then I understood why Chinese wedding receptions have no dance.

No one has the energy.

I've attended several Chinese weddings over the years, but my brother-in-law's was the first in which it was necessary for me to do more than just show up for dinner. It meant an early start in a day sure to be filled with noise and crowds.

Not a social animal, I tried instead to be as inconspicuous as possible (not an easy task) and observe as much as I could of the customs inside a Chinese wedding.

Visiting the registry was the first step.

Hong Kong's wedding system revolves around a registry service most people use when they aren't planning a church wedding. The system requires booking an appointment within 14 days before the three-month period from the intended marriage date.

Are you confused yet?

To further complicate things, many couples want to get married on the same date, one of the several auspicious days in the Chinese Almanac, to ensure good feng shui. As each registry has a quota on the number of marriages it will perform, booking the date becomes a race among couples to see who can be first to register at a particular office. If they can't get in, they'll either have to consider a different office or choose a different wedding date.

We arrived at the Cotton Tree Drive registry office in Hong Kong Park ahead of everyone else.

When the Nicolas and Angela arrived, along with their three photographers and a video man, they first had to sign forms in the office before the actual ceremony, which was to take place in a separate room.

"The crew recorded every significant moment, including all possible permutations of family poses ..."

The crew recorded every significant moment, including all possible permutations of family poses with the soon-to-be-wed couple. Had anyone brought along pets, you can be certain the dog or cat would've been included.

We moved into the ceremony room, where a large table sat perpendicular to the doorway, flanked on both sides by a pair of chairs.

A single chair for the officiant was positioned at the head of table. Rows of chairs at the other end seated the spectators. The fathers of the bride and groom were positioned abreast on the far side of the table, facing the doorway. When the couple entered, each was seated opposite the respective parent.

After a brief word by the officiant, the rings were exchanged and the vows were read. This was followed by the official kiss, which was greeted by applause from the gallery.

Next, official forms were signed in turn by the bride, groom, groom's father and bride's father. The officiant then confirmed the information against each person's Hong Kong ID card. Bureaucratic procedure satisfied, she presented the couple with a huge wedding card.

More photos were in order, and for several minutes family members shuffled about to ensure everyone had their photos taken with the newlyweds. Once accomplished, everyone filed out of the room and lined the hallway leading to the exit. More applause erupted as the Nicolas and Angela entered the hall and made their way out of the building.

Outside, against a hill filled with greenery, the couple posed for yet more photos.

All this, and the day wasn't even in full swing.

Our next stop was a family lunch at the Peking House restaurant in Pacific Place, which was close by, but getting there took a while as we were obliged to accompany our slow-moving aunts.

"... incessant, high-decibel chatter inflicted by abundant, elderly Chinese women ..."

Lunch consisted of food I either can't or don't eat, which I'd expected. Hell, I starved at my wedding. The food I had the foresight to bring served me well, but given the incessant, high-decibel chatter inflicted by abundant, elderly Chinese women, I'd just as soon have stayed in the park to eat it.

Once fed, the immediate family piled into cars for the next leg: a short drive to a hotel on the Kowloon side.

· ƒ ·

Arriving at the hotel room, we found the wedding party and a host of family and friends rearranging the room for the imminent ceremonial customs.

The photographers had set up their gear adjacent to a small two-seat sofa, while a coffee table held a tea pot and four small cups, along with a chyuhn haap (Tray of Togetherness).

Soon the newlyweds made their grand entrance, squeezing through the doorway to the applause of all gathered. Awaiting them, situated on the floor before the sofa, were two square, decorative red pillows, each about 18 inches across.

Angela was presented with two thick gold bracelets inscribed with the traditional hei (double happiness): gifts from her parents. Nicolas clasped one around each of her white-gloved wrists.

My brother-in-law's parents were seated on the sofa: father on the left, mother on the right. The maid of honour stood nearby with a tray holding the four tea cups.

After helping Angela kneel on her cushion, opposite his mother, Nicolas knelt across from his father. The tea ceremony commenced.

Nicolas offered tea to his father, followed by Angela with her cup. This act was repeated with his mother. After sipping the tea, the parents took turns presenting lai see (lucky red pocket money) to the couple, along with blessings and wishes for their future.

Still kneeling, the bride was presented with two more gold bracelets, as well as a gold necklace, by her new in-laws. In moments, she was adorned with these treasures.

Returning to her feet, Angela opened the chyuhn haap, filled with traditional sweets and snacks, and offered them to everyone in the room. Duties thus discharged, the couple left the room for more photos while the room was tidied.

The last order of business was the massive 10-course banquet. By this point everyone was weary; I looked forward to sitting down, though chances were good I wouldn't have much interest in the dishes, most of which would be some variety of seafood.

Outside the banquet room, a table had been set up for greeters to welcome arriving guests. A large red card had been laid out on the table, accompanied by a black felt-tipped pen; as folks appeared, each signed the card before heading to a corner of the lobby where snacks and drinks had been laid out.

"My father-in-law, a hard-core Buddhist, circled the room like a vulture ..."

The room grew noisier with the growing crowd as people chatted and caught up. My father-in-law, a hard-core Buddhist, circled the room like a vulture, seeking every elderly relative he could find to cajole about the wonders of his religion.

I busied myself taking photos and eyeing the red wine, looking forward to a glass to knock down some of the day's stress.

Dinner began at 8.30pm, kicked off by barbequed piglet, complete with glowing red eyes. The usual practice is to use maraschino cherries, but the hotel's chef had rigged a battery and wiring system to red bulbs inserted in the flattened piglet's eye sockets.

Most westerners would find this creepy and not a little gruesome, but I've been to many Chinese weddings and was unperturbed. That greasy pork was one of the few things I'd be eating; I didn't care if it looked weird.

This was succeeded by course after course of seafood-based dishes, including abalone, grouper (or garoupa as it's known in Hong Kong; you can thank 17th-century Portuguese for that) and crab, along with vegetable dishes drowning in oyster sauce.

Three hours later, everyone was sated, exhausted and ready to head home. I'd compensated for the lack of food with several glasses of wine and was feeling mellow. The crowd thinned as folks departed, leaving just a handful of us in the room at the end.

One of the photographers offered us a lift home as he lived in the New Territories. Fatigued and grateful, we accepted.

The lack of a dance didn't bother me whatsoever. In retrospect, it's good the Chinese eschew that particular festivity.

When I recall the numerous weddings I've attended in Canada, most receptions were raucous affairs punctuated by inebriated middle-aged folks losing their balance and crashing to the dance floor, followed by the inevitable ridiculousness of the Bird Dance.

Considering the day had been filled with formalities, such an informal spectacle would horrify most self-respecting Chinese.

Exhausted or not, one cannot lose face when one is home in bed.

March 8, 2005

Next Tale: Let The Games Begin