Singaporebrides | Weddings 101

October 2012

Wedding Traditions – The Traditional Bride

In this first part of the guide, we return to our roots and look at five of the most common Chinese wedding traditions that are still practiced today.

Weddings are a time for traditions. In fact, a wedding is itself a tradition. It is an age-old custom of celebrating the union of two individuals in the presence of their family and close friends who are invited to join in the celebrations. While these traditions might have originated from a long time ago and came from different cultures and countries, it still remains relevant in weddings today.

Most weddings in Singapore include these traditions because having them not only reminds us of our roots, it also celebrates our culture as well. That and it keeps the elders in your family doubly pleased to know that you’re continuing these traditions on your big day. Of course, these rituals and traditions will differ from the various ancestral regions, so a Cantonese bride may find herself having to do something a Teochew bride didn’t. This article will merely describe the most commonly practiced in Singapore and will not go in-depth into the details from each region.

1. Betrothal Gifts

What You Need To Know About Guo Da Li- Guo Da Li SetGuo Da Li Set by The Chinese Wedding Shop

The tradition of gifting the bride’s family with gifts before the wedding represents the formal betrothal in ancient times. There are two parts to this. The first takes place two weeks before the wedding, where the groom and a lady of good fortune, or a matchmaker, will pay a visit to the bride’s home with a basket of gifts. Otherwise known as “Guo Da Li”, this gesture serves as an assurance that the groom will abide by and honour his promise. The items in the basket varies by the ancestral regions of the bride and groom. If the bride and groom are from two different dialect groups, the bride will typically follow the groom’s ancestral traditions.

Here’s what to expect in that basket of gifts:

  • Two bottles of brandy
  • An even number of tangerines (The Chinese believe that good things come in pairs; a recommended number would be eight – a favourite among the Chinese)
  • Peanut candies (Teochew bride) or rice candies (Hokkien bride)
  • Six tins of canned pig’s trotters or one whole roast pig (for the Cantonese brides)
  • Two pairs of red dragon and phoenix candles
  • Betrothal jewellery (Teochew bride)
What You Need to Know About The Chinese Betrothal Ceremony, Guo Da Li - Hui Li SetHui Li Set from Le Knot

The second part to this tradition is when the bride gives something back to the groom as a gesture of goodwill. Now, you didn’t think you’d get to keep everything in that basket, did you? It’ll be extremely bad taste if you did. The bride’s parents are expected to present the groom’s parents with “return gifts” or “hui li” in Mandarin. Instead of brandy, two bottles of orange syrup or honey will be returned. Everything else in the betrothal basket, except for the pair of dragon candles and betrothal jewelry, will be returned in even numbers to the groom’s family.

The betrothal jewelry, which consists four different types of gold, usually a pair of earrings, bracelet/bangle, necklace and ring, is yours to keep. Often referred to as “Si Dian Jin”, it is a gift from your mother-in-law and signifies that you’ll always have a roof over your head and a comfortable life. It gets its name from the four different types of gold gifted to you, usually a bracelet, a necklace, a ring and a pair of earrings.

2. Hair Combing Ritual

Salt Grill & Sky Bar Singapore Xavier & Janice Wedding (55)Janice and Xavier’s Elegant and Modern Wedding at Salt Grill & Sky Bar by Natstudios

The hair combing ritual signals the bride and groom’s transitions from girl and boy to woman and man, and is a tradition practiced in every Chinese wedding. The ritual usually takes place the night before the wedding at the bride and groom’s respective houses. Before it begins, the bride and groom are required to wash themselves with water infused with pomelo leaves, which is believe to ward off evil. Then, they are to dress in a brand new set of pyjamas and underwear, and be seated in front of a pair of dragon and phoenix candles. In addition, the bride also has to slip on new bedroom slippers for the ritual.

A woman deemed to have good fortune will conduct the hair combing ritual. The bride and groom will each have their hair combed four times while the woman iterates the blessing each stroke represents:

一梳梳到尾,
二梳百年好合,
三梳子孙满堂,
四梳白发齐眉。

Here’s what each stroke means in English:

May your marriage last a lifetime
May you be blessed with a happy and harmonious marriage until old age
May you be blessed with an abundance of children and grandchildren
May you be blessed with longevity

To complete the ritual, both the bride and groom have to eat glutinous rice balls as a symbol of a sweet marriage and togetherness through thick and thin.

3. Fetching of the Bride

Belinda and Roland's Elegant Wedding at InterContinental Singapore 7Belinda and Roland’s Elegant Wedding at InterContinental Singapore by Trouvé

On the day of the wedding, the groom will journey to the bride’s family home to fetch her back to his place. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But reality is often much harsher. Before the groom can get to his bride, he has to get past her bridesmaids, otherwise known as “jie meis” and satisfy a number of tasks. For support, the groom will rally his brothers, or “xiong dis”, who will accompany him to the fetching and help him get past the bride’s “jie meis”. This tradition, is otherwise known as the customary gatecrashing.

This mandatory haggling session between the groom, his “xiong dis” and the bride’s “jie meis”, is a common scene at weddings in Singapore. Traditionally, the gatecrashing served as a test of the groom’s sincerity and love, and represented the reluctance of the bride’s family to marry their daughter off. So needless to say, your bridesmaids are not going to make things easy for your groom and his brothers-in-arms. They will ask him to declare his love for you, recite and sign a “contract” to seal his vows or even make him and his “xiong dis” sing and dance – these form some of the common tests and games the “jie meis” will make the groom and his “xiong dis” do.

Audrie and Eugene's Rose Gold Nosh Wedding Venue Singapore16Audrie and Eugene’s Pastel and Rose Gold Nosh Wedding by Gowns Villa

Some of these tasks may be given an easier alternative or skipped entirely if there is not enough time ( it is imperative that the bride leaves with her groom at the chosen auspicious time), but the tasting of the requisite four flavours: sour, sweet, bitter and spicy cannot be omitted from the gatecrashing. These flavours are meant to represent the various trials and tribulations, and the sweet times you and your groom will encounter in your marriage. It is a must for the groom and his “xiong dis” to consume them and if successful, it is said that the marriage will be smooth sailing. So, depending on how “vicious” and creative your bridesmaids are going to be, advise your groom to gather men with stronger stomachs as his “xiong dis”.

Completion of these tests and games does not automatically guarantee the groom entrance into the bride’s home. The bridesmaids will demand a red packet for their troubles before they let him in. Once the groom gains entrance, he makes his way to his bride, presents her with the bridal bouquet, lifts her veil and kisses her. After which, the happy couple and their wedding entourage will leave for the groom’s home at the chosen auspicious time.

4. Tea Ceremony

Ines & Irjen - To Love And To Cherish 76To Love and To Cherish by Multifolds Productions

If there is one tradition you haveto include in your wedding, it is this. Equivalent to the Western solemnisation ceremony, the tea ceremony is where you’ll be formally introduced to everyone and accepted into your families. The bride and groom will first return to the groom’s family home to pay their respects to his family by serving them tea and addressing them by their formal titles. In return, his family will acknowledge her place in the family and offer them blessings for their happy union. The bride and groom then returns to her home for another tea ceremony to pay respects to her family. But before she does that, she will change into the traditional Chinese wedding dress, the “kua”.

Don’t expect the tea ceremony to be completed in a jiffy. There are rules and sequences governing the tea ceremony, like using the tea set included in the dowry basket and tea brewed from longans and red dates for the ceremony. The longans and red dates in the tea symbolises the birth of children early in the marriage while the sweetness of the tea represents the sweet relations between the couple and their families. Messing any of them up may ruffle some feathers and the last thing you need is such unpleasantness at the start of your big day.

To avoid all of that, familiarise yourself with what is required of you during your tea ceremony:

  • You, the bride, will position yourself on the left and your groom on the right.
  • You and your groom may or may not be expected to kneel before your elders as you serve them tea.
  • Always serve the male elders first as a sign of his superiority.
  • Parents of the couple are the first to be served, followed by their relatives based on their seniority in the family.
  • Remember to address the relatives by their formal titles (fifth aunt or second uncle, for example). If you’re not sure, do clarify before the ceremony begins.
  • In return, your elders should gift you with red packets or gifts as their blessings. However, any unmarried older sibling is exempted from presenting a red packet for you and your groom.
  • Both your younger siblings and cousins will serve you tea instead, and you will present them with gifts or red packets

5. The Wedding Banquet

Rustic Garden Wedding Penang 105A Rustic-Retro Garden Destination Wedding by Mocco Photography

Let’s get loud! A Chinese wedding banquet is a spectacle to behold, an experience to be had and never quiet. Usually held at night at the hotel of the couple’s choice, a Chinese wedding banquet rarely commences on time. Guests will sign in the guestbook, drop their wedding gifts (in the case of Singapore, red packets) and mingle with the rest of the guests at the reception.

The highlight of a Chinese wedding banquet is undoubtedly the bride’s change of gowns within that two odd hours.  While guests enjoy an eight- to 10-course dinner, the couple often disappears to return to their suite for a change of outfit before re-emerging down the aisle. Most brides have three changes, including their wedding gown, an evening gown and another selection, although this may vary according to the bride’s preference. So when hubby dearest asks why you need three or more gowns for the banquet, you’ll have a perfectly legitimate and justifiable answer for him.

And no Chinese wedding banquet is complete without the drink toasting otherwise known as the “Yam Seng”. After the couple has popped the champagne, their relatives and wedding entourage will be asked to join them on stage for a toasting session. This is where your enthusiastic “xiong dis” and “jie meis”, as well as younger relatives, will holler “yam seng”, usually three times, at the top of their voices, so don’t be alarmed if you hear a slight ringing in your ears immediately after. That’s just part one. The second round of “yam sengs” occurs when you and your groom make the rounds and greet your guests at their tables.

If that’s too much information for you to digest in a short period of time, let us share with you a short cut. Just remember these three key elements and you won’t go wrong: the colour red (it is believed to be the colour of luck and happiness), longans and red dates, and a woman or person deemed to have good fortune. Then, you’re good to go.

For more information on popular wedding traditions from the west, read Wedding Traditions – The Inspired Bride.


Credits: Feature Image from Kelly’s Oriental Wedding by Bobbykiran Photography.