Christmas morning! We’d slept late and were awoken around nine by a knocking on our apartment door. Keith got up to investigate and, from the bedroom, I thought I overheard my brother inviting us for coffee and muffins. Scrambling into my clothes and hopping into the sitting room I was disappointed to find out I’d misheard (I’d rather fancied a muffin for breakfast), but the reality soon improved my mood: Duncan and Spring had decided to get married that morning. And thus began one of the most surreal Christmas Days ever.
Chinese weddings are in two parts, part one being the official paperwork part. Duncan and Spring had been informed by the Oracle that the most auspicious day for their wedding would be the 27th of December, but sadly for them, auspicious or not, it fell on a Saturday and the registry office was closed, so they decided that Christmas day would be as good a day as any (and a nice easy date for Duncan to remember). In China, Christmas is a normal work day like any other so we piled into the car and Spring drove us across the city to the city authority registry office, only to discover that despite having phoned in advance to check it was the correct place, they could not register marriages involving foreigners. Undeterred we headed back to the car and drove back across town to the province authority registry office.
It was a bit like being in a bank or post office to be honest. You wait in line, fill in some forms, have official ID pictures taken, fill in some more forms and are then presented with his’n’hers matching marriage documents (which look like passports), which then need to be notarised. Because our morning had got off to a late start, by the time the marriage documents were ready the notary had left for lunch, so we followed suit and then returned mid-afternoon for the notarisation. And that was that. Somewhat anticlimactically, Duncan and Spring were officially man and wife! All that remained to be done with the day was to prepare Christmas dinner and crack open the bubbles.
Part two of the wedding is the big celebration with family and friends, which was set for the 17th of January. Before then Duncan and Spring still had to get their wedding photos taken (an epic 10 hour day which ended only when the light failed and which Keith and I wisely declined to attend), have the final fittings for their outfits, be taken out to sumptuous dinners by family and friends (which we did attend), go to the wedding rehearsal, and, with just four days to go before the wedding, find a second bridesmaid and an assistant best man (Keith was honoured and of course said yes when Duncan asked him). They had decided to follow a two thousand year old traditional Han dynasty ceremony – which was quite unusual and even the Chinese wedding guests told us they’d never attended one like it – but one disadvantage to using an unfamiliar ceremony was that they were reliant on the master of ceremonies to tell them what they needed to do, and he only mentioned that they required pairs of bridesmaids and groomsmen during a discussion in the final week. Spring and Duncan also wanted to include some more modern/Western traditions, like the exchange of rings, so the Han ceremony was trimmed down a little. To my lasting disappointment the part that got cut would have involved the presenting of a live goose to some lucky person. To whom and why I have no idea and now will never know!
Our parents (Duncan’s & mine) arrived on the 14th of January bearing gifts (chocolate, cheese, a few bike parts and several boxes of Twinings Lapsang Souchong tea, which despite being picked and prepared in China cannot be purchased in China.) Spring was at work so we dropped their bags at the hotel then Keith, Duncan and I immediately took the folks on a tour of Chengdu’s panda sanctuary, then in the evening met up with some of Duncan’s friends (who our mum has met before) plus the new bridesmaid and best man for yet more sumptuous feasting…and Spring finally got to meet her father-in-law and step-father-in-law (having already met our mum earlier in the year). Sadly poor health had prevented our step-mum from making the trip, and our sister was also unable to make it being otherwise engaged looking after her new baby, but hopefully Spring can meet them in the UK this summer.
It was during this dinner that our dad’s eyebrows were first admired – something that was to happen over and over as long eyebrows are associated with longevity in China. Dad looks like someone’s stapled a pair of squirrel tails to his forehead so he may well outlast us all. Perhaps it’s also an auspicious sign for the marriage – we like to think so.
After a couple more days of sightseeing and feasting the wedding day arrived at last. Keith’s assistant best-man duties started early (after a late return from the final rehearsal the night before) and he and Mark (primary best man) escorted Duncan across town to the hotel where Spring had spent the previous night with her girlfriends. The first step in a Chinese wedding is for the groom and his men to entice the bride from the protection of her girlfriends. Red envelopes (Hong Bao) containing increasing amounts of money are slipped under the door, challenging questions must be answered, tempting treats are offered (Duncan had come prepared with Spring’s favourite brand of chickens feet) and finally, the groom must ransack the room searching for the bride’s hidden shoes, without which she cannot leave the room.
With bribes accepted, questions answered and shoes located, Duncan and Spring could finally descend to the hotel lobby to receive their guests. Keith, Mark and the two bridesmaids were on hand to pass out cigarettes (for the men) and sweets (for the women and children) to the arriving guests and someone else was charged with collecting the Hong Bao that are the traditional gift at a Chinese wedding. There is an extensive set of conflicting rules surrounding the giving of Hong Bao and Keith and I did our best to follow them, selecting an amount that we thought was large enough to respect my position of sister to the groom but not so high to be ostentatious, doing our best to find notes that were in pristine condition, and agonizing for days over whether to follow the rules for giving even numbers (particularly eights but not fours) or whether to go with nines, which apparently are good despite not being an odd number, or whether to just put a nice round number in which will be easier for the recipients to count. After all that effort I then disgraced myself by forgetting the bloody thing and having to rush out to a nearby shop and buy an empty envelope to hand over in lieu of the real thing. Idiot!
The wedding ceremony took place on a stage linked by a runway running through the centre of the room to an elaborately curtained area at the back of the room. With the exception of the bride and groom’s parents (who sat on a row of chairs facing the stage), the guests were seated at round dining tables.
Flanked by his two assistants and resplendent in embroidered robes, Duncan mounted the stage, bowed to his guests and then strode down the central runway to claim his bride from her curtained hiding place.
Together Duncan and Spring returned to the stage carrying a red cloth draped over their arms, linking them as a couple, and then bowed to their guests. Bowing was to be a central theme in the ceremony.
The ceremony proceeded, orated in both Mandarin and English, and with solemn faces Duncan and Spring washed and dried their hands then cut a lock of each other’s hair and placed them in a small bag, to be together for all time. Rings were exchanged and a tea ceremony was held. Traditionally unmarried men and women would have eaten separately and the wedding would be the first time they had eaten and drunk together. In the ceremony the eating and drinking was mimed, which was definitely a smart idea as the food and drink had to be consumed in a very specific way, with the participants hiding coyly behind their huge draped sleeves.
There was some more bowing, both individually and as a couple, to each other, the four compass points and their parents, and they then served tea to their parents as a mark of respect.
During the ceremony servers had been bringing food to the tables and as Duncan and Spring left to change into their next costumes the guests began eating and drinking. After a few minutes the newly-weds returned, with their assistants, and then had to make a tour of the room, drinking a toast at each of 20 tables. Duncan cunningly brought his own flask of ‘special baiju’ (ie water) to try to minimise the carnage that might ensue if he was forced into drinking 20 shots of the strong Chinese rice-based spirit. He was worried that some of his more astute friends would call him on it and force him to drink properly, but amazingly no-one did. Perhaps his reputation is such that no one could believe he’d ‘wimp out’ like that.
Chinese weddings mix formality (in the solemn-faced rituals and complex Hong Bao rules) with a distinct atmosphere of laissez faire. Many of the guests were dressed casually in sweaters and jeans, and despite the couple having chased people for RSVPs, four extra tables (with ten people per table) were needed at the last minute to cater for everyone who turned up. This meant that there was nowhere for the wedding party to eat and in any case by the time they had made the circuit of the room drinking toasts, all the food was gone and the servers were beginning to clear the tables. The Chinese are well used to dealing with rapidly changing circumstances though and the newlyweds and their assistants slipped away to eat downstairs in the hotel restaurant whilst the rest of us mingled. Throughout the afternoon our ranks diminished as people drifted home. At five o’clock, when the hotel needed the room back, the die-hards who remained relocated to the downstairs restaurant where more food appeared as if by magic.
There had initially been no formal evening entertainment arranged, but (at Keith’s suggestion) a karaoke night got a resounding vote of approval from Chinese and Western guests alike and so the wedding day eventually ended (well into the next day for some people) with dulcet (and not-so-dulcet) renditions of Chinese and Western pop songs and some awesome dance moves. What a perfect day!
Many congratulations to Duncan and his clever and beautiful wife, my lovely new sister, Spring. We wish you a long and happy marriage.