Sunday, 25 December 2011


Dai Moong Yang, 18, and her bridegroom Lee Kong Beng, 23

SHE SAT QUIET as a mouse in her bridal chamber while the guests were feasting in the garden. The wedding party was being held in the groom's family house: in the early 1930's, hotels hadn't got into the business of catering for such affairs.

How she wished she could tuck in with the rest of the crowd. She had started the day early after a very scanty breakfast, and hadn't had another bite since. At the ceremony, the wedding cake had looked extremely tempting - but she hadn't had the nerve to help herself to a piece. To do that was unthinkable, and her lack of restraint would have been the talk of the town. Already, she was considered brash for walking into the hall with her head held high instead of looking demurely at the floor. She was a Christian bride going through a traditional Chinese ceremony; she had to know her place.

She was so hungry she could almost see the tables spilling over with exotic delicacies - oh, for just a morsel to tickle the palate! (She later found out that the banquet cost $6 per table of ten heads, not including children. A real bargain!) The food must be excellent, judging from the noisy gaiety of the guests. Or was it the drinks and the multicoloured lights? The Bridegroom and his family were busy mingling with the guests. Each member of the family had invited their own friends.

"You don't marry an individual, you marry an entire family!" That's what I always tell the sweet young things who come to me for romantic advice or to pour out their marital woes.

Halfway through the dinner, the Bride's presence was required.  Accompanied by the bridesmaid, the Bride did her rounds, smiling and inviting everyone to eat and drink their fill, all the while acutely aware that her own belly was growling. The Groom drank to the guests' health from table to table - in contrast to the Western custom, where the guests are expected to toast the Bride and Groom. (Nowadays, most Asians have settled on a compromise: they toast one another!)

After dinner, the Bride was requested to entertain the guests with a little performance on the pianoforte. She played a semi-classical piece she had learned by heart, and the audience, though unused to such musical fare, seemed appreciative enough. The bridesmaid went up and sang a popular love song. So sweet was her voice, she received a marriage proposal that very night! The ardent bachelor conveyed his proposal through the Bride's mother-in-law, but the bridesmaid was not interested. (The word "incompatible" hadn't entered the vocabulary of romance. After all, a wife was expected to be obedient, so there was no real need to get to know one's future wife; as long as she had a pretty face, that was good enough.)

Finally, the garden was quiet once more, and the newlyweds could retire to their private chamber. When they were alone, the Bride woefully confessed that she was starved, which surprised the Husband greatly. Wasn't it up to the Bride's family to look after her right until the moment she was married off? When his brother had gotten married, the  bride's family had supplied her with homecooked food for a whole month. But then, this Bride wasn't a Cantonese and, even if she were, would her "wicked stepmother" bother with such a tradition?

A slave girl was sent off to the kitchen to fry a couple of eggs and warm up the rice, and thus the Bride had a midnight snack for the first time in her spouse's home. It was heavenly. Anything tastes fine when one is hungry enough.

Two weeks went by and the husband's relatives were still in the house. The Bride wondered when they were going to leave. She had to serve tea at both main meals before she could sit down and eat. This went on for a month, and then her mother-in-law instructed her to stop doing it for the other in-laws, but she was to continue serving the mother-in-law indefinitely.

By now the Bride understood: all the in-laws were permanent residents, part of the extended family. The various maids or slaves belonged to the in-laws, except for two who were directly answerable to the Matriarch. These two had been bought specially for her by her late husband, the self-made tycoon. The cook and the laundry women, however, were shared by the whole household. There were forty people in that household and at least ten domestics. The entire operation was funded by earnings from the late Patriarch's rubber estates, crockery shop, provision stores, and so on. Still, it was a wonder that his resources could stretch that far.

In a household this huge, it was difficult for an expectant mother to be given preferential treatment at meals, as the Bride soon discovered. The other women seemed to have no problems. The sister-in-law spent all her time with her rich mother and had access to all sorts of delicacies. The other two women were always out playing mahjong somewhere in town, within easy reach of whatever food they fancied. But the Bride hadn't established her own connections and had nowhere to go apart from the school where she taught, and the food sold in the tuck shop left much to be desired. In the end, her new husband solved the problem by routinely smuggling all kinds of goodies into their bedroom, where she could indulge her cravings in perfect privacy.

Being married was turning out to be quite an experience. Did all brides have to go through such quaint initiations? It began on the second day of her marriage: she was expected to pour out a basin of water for her mother-in-law to wash her face in, making sure that all her paraphernalia were in their usual places - her big mug of mouth-rinsing water, toothbrush, tooth powder, silver tongue-scraper, face towel. This had earlier been the responsibility of the first daughter-in-law who, assuming that the new daughter-in-law knew the custom, had happily left the assignment to her.

Later, after breakfast, the Matriarch asked to be shown "the white handkerchief" (the traditional proof of one's virginity). The Bride had been unable to comply, for she had taken a bath first thing in the morning, and had no stains to display; she hadn't realised that in some quarters such a custom still prevailed. The Matriarch was tolerant of this oversight, knowing the Bride had lost her mother before she could be taught these things. The less said about it the better - so the Bride refrained from pointing out to her mother-in-law that her late mother, a devout Christian with progressive ideas, would never have dreamed of being party to such a crude and humiliating test.

As it turned out, the early-morning toilette ritual for the Matriarch happened only once. As a school teacher, the Bride had to leave the house quite early, and so was exempted by her mother-in-law from carrying out the expected duty, which fell to one of the maids.

Come to think of it, we Asians never used to go on honeymoons. After the wedding, the Bride and Groom had only the weekend to spend together before each went back to work, she to her teaching and he to his office.

Grateful to her mother-in-law for letting her off lightly on all the old customs, the Bride decided to donate the handsome sum of $5 per month to the Matriarch - "cake money," they called it. Considering that her monthly salary was only $25, there wasn't too much left after deducting food and transport expenses. Still, it was much better than staying at home all day. Apart from the resident army of domestics who took care of day-to-day chores, the fact remained that the Bride didn't even know how to boil water. Her late mother had wanted her to become a school teacher or a music teacher, so as a child she had never been allowed in the kitchen! That was the new middle-class lifestyle practised in Hong Kong, where her late mother grew up.

Her mother-in-law, on the other hand, was a nyonya, and believed that girls should primarily be taught to be good cooks; education was of secondary importance.

But most important of all was respect for the mother-in-law! In fact, the first time the newlyweds went out to see a movie, the Bride was expected to ask the Matriarch's permission just to go out with her own husband. If the old lady remained silent, it meant NO! Fortunately, the Matriarch was in a good mood and replied, "By all means!" But, before leaving the house, the Old Lady had to inspect her daughter-in-law's apparel, to make sure she brought no disgrace to the family. On several other occasions, the Bride had to go through at least two changes before receiving the Matriarch's seal of approval. Nothing too old or too loud or too solemn. The Bride understood that the entire ritual served mainly to establish the parameters of matriarchal power. The husband, of course, refused to see it as such: for him, his mother could never be wrong!

It took some time to adjust to the new situation, but at last the Bride could feel she had settled down comfortably to a happy married life, having been put through a crash course in what the Chinese call "the Art of Living."

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