A very Chinese wedding
My second Malaysian Chinese wedding dinner is a very Chinese wedding indeed, and that is why I am so excited about tonight.
Before I came back to Malaysia, I had been briefed on the number of weddings we have been invited to. Out of the four, I am most excited about this one.
Tonight’s wedding is with mum’s older brother’s daughter’s son. That means – the groom is actually my nephew, although he looks much older than me.
Han Chiang High School
The dinner is in Han Chiang High School’s sports hall. Han Chiang is a really prestigious independent Chinese school, which teaches their own curriculum imported from Taiwan. It receives no government subsidies whatsoever, and is fully funded by alumni and related associations.
They even have their own website, www.hchs.edu.my, which is revolutionary for schools in Malaysia. Whereas neighbouring missionary schools like mine can’t even afford to refurbish our basketball court, Han Chiang has a plethora of eight over their 31-acre site, visible from the main road as one drives pass.
The Han Chiang wedding is a celebration for the community, a show of the family’s generosity, where no one is excluded and all are embraced. There is room for anyone and everyone who is the groom’s who’s who.
These types of wedding are becoming increasingly rare in Malaysia. The modern wealthier Malaysian who is educated abroad and aspires the high life would not be inclined to hold their wedding in a school hall, where there is no air-conditioning. A restaurant in a two-star hotel would be many’s minimum at least.
I dream of holding my wedding reception in my school hall someday, but that is a story for another time.
Kwang Wah and prawn crackers
Tonight’s guests are strolling into the sports hall, family by family. Children are running around everywhere, and it is noisy and public. A man is selling Kwang Wah Yit Poh, the local Chinese-language broadsheet. Another man is selling bags of prawn crackers for RM2 (£0.40).
Many can already be seen rustling through their evening editions as they wait for the dinner to begin. Two little cousins buy a bag each, and we share them out on the table.
No English is spoken tonight, not among the guests, nor among the hosts. Dad and I will utter the occasional English words when we can’t express ourselves in Hokkien. None of us can fully speak in Hokkien, as bilingualism is one of the curses of colonialism. The compère goes on stage and introduces the newly weds in Mandarin. The dinner begins.
“I know this guy!” Aunt says loudly. “He sings at the ko tai near my house.”
Ko tai is a form of urban Chinese street theatre, usually performed during the Hungry Ghost Festival in August. These performances are purported to entertain “spirits” released from hell for the day. Many performers sing popular Chinese hits from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and also have karaoke sing-alongs for the crowd. Of late, there have been police crackdowns on scantily-clad performers, who strip down to their bikinis during performances.
I’m no big fan of ko tai, but our MC tonight seems entertaining enough if only I could understand more Mandarin. No prizes for guessing who will be leading the karaoke session later.
The customary 8-course dinner is served, beginning with the Four Seasons and ending with the lychee syrup dessert. The delicious dishes are freshly cooked from a make-shift wet kitchen at the back of the sports hall. I know this because I can hear the deep humming of the stove and the spatulas clanging on the woks. I can also see the catering team on my way to the toilet.
Sarsi and Orange with a bucket of ice
If there’s one thing I came to this wedding for, it is the Sarsi and Orange with a bucket of ice. As a child, icy drinks were my favourite, and there’s nothing more I love than that bucket of ice, so perfectly crushed by the noisy aluminium ice machine. When it starts to melt, the waiters bring you a fresh bucket. Sarsi and Orange with a bucket of ice can only be found at wedding dinners like this.
The karaoke begins after the fourth course, when the groom’s younger brother gets picked on by his friends and a rowdy bunch of lads create a ruckus on stage. It is high school and childish at most, but as they’re having fun, it’s not my place to judge.
The dinner ends and we stroll out of the sports hall. The bride and groom are standing by the doorway, shaking the hands of every guest and thanking them for coming. When it comes to my turn, friendly smiles and handshakes are exchanged, but it is clear they haven’t clue who I am.
Although impersonal, tonight’s dinner is for me a snapshot of selfless community life.