Perenakan weddings are largely influenced by Chinese tradition. It is also some of the most colourful wedding ceremonies in Singapore and Malaysia. These weddings are also known as “Baba-Nyonya” weddings. “Baba” represents the males while “Nyonya” represents the females.
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Traditionally, Peranakan weddings are deeply embedded in Confucian tenets of honouring and respecting deities, ancestors and elders. Like Chinese weddings, Peranakans place a great emphasis on choosing auspicious dates and timings for weddings. Such weddings are also usually a 12-day affair where different elaborate ceremonies and rituals are carried out.
Over the years, the Peranakan culture has evolved through natural adaption and adoption of the best of the various cultures. This ensures that modern weddings can still be personalised with the Peranakan heritage and feel. It gives the couple an opportunity to reconnect with their roots and pay tribute while having a trendy wedding.
These ceremonies and practices begin from the prenuptial activities right to the wedding day.
During the 1920s, Chinese-owned studios dominated the studio photography trade in Southeast Asia. This gave rise to a range of photographs that gave insight into the lives of Peranakans back then. Even though photographs were shot in black and white, the rich Peranakan culture is evident in their costumes and home interior.
In modern society, studios created to resemble the typical Peranakan home are also available for couples to do their wedding photoshoot. They make perfect backdrops to capture the colourful Peranakan heritage while donning traditional costumes. Brides can choose to wear the formal traditional costume or go for one with a modernised vibe. Many bridal studios now offer wedding gowns with a touch of Peranakan embellishments that are fashionable with a sense of nostalgia. The formal traditional costume can also be extremely warm and would be more comfortable if you’re going for an indoor shoot in an air-conditioned environment. Nyonya period hairdos and jewelries can help to complete the look.
An Chng (setting up the matrimonial bed)
The act of furnishing the matrimonial bed is to encourage acts of procreation to lead to births of offsprings. In the past, wedding beds were commonly made of namwood and coated with an auspicious red-coloured lacquer. They are also decorated with silk curtains, beadwork and embroidery, usually featuring motifs such as insects, butterflies and birds. These features incorporate the concepts of fertility and wealth and depict their beliefs that like butterflies and magpies, the wedded couple would also reproduce successfully and quickly. In addition, a comb of banana, yam plant and a stack of lemongrass plants were also placed near the bed to bless the bed with wealth, longevity and fertility.
While these elaborate customs may not be so thoroughly followed in the present day, these ornately decorated Peranakan wedding beds reveal the rich and vibrant culture of Peranakans. Modern couples can opt for bed sheets or pillow covers with embroidery designs resembling those of the olden days. A practice that is still common amongst the Chinese in Singapore today, is also to let a young boy roll over the wedding bed three times as a blessing to the couple for their first-born to be a male.
Lap Chai (exchange of wedding gifts)
The Lap Chai ceremony is normally held on an auspicious date chosen by both families or on the weekend prior to the wedding day. Wedding gifts are exchanged between the families of the bride and the groom. In most instances, both families would have determined and finalised the list of gifts to be exchanged and these gifts differ from family to family.
Traditional gifts include a pair of red candles emblazoned with dragons and another pair attached with phoenix cutouts. Dragons and phoenixes are mythical creatures and they symbolise harmony and luck for the couple. Otherwise, they can also be replaced with red packets.
In olden days, these gifts are sent in a wedding basket called ‘Bakul Siah’ ‘Bakul’ means ‘basket’ in Malay while ‘Siah’ means auspicious in Hokkien. They are usually lacquered in auspicious colours with various motifs. These baskets are usually used by wealthy families. Items transported include silk, cotton garments, beadwork, jewellery and auspicious fruits like oranges.
Cheo Thau (hair combing ceremony)
The Cheo Thau ceremony is one of the most significant ones and marks the first occasion where the bride and groom will wear their authentic wedding robes. The couple will individually undergo the traditional rites of hair combing as a sign of stepping into adulthood. Essential items of the ceremony include gantang (rice measure), nyiru (large woven rattan tray), scales, scissors, razor, comb, ruler, mirror, a basin of water and sprig of ixora and spring onion.
To proceed with the ceremony, the professional services of the Sang Keh Mm (Mistress of Ceremony) and Koo Yah (young boy) are needed. The Cheo Thau preparation is relatively time consuming and may be scheduled to begin at the unearthly hour of between 11pm to the next morning at 7am. Hence, some couples would choose to forgo the ceremony to get a good night’s sleep before their big day.
Chim Pang (unveiling of bride)
The unveiling of the bride marks the first meeting between the bride and groom. Usually, the groom would reveal the bridal veil in the wedding chamber. Traditionally, this is the first time they lay eyes upon each other as they should not meet the day before their wedding.
They would then be served tea and a bowl of ‘Kueh Ee’ which are glutinous rice balls dyed red and soaked in a sugar syrup. This meaningful event is to occur near the bed, immediately after unveiling. In the past, this is considered their first meal as husband and wife to symbolise a sweet beginning. Only one piece is eaten and the rest of the bowl is left under the bed. The number of maggots spawned over the next 12 days of the wedding is supposed to indicate the number of children they will have. However, in modern times, this is not a common practice for hygiene reasons.
Makan Choon Tok (first meal)
After the Chim Pang (unveiling of bride), the Makan Choon Tok is held for the couple. This is the first occasion where the couple would partake in a meal as husband and wife. It would usually consist of a traditional feast of 12 dishes for the couple. However, they do not inhale the whole feast of delicacies. Instead, they would only swipe their silver chopsticks in each dish and touch it to the lips of their partner.
The table to place these food would also be set near a window with a wall mirror facing the bridal bed. The mirror is deliberately positioned to reflect the food laid out on the table. The reflection signifies prosperity and abundance. This ceremony will end with a drink of Ang Cho Teh (dried red dates tea).
Sohjah Tiga Hari (paying respect to the elders)
The next step is to pay respect to deities, ancestors and elders, whichever applicable. It will be in accordance with their ranking in the family hierarchy. This ceremony seeks to display the importance of ranks in the family as it is believed that when everyone understands their own position in the hierarchy, peace can be achieved.
The couple will have to stand and kneel continuously for many cycles to many elders. Hence, this ceremony was much feared during the olden days for the taxing procedure when there’s an extensive number of families and relatives. Nowadays, it is less exhausting as complete cycles of homage are accorded to direct elders (grandparents and parents). Meanwhile, close relatives are clustered together according to generational and patrilineal or matrilineal related groups. While paying respect on a group basis, it has greatly reduced the strain and time allocated to this ceremony.
Tuang Teh (tea ceremony)
The next ceremony also seeks to respect elders by serving them tea in accordance to their ranking in the family hierarchy. It is also imperative to impart the correct form of address to everyone in the family. The usage of ‘Uncle’ and ‘Aunty’ is usually frowned upon especially if they are closely related. In keeping with the correct form of address, it is vital to have an elder who is able to guide the couple on the proper form. The intent is to ensure the couple can address everyone in the family correctly right from the start.
Traditionally, teapots and teacups made of Nonyaware were commonly used. Wealthy families would choose to use silver vessels instead. The tea set usually consists of a pair of globular teapots and two pairs of teacups as Peranakans believed that ‘good things always came in pairs’. The tea used in Peranakan tea ceremonies is a mixture of boiled Ang Choe (red dates), dried longans and rock sugar.
Similar to the Sohjah Tiga Hari (paying respect to the elders) ceremony, the elders will be served tea according to their ranking, starting from the grandparents. The couple also has to offer tea to the groom’s family first, followed by the bride’s.
The wedding reception is the climax of the Peranakan wedding celebration. It is also an opportunity for the Peranakan family to flaunt their wealth and identity. Peranakan ladies will usually put on embroidered stunning kebayas and sarongs during the reception.
Although the couple may select a modern theme for the evening, there is a growing awareness to include the traditional segment into the evening. Some couples choose to dress in traditional Peranakan wedding attire, led by little Nyonya flower girls sprinkling bunga rampai (sweet scented flowers) as they march in. After their march in, they can choose to enact a simple sohjah on stage to thank their wedding guests. They will then take their seats for the first 2 courses and then head for a makeover into modern outfits just in time for their toast ceremony.
The evening programme can also include Peranakan entertainment. Versatile bands providing joget and oldies songs are available to serenade and provide dance music to your guests all night long. However, due to the speciality and high demand for these bands, most of them usually have to be booked at least 6 months to a year in advance. It can even be enhanced if you have an emcee that can banter in patois and liberally toss some pantuns as the event proceeds to engage your guests.
As door gifts for your guests, the couple can prepare Bunga Rampai (sweet scented flowers) or souvenir Bakul Siah (basket) as tokens of appreciation. If you prefer something more modern with a touch of Peranakan heritage, fridge magnets or chocolates with Peranakan motifs can be something to go for.
Although the traditional Peranakan wedding is a glamorous and detailed 12-day event, once you put in effort to include these simple customs and cultural essences, you can still have a stylish Peranakan wedding. By keeping these cultures, it also encourages the continuity of such traditions for generations to come.