Stephen Foong On Upholding The Disappearing Art Of Chinese Wedding Traditions
The wedding consultant describes the precious formalities that enhance the meaning of modern nuptials.
Behind every happily-ever-after, is the master or mistress of the ceremony. As part of a wedding special, we discover what it’s like to be in the shoes of a wedding planner, particularly when it comes to upholding the intricacies of the couple’s culture and heritage that's slowly vanishing.
If you’ve been through the experience of planning your wedding, the name Stephen Foong would have popped up on numerous search results. With over 40 years’ experience planning big days, he is regarded as one of the most seasoned and distinguished consultants in town with exclusive know-how of Chinese wedding customs. “I learned lots of traditions from my grandparents and parents. I grew up absorbing this way of life, met older people, listened and spoke to them.”
His eye for detail and sharp instinct has honed him the ability at connecting with couples he meets and knowing instantly the wedding they fit. “I come into the picture once the wedding date is set. Couples call to book me and I would work with them from six months to a year,” explained the specialist.
Stephen discovered a passion and flair for weddings from his first foray as a church wedding coordinator, and that’s how his career as Kuala Lumpur’s first known, full-fledged wedding consultant came to be in 1979.
We caught up with Stephen to educate us on the dying Chinese matrimony rites, plus some fun facts on the scarcely practiced ones today.
What is the first thing you do for a couple?
“I get to know them first and as we chat, I help direct their focus of attention. Most of the time they’re caught up with a dream wedding in mind, so you have to gently steer them to reality, make concrete plans and establish a budget. We’ll then check out hotels that suit their goals.”
How do you go about planning a traditional Chinese wedding?
“Parents should be involved from the start to ensure a smooth event. Then we streamline the customs the couple wishes to practice for the wedding day, such as how long the tea ceremony will be, and how to combine an intercultural couple’s customs. One of my goals is to make the ceremony educational, by explaining what is expected of them and their cultural symbolism. This is how I contribute with my traditional knowledge, by executing what I can to complete and beautify their special day.”
What are some pre-wedding rituals?
“Two weeks before a wedding, the guo da li (betrothal ceremony) of gift exchanging takes place. The couple will follow a gift guide of the items that represent good elements. Some essentials would be lotus seeds, rock sugar, oranges, fatt gou cakes and cookies.
The couple’s Chinese zodiacs set the do’s and don’ts’s of their wedding – for example, clashing zodiacs of the bride are not allowed to enter the bridal room. On the eve of a wedding, it’s bad omen for a couple to see each other. This is also when they take part in a hair combing ceremony that symbolises their maturity. They also bathe in pomegranate leave-infused water, to ward off evil spirits.”
What about on the wedding day itself?
“The first order of the day is the parents’ veiling of the bride, a gesture that depicts their blessings for her marriage. After the groom arrives, the couple pays respect at the alter, introduce the groom and seeking blessings from the bride’s ancestors, before proceeding to the tea ceremony. In the old days, the bride could only leave her bedroom when all her relatives have arrived and served them tea. And no, the groom’s raucous fetching of the bride ritual is not tradition.”
Speaking of rare traditions, what are some no longer practiced today?
“When the bride walks into the groom’s home for the first time, she has to walk over a small fire – or burning coals in a pot. She does this to prevent bad luck from entering the house. In ancient China, the bridal procession to the groom’s home is led by a chicken. From her room to the bridal car, her uncle will carry her as her feet is not permitted to touch the ground.”
Let’s talk about the food served at the banquet, how is it special?
“Each course is auspicious – it’s usually four seasons or five seasons. Four or five elements, each to represent prosperity. Depending on budget, people start with either lobster, a ‘Sea of Treasure platter’, a ‘longevity dish’ of fatt choy, or a ‘money bag’ dish of wontons. There must be a whole fish to symbolise wholeness, and prawns, to represent the sound of laughter in Mandarin (xiu harhar). Then of course, rice, to indicate a thriving home. The banquet ends with a sweet dish to signify the start of life on a sweet note.”
Are there any post-wedding rituals to end the fanfare?
“The couple will return to the bride’s house three days after they’ve been married. She’ll bring food and serve them the first cup of tea as a married woman. It’s a very symbolic practice of olden day China as most often, the bride will travel far away to live with the groom’s family and might never spend time with her family again.”
What’s the ultimate reward you get out of this significant role?
“The parents’ feedback touches me and means the most to me – no marriage is complete with the elders’ blessing. After all these years, their appreciation gives me the ultimate satisfaction, knowing that I’ve made an impact in executing the start of a new chapter in life.”
Photo credits: Chen Jia Han
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