A Head and A Tail in Malaysia: My Cousins’ Red String Weddings

Chinese mythology teaches that a couple is a match made in heaven. As the Gods watch over our world, small terracotta figures of each human are created. When the Gods decide the time is right they bind two figures together with red string.

Modern lore teaches that two people falling in love is a case of fate or destiny, but the Chinese community of Malaysia remembers the older stories. My cousins on my mother’s Cantonese side celebrated their weddings in the traditional style, honouring the Gods’ work.

I was fascinated and pleased by the events.

It was the eve of my cousin’s wedding day and I was trying my hardest not to fall asleep in my Aunt’s living room, in the bride’s house. My mum and aunties rushed about, preparing for the siong tau ceremony. My cousin, the bride, patiently waited in white pajamas before a table with a red tablecloth. Atop the table sat a whole steamed chicken, apples and oranges, and a joss stick holder filled with raw rice. Two lit red candles, joss sticks, a pair of scissors, and a mirror were stuck in the rice.

Siong tau means ‘ascend to the head’ and marks the bride and groom becoming grownups and the heads of their own matrimonial home. It was held separately, but simultaneously, at both the bride’s and groom’s houses. Both parties started around midnight and it was a laugh watching noisy aunties calling and Whatsapping each other back and forth to check whether the other side was ready to begin. When both parties were ready, the parents of the bride and groom brushed their children’s hair four times. Once for prosperity, once for good health, once for wealth, and once for the couple’s hair to grow grey together. As they did so, prayers and good wishes were said to the Heaven and Earth.

The chicken, apples and oranges, red candles and joss sticks honoured the Heavens, and are commonplace items in Buddhist/Taoist prayer. The mirror warded off evil and reflected the realities of life, whilst the scissors unkinked the knots in the couple’s life and recollected the red thread the Gods used to bind the couple together. In their white attire, symbolizing purity, the bride and groom offered tea to their parents and were rewarded with ang pau (‘lucky money’ in a red envelope) as a blessing to the start of their married life.  

Finally, as we onlookers battled sleepy eyelids in the late hours, we were rewarded with a sweet offering to curb our own midnight munchies. Family and friends ate tong yuen (glutinous rice balls in sweet soup) together for the couple to have a well-rounded, sweet life stuck by each other’s side. Not quite as satisfying as a midnight kebab run, but a treat for sweet dreams.

I slept for a few hours, but before the sun had risen, my mum woke me as she shuffled out of the room to help the bridal party prepare.

Meanwhile the groom and his procession prepared to make their way to our house. They bore traditional gifts for my cousin’s family: a basket of mandarins and apples, a whole roast pig, and a bottle of brandy (to appease the father of the bride, I assume!). When the groom and his procession arrived at the bride’s house, they had to pass a series of ‘tests’ to ensure the groom was fit to be her husband. These ‘tests’ were actually fun door games designed by the bridesmaids as the price of entry into the house. I giggled at the groomsmen doing push-ups with loud bridesmaids sitting on their backs, juggling eggs, getting their leg hair waxed off (it was noisy), and passing items from mouth to mouth. Once the bridesmaids were appeased, the groom’s procession finally entered the house to deliver their gifts and exchange the wedding rings. Solemnly the bride’s family gave their own gifts to the groom: a men’s wallet and a new pair of trousers.

The whole roast pig brought by the groom was cut up and shared out, but the head and the tail were returned to the groom. So that he could ‘have a head and have a tail’, as the Chinese saying goes, meaning that there is always a beginning and an ending, and that all things complete as a cycle. Honestly though, this part was probably just an excuse to enjoy some crispy pork belly. For the guests it was finally makan time! A buffet-style spread of fried noodles, roti, curries, and kuih (Malaysian style cakes and pastries) was unveiled (and devoured). 

After the meal a tea ceremony followed. The bride and groom knelt and offered tea to their parents and elder relatives. For them this part was a relief, as every relative gave them ang pau and gifts of gold or silver jewellery. After all, weddings don’t come cheap! I enjoyed this part too, for the couple were now ‘grownups’ too, and soon enough it was their turn to hand out ‘gift money’ to their younger, unmarried family members. Maybe extra pocket money is the reason ‘double happiness’ motifs are so strongly associated with marriage.

Chinese-Christians would forego most of these traditional wedding day customs for a church ceremony; save the tea ceremony, which they would hold that the night before or after the church wedding.

After the wedding and the tea ceremony, the celebrations finally kicked into full swing with a 10-course Chinese banquet reception dinner. The menu included foods that symbolise luck and prosperity: prawns, whole fish, and abalone; but the couple also added exotic cuisines, like Western and Thai food. At some point, while everyone was distracted by the food, the bride changed out of her white wedding dress for a traditional cheong sam.

If you haven’t noticed, the common theme throughout a Chinese-Malaysian celebration is eat, eat, and eat some more until you absolutely cannot move. I have a love-hate relationship with this theme. The food is so delicious, but followed by bloating and a spiral of self-regret.

In the days that followed, however, as I slowly recovered from the banquet, I reflected how refreshing and joyous it was to see such a beautiful celebration of tradition and culture. For me, as a Malaysian emigrant to Australia of over 10 years, it was not only a happy reunion; it was also a cultural revival, as I soaked in all the flavours of my Chinese history that are often watered down to suit a Western lifestyle.

I thought about how much traditional Chinese culture had already been lost, and I felt fortunate to have a family that continues to instill and share our heritage, wherever we live.

Mon Liew

Mon is an International Studies graduate in Melbourne, Australia. Her main interests lean towards Asian culture, identity, and globalization. Currently, she is on a gap year saving up for future travels and figuring out what her next steps will be.

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