I’m currently back in the US for a few weeks for a wedding and to catch up with family and friends. When I mentioned my plans to Jeremy’s aunt, she asked if weddings in the US are the same as they are in Singapore. And the answer is, usually, sort of. This particular aunt’s son recently wed in a Catholic church ceremony, similar to the one I’ll attend in a few weeks, and both that wedding and the stateside wedding I’m attending had a lunch reception. In the large picture, the weddings look very much alike, but of course every wedding is unique in its own way and brings its own set of culture and circumstances to the table. Keeping that in mind, there are still a few key differences between Chinese-Singaporean and American weddings that I think are worth mentioning.
Gatecrashing: In the US, when someone uses the words “crashing” and “wedding” in the same sentence, they’re talking about people who show up at strangers’ weddings for a free meal and party. I don’t think it’s as common as tv and movies would have you believe, but it happens.
In Singapore, however, many grooms go through a tradition called “gate crashing”. On the morning of the big day, the groom and his friends show up at the bride’s home to take her to the wedding. The bridesmaids put the groom and his friends through a series of unsavory tasks, similar to hazing, that the groom must complete before he can be let through the gate to fetch his bride. Tasks can include things like singing, dancing, doing cheers, wearing outrageous costumes and always include eating/drinking a variety of foods and liquids mashed together in disgusting combinations. It should not come as a surprise to you that my husband didn’t tell me about gate crashing until after we were married.
Civil ceremonies: In the US it’s common for people to have a church wedding or outdoor wedding with religious officiant and that usually fulfills both the legal and spiritual requirements of marriage. Some people choose to only have a civil ceremony. However, it’s not common for a couple in the States to have a civil ceremony and then a separate big wedding as well.
In Singapore, the situation is quite different. You are required by law to have a solemnization, and how that fits in with other plans for a church or lavish wedding varies widely. Many Singaporean couples have two events, both of which westerners would think of as “wedding” but that are two different things to a Singaporean: 1. a solemnization with just close family and friends where food may or may not be served and 2. an additional wedding at a church or other venue with a banquet afterwards. Sometimes these two events can occur a few years apart, especially if the couple is waiting for a Built-to-Order flat to be ready.
The solemnization often occurs at the Registry of Marriage (ROM) or Registry of Muslim Marriage (ROMM) for Muslim couples; however, solemnization packages are offered at other venues as well, such as hotel banquet rooms and wedding halls. If a couple has a wedding in addition to the solemnization (usually just called the couple’s ROM Day), or a wedding that incorporates both religious and civil requirements, this is when the big banquet is usually held. Jeremy and I did this all kinds of backwards by having our ROM and a reception banquet on the same day, but no church or other venue wedding at any point. In US terms, we got married at the courthouse and then had a fancy banquet dinner.
Food: Speaking of wedding banquets, in the US, wedding dinners often are a plated meal, meaning you have your protein, vegetables and carbs or starches served all on the same plate at once. A soup or salad might be served beforehand and appetizers are served during a cocktail hour that precedes the arrival of bride and groom. In Singapore, if it is a Chinese wedding, there will also be appetizers served during a cocktail hour and then there will often be eight courses served on top of that. If the wedding has a lunch instead of dinner in Singapore, it will often be dim sum. Serve yourself buffets are an option in both countries.
Tea Ceremony: This is an important part of Chinese weddings all around the world, and yes, Jeremy and I had one too. It was part of our reception banquet. During the tea ceremony all of the couple’s older relatives- parents, aunts and uncles, elder siblings- come up one couple at a time and are served tea by the bride and groom as a sign of respect. The relatives in return give hong bao (red packets with money inside) to the couple. Some relatives will give the bride jewelry as well. Younger siblings of the bride and groom also participate in the tea ceremony, but because they are younger, they serve tea to the bride and groom and get to receive a hong bao from them.
The Toast/Emcees: In the US, the Best Man usually gives a toast to the new couple and both Best Man and Maid of Honor often tell the story of how the couple met or other humorous stories about the couple’s courtship. At the end of the toast, everyone is attendance says “Cheers” and takes a drink.
In Singapore, friends of the Bride and Groom often act as Emcees for the reception, telling stories, welcoming and introducing the new couple to the guests as they enter the hall together for the first time, and helping to narrate the tea ceremony by introducing each aunt, uncle and parent as they come up to be served tea. The traditional toast of “Yum Seng” is said with all the guests at once and also at each individual table. The bride and groom and their parents and siblings make the rounds from table to table and perform this toast at each table. The toast is yelled as loudly as possible and the first syllable is held as long as possible so it sounds more like this: “Yuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuum Seng!”
Tables will seemingly compete in a friendly way for who can toast the loudest and longest.
Affection: This isn’t about kissing the bride. Of course, grooms kiss the bride in both countries! However, in the US, people love to hug the bride and take photos with their arms around the bride and groom. We’re very affectionate that way. Some Singaporeans are too, but because many aren’t, just before I walked through the door to “our song” to be introduced as his bride, Jeremy turned to me and said in all seriousness, “Remember, please don’t hug anyone.”
Gifts: In the US, couples often have a Bridal Registry, usually at a store that carries housewares, such as Macy’s or Crate and Barrel. The couple chooses what items they’d like in advance of the wedding and puts these items on a list that’s stored in the store’s database. As guests select gifts off the registry, they’re removed from the data base. Opinions vary widely on how much one should spend on a wedding gift. Some say you should “cover your plate” and buy a gift that costs as much as your dinner cost. Others say you should spend what you can afford, even if that is nowhere near the price of the dinner.
In Singapore, it is much more clear cut. People give hong bao as their gift, so cash, and yes, you are expected to cover your plate. $100- $150 per person is the current average cost per person of a wedding dinner.
Luck: In the US we say the bride must wear something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue for good luck. The groom must not see the bride before the ceremony and the bridal bouquet and garter belt are thrown to the singles in attendance, with the people who catch these items receiving a sign that they will marry soon too.
In Singapore, Chinese weddings are often held on lucky days, at lucky times, and in lucky years. Some couples consult a fortune teller to select the auspicious days and times for marriage.
Jeremy and I had a pretty Singaporean wedding: ROM, tea ceremony, eight course Chinese banquet. Originally we had planned to just have the ROM, then go home and start our lives together. We are fortunate that Jeremy’s parents wanted a banquet to celebrate our marriage. We’re grateful for that, but because we hadn’t even considered what we would include if we were planning the wedding, the reception didn’t really reflect both of us. It’s hard when you’re living so far apart, you just want your new life to begin, and I think in our rush to be together after years of long-distance courtship, we just didn’t reflect hard enough about things. We don’t have regrets, but I would encourage anyone planning to marry, especially cross-cultural marriages, to make sure you think about how your wedding will reflect both of you and both of your cultures.