Peranakan Wedding (Part 1 Of 2): Tradition And Preparation

Peranakan culture has many layers. It is a complex mix of interesting practices and customs. Despite having a controversial history, Peranakans have stood the test of time. Whilst many elements within the Peranakan culture still exist, others, like the language, are slowly slipping away. This is natural as civilisation continues to evolve with time. In the past, the Peranakan community would frown upon couples who intermarry with different cultures. However, this is now a norm in modern-day society. As a young woman of Peranakan heritage, I am curious about the customs behind a Peranakan wedding. Whilst there is not much information available, I will still try to dissect the elements that are unique to a traditional Peranakan wedding.

Little is known about the traditional Peranakan wedding.
Little is known about the traditional Peranakan wedding. Information can be found across multiple sources. The only problem is that they’re often incomplete.
Image from “The Babas” by Felix Chia

The Elaborate Affair Of A Peranakan Wedding

A Peranakan wedding is normally an elaborate affair. Each wedding can last up to 12 days and include anywhere from 400 to 500 guests. A large number even by modern standards! There is a certain level of pride in hosting such a celebration. Nonetheless, the economic status of affluent Peranakan families was a factor that determined who could afford such luxury. For that reason, this is a privilege mostly enjoyed by upper crust Peranakans. That said, things changed with time. Peranakan families lived on old money (inherited wealth), and most of the men never had to work a day in their lives. Eventually, this caused their fortunes to dwindle. As a result, these 12-day wedding fanfares were scaled down to just three days by the turn of the 20ᵗʰ century.

Whilst traditionally parents would decide on arranged marriages, Peranakan families soon learned to accept the modern counterpart of love marriages. Despite this, couples still practise old-fashion customs as a means of filial piety. In his book “The Babas”, Felix Chia dedicates a chapter to Peranakan weddings. He states that in the early days, marriages were believed to be ordained by heaven. Thus, parents would engage scholars and monks to compare the horoscopes of their children. If the horoscopes were not suitable, wedding plans would fall through and a new match would have to be made. Should the families get a green light to proceed, the parents would then choose an auspicious day and time for the engagement and wedding to take place. It was common for Peranakan families at that time to hold on to Chinese customs like these.

12 Days Of Marital Bliss

If you thought that planning for a weekend of wedding festivities is hard, think again. Preparations for a Peranakan wedding are tedious and require an extensive amount of labour. The reality of spending 12 back-breaking days of intense activities makes me shudder. There were days for specific tasks and pre-assigned duties for each member of the family. As with all celebrations, food is at the heart of such a happy occasion. Naturally, it is all hands on deck in the kitchen for the Peranakan women. Hence, friends and family would rally around to provide as much help as possible.

Significant and ceremonial days of a Peranakan wedding
These are some of the significant and ceremonial days of a Peranakan wedding.
Source: “The Babas” by Felix Chia

The Invitation For A Peranakan Wedding

Back in those days, there was no Peranakan wedding without a Peranakan invitation. Invitation cards were unheard of. Instead, a small betel leaf stuffed with areca nut was hand-delivered to every guest as a formal Peranakan wedding invitation. Peranakans call this the “sa kapor siray”. Guests would receive the “sa kapor siray” along with a wedding basket which contained wedding favours. Older women in the family would hand-deliver this invitation in a tradition called “antah siray“.

Although all guests received this, the invitation varied between men and women. Firstly, the nyonyas (women) would attend lunch on “The Opening of Marriage Day”. On the other hand, the babas (men) would attend the dinner. The reason for this was the conservative belief that the company of Peranakan men and women should not mix. Even though the custom of “antah siray” went out of fashion in the early 20ᵗʰ century, some traditional Peranakans would still decline attending the wedding if they did not receive the “sa kapor siray“.

The Pounding Of Flour Day

Once the task of sending invitations was complete, the family could move on to make the Chinese glutinous rice balls known as “kueh ee“. In those days, rice flour was not readily available. As a result, the family would pound rice in large mortars to get a fine powder. From there, the powder was mixed with water to form a dough. The women would gather to shape the dough into small balls the size of a marble. There should be equal quantities of white and red-dyed balls. The “kueh ee” has many different roles to play in a Peranakan wedding. One of these roles includes being part of the dowry.

A tutorial on how to make “kueh ee“.

The Peeling Of Onion And Preparation Of Spices Day

The preparation for a Peranakan wedding feast would take many hours. Thus, Peranakan families would set aside two specific days to prepare for this. The first day is “The Peeling of Onion Day”. The women and helpers would quite literally spend the day peeling onions, or rather shallots. Large quantities of shallots needed to be peeled since they were used in a lot of wedding dishes. The following day is “The Preparation of Spices Day”. On this day, the women and helpers would prepare the Peranakan “rempah” (spices). Those familiar with Peranakan cuisine would know that this is an integral element of Peranakan dishes. Once the preparation was complete, Peranakan families would send a token of appreciation to thank relatives and friends for their help. The token would include a dish along with the “kueh ee“. These two items represent good luck for their contribution.

During this period, Peranakan families would also perform other customs. This included the exchange of wedding rings, dowries and a bowl of “kueh ee“. All of these items would be placed in a red and black basket, known as a “bakul siah“. It is important for the parents to choose an auspicious day for the exchange. Therefore, the parents would meet with an astrologer to determine the most suitable date. This was the same process as choosing the wedding day. As a result, the families of the bride and groom would come together on the set date to make this exchange as part of the engagement process. Once completed, the couple would deem to be formally engaged.

A painting of the "Bakul Siah" by my aunty, Chee Ai Lin
A painting of the “Bakul Siah” by my aunty, Ms Chee Ai Lin.
Source: Denise Lee’s Family Archive

What’s Next?

It is clear that preparing for a Peranakan wedding takes a huge amount of work. In the next episode, we shall explore two very significant pre-nuptial ceremonies that take place on the Presentation Day. So stay tuned for the next part about Peranakan weddings!

About Denise LEE

Law graduate who got seduced into the corporate world. Corporate minion by day, writer by night, Denise was raised listening to stories of old, before picking up storytelling herself. Self-proclaimed fashionista, foodie, shopaholic, and totally infatuated with all things Korean and Japanese.

7 Replies to “Peranakan Wedding (Part 1 Of 2): Tradition And Preparation”

  1. Pingback: Peranakan Weddings (Part 2 Of 2): 12 Days Of Celebrations - Espoletta

  2. Thank you for this article, and all your other articles on Peranakan culture and traditions. Can’t wait for Part 2!

  3. Enjoyed reading the interesting article. Very informative and excellent writing. I can’t wait to read your next episode!

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