The five laws of Chinese wedding dinners

JUNE 19 — So, your great-granddad was from China, you’re getting married and you have to book a makan place so your extended family (and their extended families) all get to join the celebrations.

And it has to be a Chinese restaurant (replete with round tables and red table-cloths, etc.) because if not you’ll be renounced by your immediate family.

And now you’re panicking because you’re a millennial and you forgot the "rules" your ancestors have lived by for the past five thousand years?

Okay, no problem. Here are five non-negotiable laws of Chinese wedding dinners which, if kept properly, will ensure minimal confusion and terror on the evening itself: 

Law 1: You shall never start on time. 

Look, if you start even four hours after the officially stated time on the wedding invitation, you’d be insulting the entire Chinese community and the entire history of China. 

No, you must absolutely wait at least a full working day after the last guests have arrived before giving the cue to the restaurant folks to unleash Course #1 which usually comes out accompanied by music which Darth Vader could march to, and is usually some climatologically challenged dish called 7 or 8 Seasons.

If you start the dinner on time, you’d be insulting the entire Chinese community. — Photo by Pax Tan.
If you start the dinner on time, you’d be insulting the entire Chinese community. — Photo by Pax Tan.
Why, then, do new couples keep printing cards stating that "Dinner will start at 7pm sharp" or something to that effect? There are only a few possibilities:

  • They are trying to transform Chinese culture – might as well throw ice cubes at the sun to cool it down.
  • They are assessing the guests’ grasp of Chinese culture – because with negative Western influences telling us to be "on time" and all that nonsense, you never know when a good test may be appropriate.
  • They are pranking the non-Chinese guests, especially the Mat Sallehs – isn’t it funny to see people come "on time" then wait for another 7 hours before dinner starts?
  • Restaurants are getting desperate, having lots of trouble opening till 4am and so they’ve been colluding with card-printers to slip in these "reminders", etc.

Law #2: You shall never mention that guests must pay

This one is critical. You can never ever say that your beloved guests must do something as unheard of and uncivilised as actually pay for their own food. 

To even hint otherwise will be a violation of the very rules of the universe which erected the Great Wall. 

This is a Chinese dinner – not a Dutch one. In fact, the Chinese have never even heard of Holland until last year.

Yes yes yes EVERYBODY knows that the passport into the dinner hall involves a packet (usually red in colour but gold is acceptable, too – don’t use a black or white envelope or there’s a chance your house could be specifically targeted by a Ming Dynasty asteroid) containing an amount which covers the cost of the meal for the number of guests in one’s entourage. But no no no NOBODY from the families of the couple involved must mention this fact.

I repeat: Nobody on the side of the engaged couple must ever utter the words "ang pow" in connection with the wedding dinner, or at least not until two hours after the event has ended and all the guests have driven out of the car park. 

It’s like some Egyptian Mummy curse; if you even so much as think that your guests must contribute to the RM900-RM2,000 cost per table (see Note 1), the wedding will be cancelled and the couple be forced into exile and disgrace for the rest of their waking life.

In fact, if you’re the dad of the groom and you’re kidnapped and a gun is put to your head and your captor asks, “How much must your guests put into each ang-pow for the wedding dinner?! Tell me now or I’ll blow your head off!!”, the only acceptable answer you can give is, “Don’t worry! No need to pay! It’s free!”

And if you’re kidnapped again after the dinner and the same fella puts the same gun to your head and demands to know, “If the dinner was free for all guests, a) why on earth did you NOT put a big sign outside stating this and b) why did you accept all the ang-pows people gave you?! Huh?? Answer me now or I’ll splatter your brains on the wall!”, the only culturally respecting answer you can provide is, “Aiya… not that I want to take the money, but people give ang-pow it’s not polite to decline mah! People give you must take lor!”

Law #3: If you’re a guest, the food is perfect (and nobody takes the last bite)

Not only perfect, but totally the best meal you’ve tasted in the whole wide world EVER (or, uh, since the last wedding dinner). 

From the peanuts at the start to the sweet stuff at the end, everything on the table is a gift from the Kitchen God and that dude only offers the best the celestial heavens can impart to earth.

It don’t matter if the chicken still has feathers on it, if the pretend-sharks’ fins’ soup is really starch with water, if the prawns tastes less like butter-fried prawn and more like butter-fried butter – during the 2.5 hours you spend in the restaurant, the food is perfection personified. God himself cooked it – so there.

[But what if the food is marginally below supreme excellence? What if the abalone is an inch in width less than what the angels decreed must be the perfect width of stir-fried sea-loving slugs? Well, there’s only one acceptable place to very reluctantly lodge a minor complaint to the food gods: In the car after you’ve driven out of the parking lot].

Also, please remember: No matter how gorgeous each and every bite is and no matter how much shame it piles on your mum’s best home-cooking, nobody – and I mean nobody – is allowed to take the last helping on the table.

That final chicken wing (it’s always a wing)? Sacrosanct. 

That last prawn? Untouchable. 

Most critically, that final bowl of crypto-shark-fin’s soup or eco-friendly soup-which-somehow-looks-like-sharks’-fin? Absolutely consecrated unto the holy of holies. 

Whoever touches that will be instantly annihilated into ashes and blown to the four corners of the world, their souls forced to walk the dark road of shame and judgment.

Law #3A: There shall be shouting

The proof that Chinese tradition is dying is not in the fact that many Chinese folks today can’t read or speak the language, or that Chinese opera can only be seen as backdrops for kungfu movies, or that not a single person in Malaysia has the slightest clue about Chinese art, or that some Chinese folks are surprised the fourth law is named "Law 3A."

If your voice hasn’t disappeared after the toasting ceremony, you’re not doing it right. — Photo by Calvin SH Lim
If your voice hasn’t disappeared after the toasting ceremony, you’re not doing it right. — Photo by Calvin SH Lim

No, the death of Chinese culture lies in the fact that people can still talk after participating in the gala moment of the dinner: The Yam Seng cum toasting ceremony.

Nobody even knows why a thousand people need to raise their glasses and scream their heads off using two syllables which sound like barbarians charging to war – and nobody cares. 

My best guess is that, like firecrackers and lion-dancing, silence means that evil has won and so there had better be noise as loud as a million thunders or, heck, nobody leaves the restaurant!

Ideally all guests are supposed to swallow a gallon of liquor each, the alcoholic percentage of which should be enough to launch Apollo 13 out of orbit should it catch fire, but not before shrieking YAMMMMMM SENNNGGGGG to the heavens (or the stage in front). If your larynx doesn’t explode, you’re clearly doing it wrong.

But, sigh, no. 

Nowadays, we have people drinking sissy-ass Chinese tea or "house wine" or Coke or Sprite or (for some reason) Mirinda Orange (it’s never Strawberry) and — blasphemy of blasphemies! — lip-syncing their way through the yam seng i.e. no actual sound coming out, just the mouths making "yam" and "seng" shapes. 

Such an offense is akin to visiting your Chinese in-laws for dinner, grabbing the soya sauce and pouring it on your mum-in-law’s cooking. 

That’s the reason the Chinese invented water torture.

Law #5: Book the dinner reservations way in advance

As in, you’re getting hitched in 2018? Get a time machine, go back to 2008 and book the restaurant. 

Enjoy the dinner. 

And congratulations.

Note 1: Nobody’s even surprised by the numbers, right? With these kinds of dinner packages, even the Mafia’s going, hey, we should skip running casinos and just open Chinese restaurants instead?

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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