A Wedding in Chiang Mai
I have been reading a marvellous book called Travellers’ Tales of Old Japan 1 in which early travellers from many countries describe their experiences – meeting hostile samurai, visiting a public bathhouse and flirting with geisha girls. Although this wedding in Chiang Mai had no samurai or geishas, it was still a very new and original experience.
It all started, I was told, at about 4.00 am, when the wedding make-up artist arrived at Anocha’s hotel room.
At that hour there are still several hours of good sleep to be had!
But I guess, as a curmudgeonly old bachelor whose morning toilet consists of a quick shave (sometimes) and an even quicker shower and shampoo of whatever hair remains, most men have no idea what is required by a woman on her wedding day.
Actually, the story starts a lot earlier than the pre-dawn hours of the big day, as I have known and respected Anocha for about ten years, during which time we worked together at an International School in Northern Thailand.
I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the house blessing when she and her mother moved into a very nice new modern house, and after the birth of her son I was able – after chasing down the wrong hospital – to wish her and the baby good health and great happiness.
I had been to only one other wedding in Chiang Mai – where the bride and groom were both Northern Thais and where the ceremony was very traditionally Thai. Mr “Bear” and his lovely wife will celebrate their fifth anniversary in a few months’ time.
This wedding was going to be a bit different.
Anocha is a strong woman and has very firm ideas of what is right and what she would like for the future. While working together, I came to appreciate her suggestions and to welcome her directions as I negotiated the – for a foreigner – tricky pathways of Thai customs and traditions. Her family is like many Thai families and has strong links to its Chinese heritage.
So – for a start, we had a wedding that was going to be a bit Thai … and a bit Chinese.
- Enter the groom
Actually – the groom did not enter quite so easily.
Mtheto – another teacher at the same International School – is from Malawi, and his extended family lives in Malawi, Kenya and the United Kingdom … so there had to be a bit of Africa in the wedding mixture as well. I am not sure, then, if it was a Malawian tradition, or a Chinese tradition or a Thai tradition for the groom to be challenged by the guards lining the entrance to the wedding room.
In the western tradition the groom and his best man arrive early – hoping that the bride will not be too fashionably late for the ceremony. For this wedding Mtheto, carrying what was to become the bride’s bouquet, was met by guards with ceremonial barriers across his path. He was challenged by each pair of guards to perform some difficult task – such as half a dozen push-ups or proclaiming his feelings for his bride:
- Anocha! I love you!
The guards (young men who were Anocha’s cousins) reluctantly lowered their barriers (strips of gold and red ribbons), gleefully pocketed the traditional red envelopes with which Chinese people “pay” their ancestors or present gifts to the family, and Mtheto was allowed in to the beautifully decorated wedding hall.
The theme was gold and red and white with lovely flowers, a pretty red and gold stage – but no blushing bride.
A wonderful pantomime followed during which Malawian women filled the hall with thrilling ululations and I felt like calling out:
- Look out! She’s behind you!
- Warm … warmer … Nah – cold now … yes, warm … warm … red hot!
… and eventually bride and groom were united in front of their families and friends. I was one of two guests not from Malawi, Kenya, China or Thailand and found all this very entertaining. Gill, the other Australian, is also a teacher at the school where Anocha and Mtheto work.
First things first, of course, and the bride price – or in Malawian language, the lobola – had to be paid.
In Malawi the payment of a bride price is not to “purchase” the woman. It is to compensate the bride’s parents for the loss of their child and to demonstrate that the groom is able to support his new wife in an appropriate manner.
Perhaps next year, when Anocha and Mtheto travel to the strongly-Christian country of Malawi to renew their vows in his home town and before all the friends and relatives who could not attend the Chiang Mai event, there may be the possibility of more traditional gifts of livestock or items for the kitchen or house, but in Thailand the price was paid in cash, gold bracelets, necklaces and a diamond ring.
There was a lovely moment when Anocha’s mother played a very grand pantomime dame, with a gold silk bag containing bundles of Thai banknotes slung over her shoulder, staggering in dismay to show just how heavy the load was … and how valuable it was.
Anocha and Mtheto exchanged rings in a very Western style but the addition to Anocha’s neck of several pretty gold chains was another ceremony I had not seen before.
At about this time Anocha stopped being Miss Anocha Poowapittayanon and became Mrs Anocha Hara. They made a very happy and handsome couple, with Aey and her flawless make-up and hair (that early start had paid dividends!) dressed in a lovely mandarin-collared white gown. Mtheto wore a fawn suit and gold-tinted tie.
Most of the local guests were in smart casual clothes with a sprinkling of traditional Thai costumes, and the African visitors were also smartly dressed in casual clothes, although some women had huge and elaborate African print head scarves that gave the occasion an other-worldly atmosphere.
Tea for Two
The very Chinese tea ceremony came next.
Several years ago I was guest of honour at a very traditional Japanese tea ceremony in a beautiful garden pavilion in Tokyo. The preparation and stirring and whisking of the tea, and the ceremonial rotation of the artisan-crafted bowl, the sense of camaraderie gained by participation in the ceremony are all important aspects of the ceremony – which can sometimes last for several hours.
Chinese traditions are as complex as those of its neighbour but the Chinese are also, perhaps, a more pragmatic race, and sometimes take a more straightforward approach to things.
Family members passed Anocha and Mtheto tiny ceramic cups of tea poured from a Thermos flask.
The bride’s and the groom’s parents were served first, with mum and dad sitting and the hosts kneeling in obedience before them. Then older extended family members and respected guests were then served tea – in tiny paper cups – with guests and hosts standing facing each other. Ceremonial bows before and after sipping the tea (two cups for me and other single guests – one from the bride and one from the groom), and the exchange of gifts followed.
Most guests presented envelopes of cash and in return received small gifts from the bride and groom – beautifully wrapped gift soaps, jars of honey following an old Chinese wedding tradition, or other goodies.
- I am glad I did not buy them a toaster or a set of saucepans or an electric blanket.
These would have been a lot more difficult to hand over politely and elegantly while sipping cups of tea … but in my stupidity I had forgotten the traditional use of red envelopes for Chinese gifts and had used instead what I though would be a nice touch.
My gift was inside a gift card hand-made by a Chiang Mai artisan, inside a hand-made mulberry-paper envelope.
- A white envelope
In traditional Chinese culture, white is the colour worn at and associated with funerals.
Ah well … these foreigners! I hope Anocha and her family and her ancestors will forgive this small faux pas in the spirit (Ach! There I go again!) that it is the thought that counts … and not the lack of thought.
Once the guests were well watered, the bride and groom ceremoniously fed each other dessert from the same bowl.
Mtheto’s aunt (a professor of social statistics at the University of Southampton, and whose son was a member of a group of young men Mtheto had worked with in Nairobi) pronounced a long and moving Christian blessing on the couple, wrapped by now in a traditional cloak presented by the groom’s mother. The groom’s father removed a traditional wooden bracelet to be placed on his son’s wrist.
The best laid plans …
Mtheto’s hand was too large to allow the bracelet to be put on his wrist, so it was presented to Anocha instead, who thereby became not only the new mother of the family, but also the new father of the family. She was also given a new Malawian name – A Nya Kumwenda – so all her personal stationery at the school will no doubt have to be reordered – and made a size or two larger to include all her new names and titles!
One in Seven Billion
Mtheto is a teacher. He is also a poet, songwriter, dancer and performer. At one stage in the ceremony he removed jacket and tie, pulled out his shirttails, donned a backward-facing baseball cap and got going.
He had written three songs to celebrate his marriage to Anocha – the only woman in the seven billion people on the planet who was right for him. Other rap songs showed the depth of his performance skills and on several occasions his songs became duets as Anocha joined in with him.
Aey’s father and uncles also performed – thanks to the marvels of a karaoke screen – and then it was time for lots of happy snaps, more speeches and a huge and splendid buffet lunch.
Shall We Dance?
They say that cats know if you are a cat lover or a cat hater. If – like me – you are one of the latter, you can be sure that the damned animal will make a beeline for your leg especially if you are wearing black trousers, and proceed to rub their hairy bodies all over you, turning those black trousers into mottled grey things with white turn-up cuffs.
- So it is with dancing.
When I was younger I danced at the drop of a hat – on a table, on the floor, and even under the table on one notable occasion. Alvin Ailey, Isadora Duncan, Michael Jackson, Rudolph Nureyev – eat your hearts out! Hall is on the floor.
- Actually, someone once likened my dancing to that of a drunken pterodactyl
Once the dancing started I was scheming to slink out quietly knowing that there was NO way I was going to get up on the floor and NO way I was going to dance … until Anocha’s mother spied me sitting there looking like a wallflower or a sphinx, and dragged me up to shake my old bones.
Africans can – cliché or nay – move in ways strange and mysterious to Westerners. One of Mtheto’s cousins or friends indeed outdid Alvin Ailey with his sensational footwork, and at one point I found myself dancing with Mtheto’s mother.
Well, when I say “dancing”, it was really more the moves of an arthritic marionette manipulated by a left-handed puppeteer with no sense of rhythm trying to emulate the sinuous and rhythmic moves of a woman my age … but a woman with many many more moves than Christopher “Pterodactyl” Hall.
Kids – sons, daughters, cousins and nieces, grandsons and granddaughters – enjoyed the day as much as the adults – joining in the dancing (a lovely moment was when Anocha danced with her eight-year-old son Nathan) – and scampering about the place enjoying being kids and making the morning a lovely family affair.
The bride tossed her bouquet – which was caught by her best (unmarried) friend – the dancing continued and I thought it was time to leave the younger people to their fun.
I was honoured to have been invited to the ceremony and thoroughly enjoyed it for its romanticism, for is exotic aspects and for its traditional aspects. I was sorry there were no geishas or samurai there – but glad I was able to join such a happy bunch of people from two continents.
- Travellers’ Tales of Old Japan, Editor Michael Wise, Marshall Cavendish Editions, © 1985
Text © Christopher Hall 2018. Photographs by Gillian Turner and the bride’s family
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship