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Born and raised in a traditional Chinese family, we grew up to accept that filial piety meant total submission to higher authorities, your parents; their words and decisions absolute, non-negotiable, indisputable, like a command from the emperor. And our parents, in their eternal wisdom, chose the mate for you for eternity. One wondered who actually had the final say in the match making game.
Less than a year after the Japanese defeat and exodus from Malaya, brother, at the marriageable age of eighteen, engaged to a girl whose face he had never seen, whose voice he had never heard, was thrilled about the coming nuptials.
Our ubiquitous village matchmaker, whose mouth, like a fish, never seemed to rest, went about her particular assignment for a big hung bao, searching the nook and niche for the ideal match for brother. She needn’t venture far, mostly by foot or carried on a bicycle by her athletic grandson. For most people in the villages in Southeast Asia, bicycles were then the only means of transportation for humans and goods, light or heavy, big or small. They still are in some parts of Southeast Asia. The metal racks installed at the back of the bicycle could haul just about anything—including children or senior citizens. We lived in a small intimate village. Everybody knew somebody. Like a huge extended family. Everyone knew the matchmaker, in her late sixties, a cherished soul, carrying with her an encyclopedic knowledge of every male and female, beautiful or ugly, born in the village. She always carried with her a bamboo fan to cool herself. Also a catalogue of potentials. Fresh and used or tarnished.
Once in old China, girls—or parents—who desired a rich man and a pampered life would readily yield, albeit some contemptuously and grudgingly, to foot binding as young as three while the bones were malleable. Tightening strips of binding-cloth tightly wrapped around the growing ductile feet—like clamps—literally crushing and distorting the bones in the process, would produce the much-sought after perfect three-inch length feet. An aphrodisiac in the making! Some contended. She could not run far from the snare of a panderer or her husband. Many chauvinistic males heartily agreed. This excruciating painful act of foot binding indisputably defined a woman’s role in a traditional Chinese society: her utter dependence on her men—husband and sons—for everything. The man’s parents preferred a woman with dainty small bound feet, a symbol of elegance and good breeding, her erotic gait drew attention to her swaying buttocks, making her vulnerable and desirable. “Show me your feet,” the first words a girl would hear from a matchmaker. Big feet guaranteed spinsterhood.
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The matchmaker, residing in a small house on our land, had small bound feet herself. Her face increasingly wizened but wiser. Her slow gait did not impede her pawing and scrounging around for the ideal match for a family. More than anything, families trusted her eyesight, her insight, and her intuition. Most valuably her impartial recommendations.
There were no formal presentations with documents, credentials, references, or testimonials to a potential bride’s parents. More of casual chitchat. More chitchat. Extended chitchat. Her presence more like a nonchalant friend dropping by for an early morning tea and biscuits. Parents raised questions. She answered them, knowledgeably. No embellishments. She spoke, plainly. Everything transparent, expectedly. More like a discreet volley between two sets of anxious parents. She the consummate referee, constantly fanning herself. Tropical heat and chronic skin rash tortured her, mother said. Most times the onus was on her with the persuasive skill of a trial lawyer to advertise the young man to the family. It was always the man’s family looking for a match, not vice versa. Trying to sell a female in matchmaking would suspiciously lead people to think she must be a reject, defiled, deflowered, defective, used, like some unwanted worn out tires. Fit for the dump or an old God-forsaken deep well where neighbors discarded their live or dead animals, the maimed, the crippled and other pests. Stench and fumes of death arising from the hole filled the air around it. A hell hole. The cries of live unwanted kittens or puppies from its depth continued to haunt me, still. One of my nagging fears, as a child, was falling into one, crawling with snakes and other living undesirables. A slice of hell, purgatory. This was the place for the defiled females in our village.
Reject the final proclamation of the matchmaker at your own peril. “He is a good man. He comes from a good family. He has never disappointed his parents. He will take good care of you. He is a hard worker. You can’t ask for a better man in this whole village.” Her words the gospel truth. Like the final verdict by a judge. Everyone trusted her, implicitly. She was the only one plying her profession in the village, skills honed by decades of experiences. No rival. No competitor. Suffer the fate of bachelorhood or spinsterhood if you dared ignore her magnanimity and wisdom. And persistence.
The platitude, beggars can’t be choosy, applied to both parties. Neither brother nor his future bride had a good education. Blame it on the Japanese bastards. Neither had any marketable skills or training. Would you consider raising chickens and pigs, growing garden vegetables and tapping rubber trees marketable skills? Neither had any plans for the future. Unless you include sex and procreation as part of the future plan. Neither was born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth. Unless you think eking out a living from the soil is a silver spoon. Worse, neither had any voice why they should love each other and be bonded like a tenon and a mortise. However, one consolation for brother and his future bride: many others in the village had married under similar circumstances. Nothing out of the ordinary. Green light flashed.
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One consolation for the parents: both sets of parents were winners. The woman’s parents gained a son-in-law; the man’s parents gained a daughter-in-law. Unlike the Indians, many working as rubber tappers for the British rubber plantations not far from our village, a female would be doomed to a life of despair and servitude from the inception of the marriage if her dowry—her beauty a secondary consideration or a naught—wasn’t sumptuous and impressive enough to meet oftentimes outrageous demands of the male’s parents. Dissatisfied husbands and mother-in-laws were known to kill the innocent woman with small dowry in India. In the case of my brother, engagement during the first months of the Japanese Occupation? Amidst the social, political and economic upheaval and uncertainties, threats of communist insurgency in the land? Absolutely insane to plan for a marriage! What hope for a young couple embarking on a new journey, unable to see the ups and downs along the road, strewn with economic debris, and Japanese soldiers marching in and out of our village? The parents wanted grandchildren. No personal rendezvous was contemplated or allowed from the time of the engagement till the actual nuptials. Blame the Japanese or the Chinese mores of the day.
One final hurdle to overcome before the wedding day. For this, mother did not consult the pastor of our church. We had become nominal Christians after grandfather, a devout Christian, returned to mainland China in the late 1930s and never returned to Malaya. Instead, like a pagan consulting an oracle, mother sought the divination of an astrologer for a propitious day to hold her only son’s wedding without offending heaven and earth, begging for divine blessing. The astrologer—sometimes working as a medium, a supposed intermediary between heaven and earth—did not wheedle the gods, but diligently sought answers from an old, fat, torn book, like a farmer checking his almanac for the best time to plant his first crops. The flip of a page or two gave mother divine assurance she needed, with no mysterious incantations or elaborate animal sacrifices. Luckily the families did not have to wait long for some gods’ approval. It had been spoken many eons ago and recorded for posterity in a book.
The consultation with the astrologer in a Buddhist temple, considered anti-Christian behavior but imperative, was a family secret.
That accomplished, it was time for earnest preparations, under father’s direction, with military precision. He took charge, planning and executing all the necessary maneuvers to put on a show—a wedding banquet worthy of the family’s name. That meant, in our Chinese tradition, you would be judged severely by friends, neighbors and relatives how much you were willing to spend for your first son’s wedding. Be lavish and ostentatious was the right motto to follow Whatever you did for the first son or the first son did to or for you would be the talk of the village for eons to come. Less attention was paid to other children. Most Chinese parents would be guilty of such partiality. Saving and protecting
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the family’s face was top priority. Economically, that meant sparing nothing to put out and on the best wedding feast for your guests.
In our Chinese tradition, guests demanded their money’s worth without shame, as if their cash gifts could buy a whole restaurant. Be prepared to feed an army of voracious guests. No one ever checked the identities of the guests. Villagers were oblivious to numbers or faces. You could expect a guest’s whole family, two to five or more, to be at the wedding feast, like children attending Sunday school punctually for big prizes awarded during Christmas. More guests could be expected now, many having suffered starvation during the recent Japanese Occupation. Weddings and funerals—with plentiful food—were always well attended functions.
Following another Chinese tradition, especially among the Hokchia people, father kept a meticulous accurate record of who gave what and how much to brother’s wedding. Because we were going through lean times, every hung bao was needed to defray the cost of staging such a big feast. I was soon to learn the record served a useful purpose in the future primarily so you could reciprocate the same amount or more of the cash gift to weddings at a future date. To kill gossip or not lose face, I heard grownups voice this admonition many times while growing up: “Add a little more to the original amount received if you are doing well.” Host families would overlook it if you were down in the pits somewhere. Villagers had ears and eyes. Worse, they talked.
I was just a kid, enjoying the fun and commotion as the family and relatives prepared the house for brother’s wedding. But to mother I was in everyone’s way. “Go away. You no helping. Go away. People busy. Go away. Go play.” And play I did. I didn’t want to disappoint mother. I trotted away gaily like a wound up toy. Not far from the house, under the watchful eye of sister, hovering over me like a hawk. Few words. Her wide, round eyes don’t blink. Though I didn’t actively participate in or understand much of what was transpiring all around me, brother’s wedding meant there was effusive joy, happiness, laughter and spontaneous gaiety in the family, again. Mother judged me a nuisance and an impediment to everyone. The wedding meant a momentous rebirth. It was like heaven on earth. A national holiday. Just like a Chinese New Year. Sight. Color. Sound. Smell. Merrymaking. Sufficient to titillate our senses, stirring our hungry souls.
The house was spotlessly clean. All the intense scrubbing and mopping were intended to drive out the old evil spirits, awaiting the arrival of a new fortune and good luck, the bride, like an infusion of new blood into a tired family’s vein. Everywhere you turned, bright, happy, crimson something greeted and saluted you on windows, doors, or walls in the main parlor. Most attractive and exquisite were ornate scrolls hanging on the walls, gifts from friends and well-wishers, with elegant Chinese calligraphy in brilliant gold or black for the young couple.
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No one could rest or sleep peacefully on the eve of brother’s nuptials with the entire household buzzing and hustling like a bee hive.