Why Hong Kong couples opt for a Chinese wedding chaperone

From traditional tea ceremonies to rituals such as the bride stepping over the threshold with her left foot first, the chaperone’s guidance ensures protocol is followed, with some friendly advice thrown in when family stress boils over

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 November, 2017, 9:54am

It’s the crack of dawn, and Choi Lai-Kwan dresses in her traditional Chinese outfit, before dashing out the door to a client’s house.

Choi is a dai kam jie, or bride chaperone, hired by couples ahead of their big day to guide them through the traditions and rituals of a Chinese wedding.

Trained as a social worker in her early 20s, Choi – now in her 40s – even acts as a counsellor when families argue during the stressful wedding planning phase.

It is just after 8am when she arrives at the house of the bride, Crystal Wong Po-ching, 28, who has relied on Choi’s help throughout the planning for her October wedding.

Choi starts by laying out the cheongsam and embroidered shoes for the bride’s mother who, with the chaperone’s guidance, helps her daughter dress for the morning’s ceremonies.

The doorbell rings, and groom Ronnie Suen Che-nam, also 28, has arrived for his bride.

In ancient China, the groom had to win the approval of the bride’s friends and relatives, and subscribe to a tradition believed to originate from the Song dynasty (960-1279), called “barring the door”. This is for friends and relatives to show they will miss the bride, by literally blocking the front door, and asking for red packets.

Although asking for red packets – envelopes containing money – remains part of the ritual, “barring the door” has evolved into game playing. Bridesmaids create obstacles to test the groom’s knowledge of his soon-to-be wife. Choi has reinvented some of the traditional blessings and turned them into rhymes or poems.

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After the groom completes the challenges, the father of the bride gives her away to the groom. Choi hovers to remind them of what to say and prods the photographer to capture all the key moments.

Next up is the tea ceremony – one of Choi’s main responsibilities. The couple has to kneel and present tea to their elders.

Choi briefs the couple on how to address their elders and make sure the tea is presented in the right order, from the eldest relative to the youngest.

“All of our relatives are taken care of. Choi made sure no one was left out in the tea ceremony,” Suen says, adding that they hired a dai kam jie because his family and friends are not familiar with Chinese wedding traditions.

Choi recites a string of blessings, as the couple and the bride’s family sip their date and lotus seed tea. Choi also has English translations for non-Cantonese speakers: “The dates are red [auspicious], the couple must be a perfect match,” is one of the blessings.

“It might not make a lot of sense to my English-speaking clients, but I usually explain the Chinese traditions to them,” she says. “They are usually very happy after they understand the meaning.”

There are rules surrounding the smallest details. After the tea ceremony, for example, the bride must step over the threshold with her left foot first. In ancient China, emperors would sit facing the south, and on their left would be the east, where the sun rises.

“I am hired to remind the couple of all these details, because not a lot of people know about them. Some elders in more traditional families really care, and I make sure that I accommodate their desires too,” Choi says.

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After the ceremony is completed at the bride’s house, and the couple leave, Choi opens a red umbrella and throws rice in the air to “feed” the evil spirits – placating them – and protect the bride from bad luck.

Choi then goes to the groom’s home for another tea ceremony.

“Traditionally, the couples would bow to their ancestors, their elders and then to each other. After that, they would be officially married,” Choi says.

The ritual was long ago replaced by the signing of legal papers, but some families still observe the custom, and the dai kam jie hosts this ceremony.

Then it’s time for lunch, known as the “full house meal”– the first that the two families have together. It was originally served at the groom’s family home but now, mostly because of the lack of space, couples choose a Chinese restaurant.

“I always remind the bride to sit with her in-laws, to show respect, and remind the young couple that this is about two families merging,” says Choi.

After lunch, the wedding party moves to the church or the marriage registry for the afternoon. Choi usually adopts the role of wedding planner’s assistant, because this part of the day usually follows more Western traditions.

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As evening approaches, the procession heads to the venue of the wedding banquet for the final tea ceremony, more photo taking, and an elaborate Chinese banquet.

Choi hosts the tea ceremony, and moves on to help the bridal party with different tasks, from decorating the venue, to keeping an eye on expensive gifts and entertaining elderly relatives.

“Although sometimes it may not be my responsibility to put up decorations or talk to the elderly, part of my job is to ensure that the wedding goes smoothly and everyone is happy for the day,” says Choi.

Her duties are over by about 8pm, once the guests are seated for their first course. She congratulates the couple and their relatives again, then leaves.

“I always leave a wedding with so much positive energy. It is a joyous occasion, and being able to participate is the best part of my job,” Choi says. “It is a lot of hard work, too.”

She may first meet a couple up to a year before their big day and educate them on the various Chinese traditions throughout the planning process, including the exchange of betrothal gifts.

This ceremony happens a month or two before the wedding. Choi helps the couple prepare the basket of goods the groom will give to the bride’s family, from Chinese pastries and gold jewellery to red packets.

She also ensures the couple understands the symbolism behind every item. For example, a coconut is included because it is a homophone for “having a grandfather and son”, symbolising a long life for the elders in the family and the blessing of more children.

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Choi says one of her clients realised at the last minute that she’d forgotten to bring the sash that formed part of her Western-style wedding gown. Thankfully, Choi always keeps a collection of items in her work bag for “wedding emergencies”. She pulled out a silver ribbon and managed to fix the wedding dress just moments before the bride walked down the isle.

“I felt like everything was going to be all right on my big day when she was around,” says Wong, after her wedding, adding that Choi even helped entertain family members when traffic delayed the schedule.

“She was not only a dai kam jie, but also filled the role of a wedding planner,” Wong adds.

“I want my clients to feel like I am a friend ready to help them throughout the wedding process,” Choi says.