30 January 2015

Malaysian Weddings - Chinese and Kelabit Style

Malaysia is a country with a mixed bag of cultures and they all celebrate differently.  A few weeks ago we were invited to help celebrate the wedding of one of my husband’s colleagues – her husband to be is Chinese and she is half Chinese half Kelabit so they were having a fusion event. 

In Malaysia only Muslim marriages can combine official and cultural elements (not dissimilar to a Church wedding in the UK) so it is common for the cultural and official weddings to be held separately.  In this instance the couple had been legally married a few weeks before but the cultural wedding was the big event.

The wedding in Miri's Catholic Cathedral
The couple are both Catholic so, in the morning, we went to the Church wedding. This was a fairly standard Catholic wedding – no different to the many that I have been to for other friends with the exception that it was very large - the groom's family alone comprised more people than we invited to our wedding.  We then went home until the evening reception at a local hotel some hours later – this is when the differences really showed.

When we arrived at the event we handed over our Angpow – a little red envelope with the money for the wedding.  It is not traditional, here, to give gifts at a wedding unless you are very close to the family, instead you give a set amount of money per person attending sufficient to cover the costs of your meal.  One of our friends said that 90% of the cost of his wedding was covered by the contributions from the angpows.  A table is set up at the entrance to the event for guests to hand over the envelope and have their names (and contribution) ticked off a list. Again there were a lot of people - the tables filled the hotel's (large) grand ballroom, there were easily more than 400 people there but we were told that it was not an unusual size for a wedding.

A large family...
Sarawak is a fairly casual place and so it was not surprising to see guests in a range of dress from traditional to t-shirt and shorts to full wedding attire.  The formal event started with an introduction of the bridal party (who had changed to different clothes from earlier in the day) and then the first of a ten course meal was brought in.  The lights were dimmed, beat music started up and waiters carrying candlelit plates negotiated their way through the maze of tables to bring the food to the guests.  A friend mentioned that this is quite normal in Sarawak – hotels seem to choose techno music by default but guests can opt for a different track if they prefer.  Shortly after this the bridal party changed again  - a total of three different outfits!

Handing over Angpows
During the course of the meal there were video showing the couple’s courtships and events from earlier in the day.  These included the groom and his groomsmen coming to the bride’s house to take her to church.  They were met by the bridesmaids who set them several tasks to negotiate – from eating neat wasabi sauce to identifying the bride’s lipstick print on a piece of paper.  Angpows were handed over to the bridesmaids and the groom was finally allowed to enter.  The bride and groom shared tea with their family and then went to the church leaving the house under a red umbrella (for luck) while firecrackers sent out clouds of red confetti.

Back at the reception the bride’s relatives had arranged for some traditional Kelabit elements to be included in the celebration including a traditional wedding song and a traditional dance (although the music, by the Rivers of Babylon, was anything but traditional).  The bride’s family are from Bario in the highlands where the beadwork is particularly fine and very prized.  Gifts from her family to the grooms included a parang (a type of machete) for the groom and bead necklaces for both the men and women of his family.  The bride was also given a traditional beaded bridal skull cap, belt and necklace. 

Kelabit Bridal Song (you can just see the
women wearing beaded headbands)
Towards the end of the evening the guests stood to toast the happy couple with a Chinese toast of  ‘yah, se’ said as loud and as long as possible.  An equivalent to hip, hip hurray

Click  on the picture for more posts on life in Malaysia.

Ersatz Expat


  1. Thank you so much for sharing these Catholic wedding photographs! My cousin also had Catholic wedding and it was excellent. Now I am also going to exchange the vows and interested to have an awesome venue at any local event venue but in my budget.