Are you interested in a traditional Chinese wedding? Learn all about the rich cultural traditions with Azelle Choi, a bride’s chaperone in Hong Kong.
Have you ever heard of the term dai kam jie (大妗姐)? I must admit I hadn’t – until I was introduced to Azelle Choi, a dai kam jie in Hong Kong. Dai kam jie is a bride’s chaperone in the traditional Chinese wedding ceremony, and Azelle has been one for over a decade. Affectionately known as Lai Jie (麗姐) by her clients and those around her, Azelle has a passion for all things cultural and is keen to preserve the honourable traditions of Chinese weddings. Let’s play our part and share her story – and, indeed, the story of many Chinese couples around the world.
(Psst, before we dive in, if you’re planning on getting married in Hong Kong, be sure to check out our round-up of the best wedding planners, wedding florists, and wedding photographers in preparation for your big day. Congrats!)
Let’s talk about Chinese weddings with a bride’s chaperone, Azelle Choi
Hello, Azelle! Thank you for sitting down with us. Could you please tell us about some of the main differences between traditional Chinese and Western weddings?
According to my knowledge, one of the major differences is that the men come before the ladies in traditional Chinese culture. So, for instance, if there’s a couple called Mary Lee and Paul Chan about to get married, the title of the traditional Chinese wedding ceremony might say [the marriage of] ‘Chan and Lee’ (陳李聯婚), instead of saying ‘Mary and Paul’, which is the common practice in the West. Moreover, there is a tea ceremony in a traditional Chinese wedding. During this, the groom will first serve his father-in-law, followed by the mother-in-law; then, it’s the bride’s turn to do the same. All of this is due to the traditionally patriarchal society in the Chinese diaspora; it’s completely different to the ‘ladies first’ rationale in the West.
Another difference between Chinese and Western weddings lies in the marriage proposals. In Western culture (and in most countries in modern society), people enjoy the freedom to love and get married to pretty much whomever they want; the couple gets to decide upon the marriage and to move forward in their relationship. On the other hand, marriage proposals in traditional Chinese culture are done in the name of the parents. In other words, they’re arranged marriages. This calls for a traditional betrothal ceremony, known as guo da li (過大禮) in Chinese, during which the groom’s family brings dowry to the bride’s family – yes, it’s the other way around in the West.
What role does the bride’s chaperone play in a traditional Chinese wedding? Do all bride’s chaperones offer the same services?
Many people might think that all dai kam jie do is carry a red umbrella to shelter the bride [and protect them from bad luck], toss some rice [which defends the bride from evil spirits], and hold the tea tray during the tea ceremony – seems like an easy job, doesn’t it? But, I actually consider myself a Chinese wedding ‘consultant’, rather than a mere ‘performer’ on the day of the wedding. Once I am hired by a client – which usually happens months or even a year or two ahead of the wedding – I try to answer all their queries and guide them through each phase leading up to the ceremony. There’s a lot to prepare and organise, including choosing appropriate wedding gowns (裙褂) and embroidered shoes (繡花鞋) [which make up the traditional Chinese wedding costume], and catering to the needs of the clients’ families. So, some dai kam jie, like me, may go the extra mile and get more involved behind the scenes.
Moreover, we’re the host of the wedding ceremonies. Some of my clients tell me that they feel much more comfortable with me at the wedding, as they trust that I’ll be able to advise and assist them when they need help. While dai kam jie are best known for our chants and words of blessings (金句), we also help nurture the relationship between the couple and the in-laws. In particular, we accompany the bride and represent her family – hence our title being the ‘bride’s chaperone’. While all dai kam jie offer similar services i.e. to assist the various ceremonies in Chinese weddings, different chaperones have different experience and strengths, so make sure you choose one who can best meet your needs.
You serve both local and international clients. What are some challenges you’ve faced regarding cultural differences, and how did you resolve them?
I once attended to a German groom and a mixed-Chinese bride, who had no prior knowledge at all when it came to traditional Chinese weddings. In addition to pointing out the differences in customs (which I’ve mentioned above), I had to rehearse more thoroughly with them and make sure they were comfortable with the practice. Also, giving instructions while conveying the meanings behind each ritual was very important. I wanted to ensure that I wasn’t forcing information down their throats, but that there was actually mutual respect and understanding, especially from my end. Oh, and I had to work on my English!
In your opinion, what are the attractions of traditional Chinese weddings to modern couples in Hong Kong?
I think many Hongkongers nowadays – not just young couples – are very nostalgic; retro and vintage things are on trend. Also, compared to Western weddings, which have a more romantic and intimate atmosphere, traditional Chinese weddings focus more on family and ancestry. The sense of kinship and being able to share the joy with the whole family makes the occasion much warmer and livelier. And on the note of ancestry, there are many people of Chinese descent (whether based in Hong Kong or somewhere else in the world) who are keen to explore their roots. Not only are they curious about their lineage, but they also want to contribute to the preservation of traditions, and pass them onto the next generation.
How did you become a Chinese wedding consultant?
I actually started out studying social work back in university. After graduating, I became a registered social worker and was particularly active in the elderly services field. Eventually, I took on more commercial work and my schedule became quite flexible. This was when I spotted that an NGO was holding interest classes on becoming a dai kam jie. Because I’ve always had an interest in global culture and heritage, I signed up for the course and, upon completing it, friends and wedding companies began to approach me about my dai kam jie services. I ended up completing three different dai kam jie courses and was able to gradually build up a portfolio of clients, thus, I decided to transition to being a full-time Chinese wedding consultant.
But even after I transitioned to being a Chinese wedding consultant, there are often times my experience as a social worker comes in handy. For instance, some newly-weds may be concerned about the social distancing regulations, which are constantly changing due to the pandemic. This is when my ‘counselling’ services come in. I’d reassure them that they’re not alone in this, then give them suggestions as to the next steps to take, such as contacting the hotel to discuss alternative arrangements. Sometimes, I’m also like a ‘tree hole’ for people to confide in, or I can lend a shoulder to cry on. These are times when I feel that I’m applying my knowledge and beliefs as a social worker.
Do you have a particularly remarkable ceremony in mind?
Yes, there are quite a few! One of them was when I got the rare opportunity to host a tea ceremony for some boat dwellers (水上人) in Tuen Mun. The whole ceremony was held on a big, traditional fishing boat! I performed some unique rituals that belonged to the culture of the boat dwellers, including he wei cha (賀帷茶), during which the couple would gift a pair of trousers to the groom’s father, and a top to the mother. With these sort of special ceremonies, I always feel that I’m a ‘human video tape recorder’; I’m happy to be able to gain these invaluable experiences, represent a living piece of history, and play an active part in preserving it.
But, marriage isn’t always about butterflies and rainbows. Relationships play a key part in a marriage; whether it’s between the couple themselves, with their parents, or between the bride and her in-laws, relationships can get turbulent. There was a case when a groom’s parents were filing for a divorce just as their son was organising his wedding. The groom was convinced his parents wouldn’t attend the tea ceremony together. Yet, they did! In fact, the parents were worried about their son, just as much as their son was worried about them. And when it was the father’s turn to be served the tea, he burst into tears while apologising to his son. The tea ceremony became a turning point in their lives when they could make amends to each other, and I, as the dai kam jie, was a witness of that moment. I felt so honoured and I realised the momentousness of my work. So, despite that this incident happened quite early on in my career, I remember it to this day.
What do you think about the future of traditional Chinese weddings in Hong Kong?
Because there’s an overwhelming amount of information online nowadays, many people don’t seem to see the need to hire Chinese wedding consultants anymore. They can do their own research; they know the drill – or so they think. But, I think most of the information online is actually quite superficial. It can tell you about the typical rundowns and certain customs, but it lacks depth and detail. And while there are traditions, the ceremony itself allows a degree of flexibility and can often be customised. From having relatives of different religions to logistical issues on the wedding day, a dai kam jie can help diagnose the problems and provide professional advice. That said, I’m not saying it’s wrong for people to not hire dai kam jie! It’s their choice after all, and that’s the most important.
Personally, I hope that our efforts, as bride’s chaperones, to preserve the Chinese wedding heritage will be continued by generations to come. Thanks to commercial courses and government classes in the ERB (Employees Retraining Board), I think this is very much possible!