The International Writers Magazine: A Wedding Event
A wedding in Kuala Lumpar
We arrived into the hot air of Malaysia after flying from Manchester for 14 hours. Nephew Yew Han had hired a minibus to transport us the 40 miles to Yew Han’s apartment in KL (what everybody calls Kuala Lumpar).
We were travelling to Yew Han’s wedding, my wife, her mother, her brother and me. His home is ten storeys up a block of apartments a few miles from the city centre. It is huge with three bathrooms, four bedrooms and two floors. Yew Han and his partner Lakshmi had only recently moved in and there were various outstanding electrics, plumbing and other issues to put right. Tradesmen in KL are notoriously unreliable. In the days that followed most of the problems were resolved. Air conditioning is necessary due to the heat and humidity. It was always at least 30 degrees centigrade whilst we were there unless it was raining heavily.
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The wedding was to take place in a Hindu Temple due to the religion of the bride but this was to be a truly multicultural occasion. Yew Han’s mother Jennie is Chinese and came over to England from Malaysia as a young woman to work as a nurse with the NHS. His father, Robin, is my wife’s brother and is English. Until recently Yew Han lived in England. He moved to Malaysia about three years ago to further his musical career, meeting Lakshmi, who is Indian Malaysian, not long after he moved out there. We had arrived about two weeks before the wedding making this a three week holiday in all.
Eighty per cent of KL residents are either Chinese or Malay with about eight per cent Indian. The Chinese and Indian peoples have been here since the city was formed from muck and marsh some 150 years ago. Whilst Chinese and Indian families are frequently better educated and often run the shops, restaurants and other businesses, Malays over the whole country hold the voting power. There is some ill feeling amongst Chinese and Indians because political decisions favour the Malay people unfairly. This feeling has been expressed to me in racist terms where Malay people are described as lazy and stupid. I strongly suspect that such wholesale stereotyping is a long way from the truth and found examples which confirmed my views.
There is a wonderful view of The Pretonas Twin Towers and the KL Tower from the apartment balcony. We do a fair bit of sitting around in the apartment in the first few days and being introduced to family members on both sides. I do some bird watching, mostly from the apartment block. None of the birds are like European birds which makes them more interesting. House crows and common myna birds are everywhere, also zebra doves and house swifts. I become frustrated about timekeeping as nothing happens at the time specified. An event arranged for 2pm can take place at 4.30pm with no explanation or apology. It is the accepted way.
There is a shopping mall about 15 minutes walk away which I visit and buy a T shirt and slip on sandals. It’s nice to have a break from the apartment. Food is so different here. You go out to eat as a matter of course. There are lots of places near the apartment. When eating out we typically all sit at a large circular table. It can be made bigger by putting another round piece on top. There are special “Tiger beer girls” whose job it is to bring the Tiger beer and to keep topping up your glass from the bottle. At one place staff came over with a kind of electric tennis racquet and waved it at the flies buzzing round. These worked in a similar way to the static ones you see in chip shops in Britain killing the insects by electrocution. I was fascinated by the Chinese tea customs everywhere we went. Teapots always had the lid fastened by string to the spout. There was a ritual of washing the glasses used for drinking tea beforehand in the tea. This was hot tea but with ice cubes in it. We always ate in the Chinese restaurants as my wife dislikes the taste of curry. The food was always excellent.
People drive on the left in Malaysia but there the similarity to Britain ends. Most of the main roads in KL seemed to be either dual carriageways or motorways and to have evolved in a haphazard way making U turns frequent and unavoidable. I was surprised by the number of Toll stations, I think we went through three on the 40-mile journey from the airport, but the cost of each was not excessive. Mopeds are allowed on motorways and it was frightening at first to find them weaving in and out of the traffic with little regard for life and limb. The moped riders all wore a jacket on back to front and few wore crash helmets. At times they seemed to outnumber the cars.
Early on we visited Lakshmi’s parents’ home and had a meal with her brother Raj and his wife Cowsie. They are both doctors and very welcoming. The house is large and palatial fronting on to a kind of village green. It is within walking distance of Yew Han’s apartment but we travelled there by car as is the custom in KL. The meal was excellent and they made a different meal especially for Irene due to her curry aversion. Their two children, a boy, five, and a girl, two, were lovely, shy and very well behaved. Raj and Cowsie are moving to Singapore in the near future to take up jobs over there. The house has a maid who takes on a lot of the responsibility for the children.
We visited the city centre and watched Yew Han buying various outfits to be worn before, during and after the wedding. The shopping malls are larger than those in England and appear to go on forever. True to form, the expected meeting to measure up Irene and her mother Ella for their saris was hours late at 7.30 in the evening. Yew Han negotiated for the measurements to take place at the foot of the stairs in a tiny area next to a busy road to avoid Ella having to climb the steep staircase. She is 86 and becoming frail.
Apu and Chandrika, Lakshmi’s parents, want me to wear Hindu dress for the wedding so, after another trip into the city centre, I am fitted out in a kind of white smock and white pantaloons in a thin material tapering to my ankles. The father of the bridegroom, Robin, is having his outfit made to measure. Fitting was to be 10.30 but we don’t set off until 12.15. I am beginning to get used to the local currency. This appears a prosperous, expanding city but everything is inexpensive. I have a wallet full of one ringet notes. They are each worth 20 pence, so it is five ringets to the British pound.
The bride and groom spend a day having photos taken to display on the wedding day - 400 in all. They have to whittle these down to less than ten. Yew Han leads a band called Mad Sally and we spend an evening at the other end of the city watching them perform. We travel over in a convoy of four cars. I am with Lakshmi and she spends the whole time on her mobile phone. She talks to the other cars and to Yew Han who is impatiently waiting for us to arrive. Yew Han eats his meal alone and we miss the band’s first set eating ours. The band is brilliant and Yew Han prances around the stage in the up tempo numbers like Mick Jagger.
This was not a tourist type holiday but we did manage a trip out to the KL Bird Park, a Buddhist Temple which was near an area of KL I christened “The Bollywood area” and the original KL railway station (very English). The day ended with a visit to Yew Han’s Chinese grandma’s shop. This grandma died a few years ago and the shop is now run by Jennie’s sister and brother. It is the kind of shop that sells all manner of things, clothing, shoes, hardware, food, toys and sweets. It seems out of place in the centre of this modern city and had few customers whilst we were there. Jennie, Yew Han’s mum is from a family of ten children. We then eat a meal around the corner and meet other family members. I’m driven home by Yee, Jennie’s niece with her mother and two year old child in the back. Her English is good and we chat all the way back. Yee leads the way whilst the others follow showing us the way back to the flat as we got lost the night before. All Jennie’s family are delighted we have come all the way from England and make us very welcome.
The day of the wedding looms but first we go to visit Soo Soo at her home in the suburbs. She is another niece of Jennie’s but one we have met in England when she was a lot younger. She is married with three young children and lives in an impressive, expensively furnished house. She and her husband work for Prudential Insurance and she has to put in long hours, often working late into the evening. A maid looks after the children when the couple are out at work. I photographed the huge chandelier in the hallway. We ate out in a high class restaurant where the air con was turned up to the max, too cold for comfort.
Three of Yew Han’s friends and his brother Jon arrived from England and we moved out of his flat to make room. We had booked a hotel in the city centre for the four nights up to the wedding day. It turned out to be a high class hotel next to the KL Tower and we were upgraded to a suite as we arrived. We were on the 27th floor so the views were excellent. A number of other equally tall hotels surrounded us. The architecture of the skyscrapers is breathtaking but nothing that stands out like the Gherkin and Shard in London. The Petronas Towers look good lit up at night. Our bathroom is huge and we have full kitchen facilities if we need them. Whilst there we went out for a meal on Jan Alor, a well known street devoted to Chinese food. Delicious. I took the lift to the top of The KL Tower and then walked through a kind of jungle where there are wild monkeys on the hill next to our hotel. I also took a walk through a park next to the Petronas Towers. Without realising it I had been bitten by insects on my legs on one of these trips and these became large red wheals which itched and hurt. Antihistamine pills and ointment solved this over time. I also attended the stag night, a meal and afterwards a “strip show”. Malaysian society frowns on such things and I was told afterwards that we would all have ended up in the cells if the police had caught us. The best man had booked a small apartment for the evening. A young woman arrived with two minders. She made us all strip to the waist and over about an hour slowly stripped naked. She appeared to be quite shy and naive in some ways. Yew Han helped to strip her but seemed uncomfortable. Then off round the bars but I returned to my hotel early.
Unexpectedly the two nights before the wedding were taken up with ceremonies at the bride’s parent’s house and the application of henna tattoos. My wife, as the eldest Baker aunt, played an important role. We were also required to travel with the bridegroom to the temple on the wedding day. A taxi took us to the apartment at 4.30am. The wedding began at 7.30am. Again Irene was involved in the various ceremonies throughout the service. It was all in Hindu so we could not understand most of what occurred. Yew Han washed both parents’ feet and Lakshmi did the same. Other aunts and family members performed ritualistic actions. It was very colourful and noisy at times with the various musical instruments. The whole day was being filmed for an 8 minute film on Youtube. To view it, find it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GhlNpvYPYo
I did not see the couple exchange vows and rings as in Christian weddings. There was a huge feast of Indian food in the same grounds as the temple immediately afterwards. We then had to go to the bride’s parents home to perform a welcoming ceremony for the married couple before moving to the Cyberview Hotel to attend the reception. We were staying overnight there so there was time to have a nap in our room before the Tea Ceremony. This is a Chinese tradition involving giving red envelopes containing money as gifts for Yew Han and Lakshmi. I had to give one each and Irene gave them one each. We were given tea in exchange but due to the huge number of guests each exchange had to be quick. A thunderstorm prevented the ceremony taking place outside.
The reception meal began about 9pm, an hour later than planned. There was entertainment between courses. Yew Han sang a song he had written as a surprise for Lakshmi backed by his group Mad Sally. Lakshmi’s brother, Raj sang, as did, Jon, Yew Han’s brother. Even Lakshmi sang. There was other amazing entertainment including a 16 year old Chinese youth changing masks eight times with lightening speed. A long day, but one to live in the memory for ever.
A lot of us flew to Lankawi after the wedding but that’s another story.
© Bryan Robinson Nov 2012