A Family Wedding
The two women inspected each other carefully. Both were dressed similarly in accordance with the laws of Songhan; their heads were covered in a black tudong, a non-fitting white blouse, they wore white socks and black shoes that would make no sound when they walked. They looked totally alike but if one looked closely, he can spot a few differences between the two of them. The shorter woman was carrying a small handbag, the taller woman was wearing a veil that covered the lower part of her face, the shorter woman was wearing a black skirt while the taller woman was wearing a pair of black harem pants and the biggest difference; the woman who was unveiled had a strikingly beautiful face.
The taller woman finished first. “Mistress, your attire is impeccable. All parts of your body are covered outside your hands and face, and you are not wearing any clothing outside the approved colors of black and white.”
“Your attire is suitable enough for a concubine.” The shorter woman said, putting enough sneer in her voice to put the lesser woman in her place. She turned to the ponycart that was beside them and continued, “Get into position Ailing and hurry or we’ll be late.”
Ailing stepped between the two poles that were protruding from the cart while her mistress stepped onto the cart. She sat down on the seat and nodded at Ailing. Ailing put her hands on the poles, picked them up and started running. The streets of Wuzhou were filled with people as it was one of the bigger cities in the country of Songhan and Ailing had to carefully navigate the streets without bumping into anyone. Fortunately, people got out of their way when they saw the ponycart. Known as a rickshaw in the old days, it was a mode of transport that was widely respected as it was a cheap mode of transport that does not cause pollution to the environment. Cars were used only for long distance travel in Songhan and the wide streets of Wuzhou were designed for ponycart travel. It was also considered a good way for the woman-puller to get some exercise. However that was not the reason why a few heads turned to look at Siewlee as they were on the street.
Siewlee knew why. For the past few decades, Songhan was a country that had grown more conservative. As the political and social climate in the country grew more conservative, there was now a growing belief in Songhan that no woman should be allowed to be seated in public. Siewlee had heard that in more conservative households, there were rules that women must never be allowed to sit, they were only allowed to kneel or squat. Increasingly, more and more people in Songhan believed this rule should be made into a law to “police” public behavior of women in public.
Still it was not law yet and Siewlee kept her seat in the cart. Everyone could see from the absence of a veil and the fact she was wearing a skirt that she was the wife of the family, the mistress of her house. They could also see from the veil and pants of Ailing that she was the concubine. A concubine serving her mistress by pulling a ponycart was a traditional service in the history of Songhan. Siewlee kept her hands demurely in her lap but kept her head high, showing no shame at her position on the cart. The Hong family is a traditional household, not a conservative one.
They made their way to the temple where the wedding was to be held. There were already a few ponycarts in the lot there and Ailing expertly parked their cart in one of the available spaces. Siewlee got off and locked the cart with a wheel lock. Putting the key in her handbag, she led the way towards the temple. She was met by a relative at the entrance.
“Oh Siewlee, you’re finally here!”
Siewlee smiled at the jovial voice of her cousin. “Wouldn’t miss this for the world, Mui.” Siewlee clasped her hands together in front of her and gave a slight bow. After her cousin returned the bow she continued, “Where is your eldest son? I would like to see the lucky groom.”
“He already left for the bride’s house.” Mui said breathlessly. “They’re probably on their way to the Ministry of Marriage now.”
Siewlee nodded her head. That’s the way of marriages. The groom need to go to the bride’s house first, then a trip to the Ministry of Marriage, then a trip to the wedding temple, and finally a wedding banquet at the temple after the ceremony to the gods. Siewlee turned slightly, “You remember Ailing, my husband’s concubine?”
“Oh yeah I do.” Siewlee could tell nothing was going to knock the smile off Mui’s face today. “How do you do Ailing?”
“I am well Mistress,” Ailing said as she bowed her head low. “I am yours to command for the day.”
“Good good!” Mui waved them inside. “Come, we have a lot to do today.”
It was still morning but noon was almost upon them. Siewlee followed her cousin to Hall 7 of the temple. This was the hall the Hong family had booked for the day and Siewlee could see there were already a few women at work arranging the table and chairs for the banquet.
“They are all ours.” Mui said proudly.
Siewlee nodded her head in approval. Every woman in the hall was a member of the Hong family and they were all here to help with the wedding. This was the way it should be.
“Come, this is the way to the kitchen.” Mui said.
“What about Ailing?” Siewlee asked.
“Report to Grandma Hong,” Mui ordered. “She’s in charge of the arrangement today.”
Siewlee was glad Ailing was well-trained and obedient. Mui may be a wife but Ailing wasn’t her husband’s concubine so by right, she can’t order Ailing around like that. However today was her eldest’s son wedding, so Siewlee guessed it was understandable. She followed Mui to the kitchen as Ailing made her way to Grandma Hong. Her husband’s Eldest Mother, Siewlee never liked Grandma Hong very much but then none of the women in the family did. She was rude and bossy to all the women in the family, and Siewlee guessed that was why she was in charge of the arrangement. She would make sure everything was perfect for the wedding.
She stepped into the kitchen and saw other women. The only one there who wasn’t wearing a veil approached her. Siewlee’s father-in-law had 3 sons and Siewlee’s husband was the youngest. Mui was the wife of the eldest son, and the woman approaching was the wife of the second son. Both women clasped their hands together in front of themselves and gave each other a slight bow. As the wife of the younger son, Siewlee waited for the other woman to raise her head first.
“Everyone’s here then.” The woman said.
“Yes,” Siewlee matched the other woman’s cold tone. “It’s good to see you again Xiaohua.”
“Good that the whole family is here,” Mui cut in. “This is going to be the perfect wedding!”
Mui looked at both women with eyes that broke no argument. Siewlee and Xiaohua couldn’t help but nod in agreement. Their dislike of each other would have to wait; this was not the day to mess with the groom’s mother.
“Master Lim Enhui, second cousin to the groom.”
At the end of the announcement, Ailing bowed her head to the ground. As her forehead hit the wooden floor, she heard a loud “thud” loud. Beside her, the other concubines of the Hong family did the same and together they welcomed the guests to the wedding with the traditional favored sound of female obedience.
As the master walked past her, Ailing raised her head from the floor. To the left of her was the gate of the hall where the wedding was to be held, and to the right was all the concubines of the Hong family. Kneeling with their knees apart, they were the welcome party to the guests. When a guest passed the gate, the monk would announce the name of the guest and the concubines would bow their heads to the wooden floor.
This was their positions for the past 3 hours and the pain of constant kneeling was affecting Ailing. So it was with great pleasure when she saw the father of the groom walking towards the monk at the gate. After a short talk with the monk, the master spoke to the concubines, “All right, the guests are almost all here. Get to the kitchen.”
All the concubines bowed their heads to the wooden floor and got up. The pain was numbing for Ailing but she made her way to the kitchen along with the rest of the concubines. The food was already prepared and waiting on the tables. Cooked by the nuns, and blessed by the monks of the temple, the food was to be served to the guests.
Two concubines stepped in front of the group. One of them clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention. It was Yumin, the first concubine of her father-in-law. “Okay everyone, you all know your jobs for today. Once the gong starts, we take the trays of food into the hall for the masters and mistresses. All of you know your routes?”
Silence greeted the questions. All the concubines had been drilled by Grandma Hong on which table they are in charge of, what route through the hall they need to take to get to the table, where on the table they must place the trays, when they must remove the trays, how they must get back to the kitchen, and about a hundred other small things they must know to ensure no guest can have anything bad to say about the banquet. It had been a tough day for the concubines of the Hong family.
“I guess all of you know your routes then.” Yumin said. “You do not need me to tell you this is the first wedding of the latest generation of the Hongs, so no mistake will be made.” Yumin looked at all the concubines evenly. All the concubines, including Ailing, nodded back at Yumin. Masters were the brains of the family, mistresses were the faces, but service was the duty of a concubine. They were the hands and feet of the family, the ones who serve the masters and mistresses. That was why concubines wear pants instead of skirts. The ladylike skirt was only suitable for wives who were beautiful enough to wear them. Concubines like Ailing wear pants to better serve the family in the drudgery of daily life.
This wedding was one of few occasions they were going to help the family by serving others. No mistakes must be made on as important an occasion as this. Ailing didn’t even fear the whipping and punishments from the masters and mistresses, if she made any mistake, the shame itself would be enough to kill her.
“We have some time before we begin, so everyone get some rest and make sure you are dressed properly.”
The concubines took the time to sit down and rest their legs. After an afternoon of practice and kneeling, it was a welcome rest. They also made sure their clothes and veils were proper. Whereas mistresses were allowed to go in public without a veil, first concubines like Ailing wore a veil that covered the face below the eyes, while second concubines wore a veil that covered the entire face. The veil of the second concubines only allowed 2 tiny meshes for the eyes to see through.
Still Ailing considered herself lucky to be just veiled. If she had been born in an earlier era, the restriction on her would have been worse. In earlier times, men were allowed to have more than 2 concubines and women who were third, fourth, fifth concubines were gagged, had their arms locked, their feet bound etc. Concubines then were only allowed freedom of movement when it was their turn to do housework. With so many concubines, the women had to take turns to do housework and take care of the children. When it was not their day for housework, concubines were heavily restricted like the poor women in Nordker. Only the wife was exempted from the restriction. It must have been horrible and Ailing was glad the laws in modern Songhan only allow men 2 concubines at the most.
All too soon, Mistress Xiaohua came in to tell everyone to get into position. Ailing took a tray and got into position. When the music started, she and the other concubines started their walk into the hall. The tables were spilt into two sections with a red carpet running between them. Ailing went to her designated table and placed the tray carefully in the centre of the table. Each table was circular in shape and the guests were seated around it. Mostly men, some of the guest were mistresses. Wives of men, they were able to walk in public without a veil so they could partake in the food.
Ailing felt a stab of envy. Concubines like Ailing were not allowed to withdraw their veil in public so she could never eat in public. Even if they could withdraw the veil, it was not socially accepted for concubines to be seen eating in public. After all, concubines were not supposed to be seen at all publicly.
Ailing always knew this was her fate. Although Ailing was pleasant looking from young, she knew she was never going to be beautiful enough to be a wife. As the faces of the women in the family, wives were supposed to have a beautiful face, a sweet singing voice, and the manners of a docile but intelligent beauty. Wives are women like her mistress Siewlee who had a beautiful face that defied logic. It was never going to be her fate.
After the first course was served, Ailing went back to the kitchen to await the signal to bring out the second dish. When the signal came, she bought it out and replaced the first dish with it. She then bought back the first dish for washing. This routine went on for all eight dishes, only when all eight dishes were eaten was there a break for the concubines.
From the kitchen, Ailing and the rest of the concubines saw the ceremony. The music stopped and the groom walked down the carpet between the two sets of dinner tables. Walking 3 steps behind him was his wife. Women in Songhan were only allowed to dress in black and white but on special occasions, this rule was voided. A woman’s wedding was one of these occasions.
The bride was wearing her black tudung, but it was all that was usual. Her body was covered by a long-sleeved green blouse with flowing flowery patterns on it, and she was also wearing a red skirt that swept the floor as she walked. She had put on heavy makeup to increase the beauty of her already gorgeous face and even the sleeves on her blouse were stylishly wide. Ailing felt a lump in her throat. She was beautiful, a woman born to be a mistress of the house.
The bride and groom reached the end of the carpet amidst wild cheering from the guests and they both turned around to face the guests. All the guests stood up and toasted the couple. With that, the dinner ceremony was over. The guests slowly went to the couple to congratulate them on their happy day and walked up the red carpet to leave the hall.
This was so different from her own wedding. In her wedding, she wore a red blouse and light-blue pants but she crawled behind her husband down the aisle. The duty of walking behind the husband was one that was given to the wife, and as a concubine Ailing had to crawl. At the end of the carpet was her mistress Siewlee who was waiting for her and their master. As she kneeled silently between them, it was her master and her mistress who received the congratulations from the guests. She was a concubine, a woman not to be seen in public. The eve of her wedding was the last time she wore a skirt and went in public unveiled. Not for the first time, Ailing wondered what it would be like to be a mistress instead of a concubine.
With the last of the guests gone, the Hong family gathered to wish the new couple well. The masters and mistresses of the family went up to the couple to congratulate them on their wedding while Ailing got into a line with the other concubines. Once the masters and mistresses were done, it was the turn of the concubines. The concubines bowed together to the new couple and Ailing called the bride “Mistress” for the first but not the last time. She and her own mistress then followed their master to the ponycart. Her master and mistress sat on the ponycart and Ailing was about to start the trip home when her master said this, “Today was wonderful! The women of the Hong family have done the family proud today!”
With that, it was all worth it. All the work and practice for today was worth it. With a spring in her step, Ailing started the journey home.