Confessions of a marriage solemniser: 'They wanted me dressed as Elvis'

Not all weddings are held in hotel ballrooms and restaurants.

Just ask veteran marriage solemniser Chia Ti Yu, who has officiated nuptials in a hospital ward and even in front of a home altar.

"It was the altar of the groom's father, who had died not long before the wedding," says the 42-year-old.

"The couple had trouble securing a solemniser as those they approached were uncomfortable with the set-up. But it didn't bother me, so I went ahead and did it."

Mr Chia, a solemniser since 2005, had to turn down two requests.

"I had a couple who asked me to turn up as Elvis Presley, while another asked me to dress up as the Chinese fortune god," he says.

"The way I conduct weddings is formal in tone, and I don't see a need to change my style."

He has seen a lot, including brides with wedding jitters and a ceremony that was stalled because the bride's mother refused to attend it.

In 2009, Mr Chia, who is a stickler for punctuality, was kept waiting for four hours.

"They told me to be there at 7pm, but when I got there, the couple were only beginning their engagement ceremony," he says.

"They pulled out all the stops, which included going home to change and arriving at the venue again in a horse carriage.

"By the time we got down to the official ceremony, it was already 11pm. Thankfully, among the guests was an acquaintance, who kept me entertained."

Since then, he tells couples that if the wedding does not start on time, he will have to leave for his next appointment and can return only when there is a free slot in his schedule.

Another pet peeve: Picky couples.

"Some write to me, asking me to explain to them why they should pick me as their solemniser," says Mr Chia, who has presided more than 3,000 weddings.

"I typically respond by telling them that I am not free on the day. There's no need to say more."

He is also not fond of guests who use confetti spray cans at ceremonies.

"I tell them that they can use them after the ceremony, but occasionally, some guests would spray even before it is concluded. They spray right into my face, too," he says with a grimace.

Despite his strictness, he is popular, with couples booking him at least a year in advance.

He credits his popularity to a short speech he makes during the ceremony, which highlights the secrets of a successful marriage based on Buddhist teachings.

Some couples are so keen to have him solemnise their marriage that they change their wedding date, time and venue to fit his schedule.

"There was a couple who wanted to be solemnised at their food-tasting session because I did not have a slot available for them," he says.

"I am effectively bilingual in English and Mandarin, something many couples seem to find important."

At this point, you would think Mr Chia is a full-time marriage solemniser. But the father of four is the divisional director of finance at the Institute of Technical Education.

Marriage solemnising is, to him, a form of community service. He does not charge a fee for his services, but most couples give him red packets as a token of appreciation.

While he never sees many of the couples again after the ceremony, there are those who eventually become friends.

He was even asked to name a child.

"The groom, a primary school dropout, was absent without leave while serving national service and escaped to Thailand. There, he got a girl pregnant and wanted to marry her," he says.

"I solemnised their marriage after he served time at the detention barracks. His baby was born two days after the wedding.

"He approached me for help. So I named his daughter because he had picked a name based on its sound, but had no idea which Chinese characters to use."

Mr Chia also donated his children's pram and clothes to the man, and helped him find a job.

Of course, Mr Chia has seen his fair share of cancelled weddings. He recalls a couple, both of whom were flight attendants, who called it off at the last minute.

"The man looked like he was of a different sexual orientation, but since they wanted to get married, I agreed to officiate. The night before the wedding, I got a call telling me that the wedding had been called off."

Secrets of the trade

1. You may be officiating marriages every other day, but for every couple, it is once in a lifetime. Never treat your job trivially.

2. Things are bound to go wrong at the wedding. Do not be distracted. Once, I had part of a stage backdrop collapse on me. I calmly pushed it away and continued.

3. Always keep a bottle of water close by. A day of officiating weddings can make you lose your voice.

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