The ethnic Chinese population of Malaysia and Singapore are quite different from our mainland cousins in many ways. Striving in South East Asia for several generations, our unique customs and traditions were born here and practiced to this very day.
One of those customs is the way we toast at weddings, work functions, birthdays, and generally anytime when our friends or relatives are gathered.
The ritual of shouting “Yam Seng” before we take a sip or gulp of our drink is more than just a way of sending well wishes to the people around you. It is a battle cry.
“Yam Seng” is a Cantonese phrase that means “Drink to victory”. The local custom is to yell out and stretch the word “yam” for as long as possible, or until your lungs run out of air, before ending it with a short, punchy “seng” in unison with your party. To a foreigner, it might look like religious chanting, if they disregard the alcohol of course.
This is our way of toasting and it is only done in Malaysia and Singapore, or wherever aboard Malaysian- and Singaporean-Chinese congregate with their multiracial friends who know of their custom–and if they don’t know how to “Yam Seng”, they will be educated soon enough.
In China, people toast by saying “Kan Pei” which means “empty glass” which in term can be translated to “Bottoms Up”. Even the Cantonese-speakers of China and Hong Kong do not toast the way we do – although it is acceptable to give a muted “Yam Seng” as a toast before you drink in Hong Kong, people there do not shout it out like it’s the end of the world. If Malaysians or Singaporeans who happen to be in China or Hong Kong were to perform a toast like the way they did back home, they would receive a lot of odd stares and the locals would probably think they are drunk.
So how did Malaysian- and Singaporean-Chinese develop this unique ritual?
No one knows exactly who is the first person to toast “Yam Seng” this way in the Nusantara, but it is a well-known fact that many early Chinese settlers were male labourers seeking better opportunities, although there is a sizable population of ethnic Chinese who migrated to the region earlier and assimilated with the Straits’ Peranakan communities.
The Chinese labourers who came later spoke a variety of dialects from Hakka to Hokkien to Cantonese and so on. Their settlements were mostly concentrated in mining towns. It is believed that the tradition of toasting “Yam Seng” came from the malarkey of tavern talk which was the result of a clashing of different dialects that formed something common and acceptable among these men who toiled under the unforgiving sun and looked forward to a relaxing drink at the end of the day.
Hence, toasting “Yam Seng” the way we do also works a subconscious reminder of our connection to our working-class roots. You might be having the worst day of your life, but the second you participate in the toast with your colleagues or friends who are going through similar troubles, you will feel energised and ready to take on the world. Think of it as positive reinforcement supported by your drinking buddies.
“Yam Seng” is so embedded in Malaysian- and Singaporean-Chinese culture that it is even performed on the most important day of our lives – the day we tied the knot with our significant other.
Here, the ritual of toasting “Yam Seng” extends past camaraderie and positive-thinking, and becomes a form of blessing from the wedding guests to the couple and their families.
There are two sets of “Yam Seng” sessions during a typical Chinese wedding. The first is done with the couple and their families and close friends on stage. The Master of Ceremonies (MC) will toast three times for three wishes – a blissful marriage, eternal love for the couple, and fertility. Each toast will be louder and longer than the previous one.
Guests usually try to outdo each other or compete as teams or by the tables, to stretch the “yam” and be louder than everyone else. It is believed that the longer you stretch the yam, the more the wish will come true. If you have been to a local Chinese wedding, you would know that this is one of the funniest and best parts of the wedding.
The second set of “Yam Seng” is done as the newlyweds move table-to-table to thank their guests for coming. Toasting at each table, repeating the process of stretching the “yam” as inhumanly long as possible while challenging others to be the longest and loudest toast-er at the wedding, is usually how the night ends for most Chinese newlyweds here.
No matter what dialect you speak as a Malaysian- or Singaporean-Chinese, the way we toast “Yam Seng” will always unite us as one. And if it is not the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors that you faintly remember while pulling the “yam” in your next toast, then let it be the proud recognition that we are here, alive and ready for victory.
This Chinese New Year, we recommend getting yourself a limited edition bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label Year Of The Ox or checking out our shop for a wide selection of great whiskies and other spirits that can be delivered on the same day.