As with all traditional Chinese weddings, the bride is hiding in the bedroom while her groom negotiates her bride price with her bridesmaids in the living room. She is dressed in a modest red qipao, and wearing intricate gold bangles on her wrists to symbolise her family’s blessing upon her marriage. Unlike most traditional Chinese weddings, the bride, Nicole Alpert, soon to be Nicole Leung, is a redhead from the U.S. who is planning a separate, Western ceremony back home in a month for her American family and friends.
Hong Kong couples face a dilemma when it comes to weddings: to embrace the west’s lavish ceremonies, or to hold steady to the Chinese traditions that have been observed for generations?
Elements of western culture are not specifically new to weddings in Hong Kong. However, as increasingly more couples take their cues from the west, the wedding business has boomed in order to accommodate this shift in wedding culture. Ceremonies, now often a fusion of eastern traditions and western styles, have become ever more in demand. And the options created to cater to these demands have made the bridal industry extremely diverse and lucrative.
One of the biggest differences between the two types of weddings is their central sentiment. While a western wedding is more about celebrating the newlywed’s union, a Chinese wedding is about the two families and boosting “face”. By throwing a grand banquet for the guests, the parents of the couple are declaring what fine children they’ve raised, and the success their son and daughter have achieved in finding a partner. Often, for a Chinese wedding banquet, the parents are given a certain number of tables for their guests, to invite people who may be complete strangers to the newlyweds. Another common element at the banquet is at least three dress changes from the bride, with one outfit often being the west’s white wedding gown. This is no longer unusual in a Hong Kong wedding; even though white is the traditional Chinese colour for mourning. It is also no longer unusual to fit a western style ceremony in between the morning tea ceremony and the evening banquet.
A traditional Chinese wedding, unlike a western wedding, is not a one-day affair, and the entire celebration is adorned in red and gold: traditional colours to repel evil and invite prosperity. Exchanging of gifts between the two families takes place on an auspicious day prior to the wedding, and the gifts are chosen to symbolise prosperity, longevity and happiness.
The morning of a traditional Chinese wedding begins early with a hair-brushing ceremony. With each stroke through the bride’s hair, phrases are uttered to bless the marriage.
Later in the morning, before the groom is allowed to see his bride in her family’s home, accompanied by his groomsmen, called “brothers”, the groom must prove his love by passing challenges posed to them by the bridesmaids, who are called “sisters”. The groom also has to give a “hoi mun lai see” (開門利是), a bride price that will later be shared among the sisters. The couple then kneels in front of her parents and offers tea to them from a special tea set, symbolising the couple requesting and the parents giving their blessings for the marriage. The couple, sisters and brothers will then go to the groom’s family home to repeat the same tea ceremony
The banquet to celebrate the marriage, to which hundreds of guests will typically be invited, does not begin until 8:00pm. Traditionally, the bride and groom will be required to offer tea to every elder who attends their wedding, either on their knees or standing, depending on the rank of the guest.
The restaurant has a dressing room for the bride, in which she will change from her “qua”, a two-piece gown of red silk heavily embroidered in gold, into a western style gown for the duration of the dinner. Finally, before the end of the night, the bride changes once again, either into a second gown or a qipao, and the couple will stand at the door of the restaurant as the guests leave to thank each for being at their wedding.
Today, weddings are often a toned-down version of a traditional Chinese wedding, with a bit of western style thrown into the mix. Usually, a modern Hong Kong couple will retain only the tea ceremony and the evening banquet, but fit in a trip to the marriage registry or a church or civil ceremony in between. Whereas in the past, that time in the middle was often spent at a lunch or rest with the couple’s immediate family, the brothers, and the sisters.
Lo Kan Fong, director of Lo Kan Fong Chinese Wedding, a company that specialises in organising traditional Chinese weddings, attributes this change to social conditioning. “(It) has to do with the culture and business of Hong Kong becoming more westernised,” Lo said at The Wedding Showcase 2011, which was held at InterContinental Hotel Hong Kong on 6th February. She said another reason is that “western weddings are more aesthetically appealing.”
Lo’s clients include couples who hire a western-style wedding planner to collaborate with Lo Kan Fong Chinese Wedding to produce the perfect fusion. “In fact, the majority of our clients are looking for this,” Lo said, “There aren’t many left who are looking for an all-Chinese wedding.”
As Hong Kong’s cultural diversity intensifies, it has become common for matches to be made among individuals from different cultural backgrounds.
“About 70% of our clients are purely Chinese. Of the rest, maybe 20% are multi-cultural and 10% are foreigners,” said Michele Li, managing director of The Wedding Company, a luxury wedding planning service founded by Li and her friend, Caroline Shaw, in 2003. “(But) most of our Chinese clients have been educated abroad and are very westernised,” Li added.
Jenny Chu, a Hong Kong native, and her Berliner fiancé Faorain Kuss will be wed in February 2012, and they plan to feature elements from both their cultures.
“If you’re marrying a westerner,” Chu said, “you can’t really force him into a traditional Chinese wedding with all the Chinese customs.” But the twist is, “apparently, he’d like to have (those Chinese customs)!”
Kuss confirms this: “I’d like to have a small part to honour her traditions and her parents.”
While multi-cultural unions are one reason for a culturally mixed wedding, other times it has less to do with race and more with religion.
Candis Chan and Chan Yi, who married on 5th February 2011, are devout Christians. Their wedding day began with the traditional tea ceremony, and ended with a banquet. But between the two, they also had a church ceremony at the Rhenish Church of Hong Kong.
“Believers prefer to have a church wedding,” said the Reverend Yan Siu Wai, who performed the ceremony. “The atmosphere…the sentiments and religious elements involved, are important to them.” According to his observations in the 14 years he’s been a minister, the number of Chinese Christian couples has increased, judging by how many ceremonies he’s performed.
The groom entered the church in a white satin suit amidst loud cheers, and began pacing before the altar. As guests continued to trickle in, the flower girl and ring bearer were prepped on how to walk down the aisle: “Keep to the centre!” a sister in a champagne satin gown cautioned them, “And don’t forget to walk slowly!”
The pews were soon full of the couple’s family and friends. Finally, as the groom took his place at the front of the church with his best man at his side, a hush descended upon the congregation, and heads swivelled around to look at the bride as she emerged on her father’s arm.
Dressed in a white satin gown embellished with diamante studs and a short lace train, her face covered by a veil, Chan approached the altar and was soon standing with her husband-to-be and his best man on her right, and her maid of honour on her left.
A Cantonese version of the familiar passage from 1 Corinthians 13:4 is read aloud by Reverend Yan: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast…”
After the ceremony was finished, the newlyweds walked down the aisle to the back of the church, cheered by whistles and shouts of approval. Then they returned to the altar to address their guests and thank their parents. The church segment ended with a photo-taking session with the married couple, a procedure that would repeat itself with their guests at the banquet later that evening.
The banquet, however, was decked in red and gold, as per Chinese tradition; a stark contrast to the creams and whites of the church ceremony.
With Hong Kong weddings, it is extremely popular to take pre-wedding pictures, which are often staged shots of the couple. From a practical standpoint, this is because the actual day is often too hectic for couples to pose for pictures. But Li from The Wedding Company also said that this added detail has to do with the concept of face in Chinese tradition.
However, photographer Edmon Leong from Canada said there is now also a demand for candid shots taken throughout the day, which he said is “a very western influence.”
A video filmed on the morning of the wedding to be played for the guests at the banquet is also quite common. Navot Hoory, director of videography company Fisheye, said that “a lot of people actually feel very eager to share their story.” He too has noticed the boom in western elements being incorporated in the Hong Kong wedding industry.
“Hong Kong is a very small place,” Hoory said, “but at the same time it’s very vivid. It has a lot of diversity in services…therefore, a lot of people find that it’s a very convenient place (for weddings). The couples I’ve filmed (come) from Mainland China, or even U.S. and Canada, because of the convenience.”
InterContinental Hotel Hong Kong, besides hosting The Wedding Showcase, also offers wedding packages.
“We have a Wedding with Style package,” said the director of Chinese public relations at hotel, Sharon Foo, “and we work with a number of luxury partners. It’s a one-stop service; everything that a couple may need, we can arrange for them.”
A wedding day at the InterContinental during peak season will set a couple back HK$500,000 – at a minimum. Foo said that the wedding packages offered by different hotels in Hong Kong are extremely competitive. So of course, theirs offers both traditional Chinese and modern western options.
As Hong Kong becomes more westernised, will there ever come a time when the Chinese traditions, which Nicole Leung said means more to the older members of the Chinese family than the marrying couple themselves, be discarded?
Mandy Chau, a salesperson of Monde Chocolatier who is to marry her fiancé Andy Tsang, director of the same company, in 2012, doesn’t think so.
“We are contemplating dropping the traditional ceremonies, which we wonder if it’s really necessary,” said Chau, “But it’s difficult to just drop all that, because Chinese people have maintained a relationship with our traditions. For example, we still go to temples and hand out red packets for Chinese New Year.
“So there is a resistance and taboo attached to simply forgoing these traditions,” she said. “As a Chinese person, you’d ponder the value of passing on these traditions.”
NOTE: This piece was written in February 2011.