Chapters
Weddings

Better half

Like the bride at a lavish ceremony, all eyes are on Chinese wedding spending and its rising share of the global industry

cover P1 wedding

July 24-30, 2017
By DAVID HO
in Hong Kong
For China Daily Asia Weekly

Every year, some 10 million couples tie the knot across China. In the process, they contribute about half of the $300 billion spent on nuptials around the world — and the Chinese share of the global cake is growing fast.

According to the China Wedding Industry Association, the country’s wedding industry is currently worth around 1 trillion yuan ($146 billion). Experts say the market could be worth triple this by 2020.

“A wedding is a special day for any couple,” said Philip Tsang, an award-winning wedding photographer based in Hong Kong.

“So it makes sense that many would invest heavily to make sure that the first day of the rest of their lives would be a memorable one for them and everyone else.”

In a country where a culture of conspicuous consumption (at least for weddings) is prevalent due to the need to “save face”, the big day calls for nothing but the best.

This is just one factor driving a visible increase in spending. Higher incomes also combine with changing demographics and an increasing mix of Western and Eastern practices to make weddings a more elaborate affair.

More than three decades of China’s one-child policy means parents put a unique emphasis on this milestone for their offspring. Those who can afford it often go all out for their children, sometimes even making the headlines.

In 2013, Zeng Guo, head of Chongqing-based Fuxing Doors Industry Group, spent an alleged 5 million yuan on the “most expensive wedding in Chongqing’s history” for his son. The wedding convoy consisted of 20 luxury supercars with an estimated worth of 60 million yuan.

There are also reports that Wu Duanbiao, chairman of ceramics firm Fujian Wanli Group, paid more than 1 billion yuan as dowry for his daughter in 2012.

The dowry included four boxes of gold jewelry, a bankbook with deposits worth 20 million yuan, and Wanli stock worth 5 million yuan. The wedding itself was an “eight-day open-air banquet”.

While these are some of the most extravagant Chinese weddings on record, they underscore the reality that people are increasingly willing to spend more.

According to the China Wedding Industry Development Report in 2015, couples in the country currently spend an average of 76,141 yuan per wedding. That is a substantial sum for marital bliss considering the national average annual wage for urban employees is 56,339 yuan, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.

A groom shields his bride from the rain as they head to his home by boat in a traditional Chinese wedding procession in Foshan city, South China’s Guangdong province, on April 24. Credit: ImagineChina

“Although China’s middle and upper classes have been growing, and even if the rise in the standard of living stimulates the younger generation’s pursuit of a grand and unique wedding, the income of the newlyweds can barely cover the wedding costs,” said Eda Erbeyli, project manager at Daxue Consulting.

She noted the high average spending on the wedding alone, “without including other related expenditures like the honeymoon”.

“The reason they are able to afford to spend more is that nearly half of the newlyweds get 20 to 60 percent of their wedding funds from their parents.”

As key factors for the increased spending, Erbeyli also cited the “traditional mind-set that a magnificent wedding is the symbol of promise and love, which is still prominent now in 2017” and the trend of “weddings combining Western and Chinese elements”.

A report from Daxue Consulting said the cost of marriage has increased 4,000 times in the last 30 years. It estimated that a couple in the affluent southern city of Guangzhou spends more than 400,000 yuan on a wedding on average, without factoring in new housing.

Research firm IBIS World estimates that half of the couples who get married in China every year opt for some sort of wedding service.

More than 1,000 wedding planning companies are registered in Beijing alone, according to China’s Committee of Wedding Service Industries. And it looks like the industry will keep growing, judging by the training programs that keep popping up.

The website of Weddings Beautiful China shows that a 12-day wedding planning course in the trendy Beijing neigborhood of Sanlitun goes for about 21,000 yuan.

Other wedding-related businesses have also grown exponentially, such as dressmakers, jewelers, caterers, florists, and venues for hire.

The Chinese flower industry was valued at more than $11 billion in 2015, according to China Horticultural Business Services.

When it comes to the wedding dress, custom-made creations can cost as much as 600,000 yuan — for something by Yumi Katsura — depending on the lead time and if diamond and crystal finishings are required. Mass-market rentals can range from 3,000 to 10,000 yuan.

And, although the wedding ring is a Western conceit, jewelry sales in the Chinese mainland hover around the 300 billion yuan mark. Eighty percent of diamond consumption by Chinese consumers is for wedding purposes. Wedding customs in certain parts of China also require gifts of gold for the bride from the groom’s parents.

Consulting firms like McKinsey & Company and Boston Consulting Group state that Chinese consumers now have more disposable income, are more willing to pay premium prices, and jump on trends like traveling abroad.

Another key service for that picture-perfect wedding is the $30 billion Chinese wedding photography industry.

Photographer Tsang explained that many newlyweds consider high-quality pictures a worthy investment.

“Couples know that investing in photography is a good choice because the pictures will last them a lifetime and be passed on to the next generation. So they are willing to splurge on a reliable photographer who can produce quality pictures,” he said.

“The rise of technology and social media have also made quality and creative photography a worthwhile investment. Young Chinese couples want to have pictures that will look good on their WeChat and Weibo,” he added.

Photography trends range from posing in Mao-era uniforms and traditional costumes to using well-known landmarks and exotic locales as backdrops.

Tsang explained that wedding photography package rates within the industry can vary wildly.

“From what I’ve seen, it can cost anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 yuan. It depends on the experience of the photographer and what is included in the package, such as makeup, props, studio rental, prints and so on,” he said.

Chinese couples commonly pay for a studio session as well as event photography on the wedding day. Tsang provides both, and usually spends an entire day shooting a single wedding.

“A typical Chinese wedding will take a whole day. It starts with a traditional tea ceremony in the morning at either the groom or bride’s place, as a way to show gratitude to the parents of both sides.

“In the afternoon, there is the tradition of the groom having to fetch the bride. The groom and his team of groomsmen would be put through a series of tasks from the bride’s side before he can symbolically win her over.”

This is followed by the wedding ceremony, Tsang said, with a banquet in the evening.

“This is where a lot of Western elements might come through in the process of union, from the decorations to the outfits.”

Rachel Xie, cofounder of wedding planning company Chariot, noted that Chinese couples are becoming increasingly traditional in their ways despite Western customs making a mark in recent decades.

“I’ve noticed that more people are returning to old-fashioned wedding rituals, particularly from the Han style traditions. People are rediscovering them and bringing them back,” she said.

“For example, before the wedding, the groom must pick up the bride from her residence. This custom represents the daughter leaving her family’s home for her new home with her husband.”

The Chinese wedding package industry has also produced some unique add-ons, such as professional bridesmaids. Depending on the services required, one of these bridesmaids can earn up to 800 yuan per wedding. Her duties might include socialising, acting as a makeup artist, consuming alcohol in place of the bride, appearing in photos, and fending off rowdy wedding guests.

Those making a living from weddings seem confident that people will keep using their services, and that Chinese couples in particular will ensure wedding bells continue ringing louder than ever.

“The industry will continue to grow,” Tsang said. “Even if less people get married, the spending capability of those that do will increase.”

Chinese lovers are going places More opting for overseas weddings, lured by exotic locales, increasingly affordable cost and the social media wow factor

July 24-30, 2017
By DAVID HO
 in Hong Kong
For China Daily Asia Weekly

Exchanging vows at a cliff-side chapel in Bali, Indonesia, or in a sunset ceremony by the beach in Boracay in the Philippines, is still a dream for many people. But more and more Chinese couples are making those dreams a pricey reality.

Globally, the annual operating income of the wedding industry amounts to $300 billion, and a substantial portion comes from destination weddings, held in distant and exotic locations.

The $80 billion spent on organizing destination events is expected to grow by 10 percent each year.

According to a report from market research firm Daxue Consulting, one of the biggest wedding-planning companies in China organized more than 200 weddings in 2014 and 10 percent of these events were held abroad.

Jon Santangelo, a cofounder of destination wedding-planning company Chariot, believes there are several reasons for the increase in destination weddings among the Chinese.

“Destination weddings are not only an expression of wealth but also a means of escape from traditional local weddings which actually can cost more than one overseas.”

Indeed, destination weddings are not necessarily more expensive than those in China, said Eda Erbeyli, a project manager at Daxue Consulting.

“A table for 10 overseas might cost between 6,900 yuan ($1,015) and 8,000 yuan, which is more than in China. But the number of guests is limited for a destination wedding,” he said. “Therefore, the overall cost will end up being nearly the same as for a ceremony in China.”

According to a 2016 trend report by Destination Weddings Travel Group, couples from the United States spend an average of $32,000 on their weddings. This is still lower than the 400,000 yuan average estimate for newlyweds in the affluent city of Guangzhou in southern China.

On the other hand, the average spending for destination weddings has remained under $10,000 for over 10 years. Even the nationwide per wedding average in China is higher than that, at more than $11,000.

The report also stated that the average cost of accommodation for destination weddings is around $2,000, with flight costs averaging just over $1,127. Depending on location, wedding packages start from about $1,600.

But, clearly, possible cost savings are not the only attraction. Santangelo at Chariot cited social media attention as another incentive — the gratifying ‘awws’ and ‘wows’ received when sharing photos and videos of the wedding trip.

“Financial ability is of course a factor. But now, public awareness and trendiness, along with exploring the freedom to have an experience in a paradise like Boracay or Bali, all affect the popularity of destination weddings. They are becoming easier to arrange and more accessible than ever before.”

A photographer snaps a newlywed Chinese couple outside the Louvre Museum in Paris. Credit: AFP

Erbeyli at Daxue Consulting also believes social media plays a part in molding the trend.

“Many Chinese celebrities chose to have their weddings by the sea. The pictures of their weddings are widely shared on WeChat and Weibo and we believe that this will impact the choices of the post-90s (generation) who are going to get married soon,” she said.

But organizing a big event overseas can be challenging. Rachel Xie, also a cofounder at Chariot, explained the need for destination wedding planners.

“Wedding planning essentially entails laying out the budget first, then organizing the wedding based on the budget and tastes of the client. Then you design the wedding style and program,” Xie said.

Locally, in one’s home country, a couple can arrange many things by themselves. The major differences in a destination wedding come with managing the accommodation and suppliers overseas.

Xie said: “The planner needs to be an expert on the location and have spent some time there personally to truly be able to give accurate advice and support once the wedding trip ensues. The planner should anticipate last-minute needs and have adequate resources on hand, while knowing what’s within the destination’s capacity and the overseas suppliers’ capabilities.”

According to Santangelo, the difference in language does not necessarily pose the biggest challenge while organizing a destination wedding.

“Cultural differences and geographical familiarity” pose a bigger hurdle, he said, “as well as the working relationships you have with your suppliers”.

In this regard, he added: “Communicating effectively between the client and your suppliers overseas is crucial.

“Destination wedding companies should possess a thorough understanding of the destination’s professional and cultural differences, and not just be translating between the parties.”

Transportation and logistics — “hotel bookings and shuttles” — are also key, in his view.

A destination’s location and facilities could also be deciding factors for couples looking to tie the knot abroad.

Based on Xie’s experience with clients, she found “Bali, Phuket, Boracay, the Maldives, and the Similan Islands in Thailand” to be popular choices for high-end weddings.

Erbeyli noted that some couples prefer a nearer wedding destination, such as a Southeast Asian country, if elderly parents are to attend.

But those considerations notwithstanding, research showed that the Maldives, Mauritius and the Greek island of Santorini are some of the most popular wedding destinations, along with Bali.

“France is one of the favorite spots for Chinese couples, especially Paris and the Provence region. Thailand, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan are also becoming popular,” Erbeyli added.

Many Chinese couples arrange pre-wedding photographs, sometimes taken in overseas locations.

Philip Tsang, an award-winning wedding photographer, organizes such shoots at exotic locales for his clients.

“Europe seems to be a popular choice as a setting for Chinese couples to take their wedding portraits. I’ve taken clients to places like Prague, London, Paris and Florence,” he said.

“A favorite of mine is Bordeaux in southwestern France. It’s not a very crowded place and has lovely vineyards and chateaus for weddings and backdrops. I’ve been there more than 20 times now.”

Whether they are staying within the Asian region or heading to a far-flung continent, the market recognizes that Chinese lovers are going places.

As well as having more and more options for weddings, Chinese consumers are becoming increasingly savvy, Santangelo said.

“Copycat companies will undoubtedly remain and follow the industry leaders, and the wedding industry as a whole will grow and professionalize,” he said.

What is already a multibillion-dollar industry will continue to expand. “And as China’s population and economy matures, more will marry, and the trend of traveling abroad will intertwine with destination weddings.”

A fairy-tale wedding The nuptials of this Singaporean couple were on a scale so grand they could easily rival royalty

July 24-30, 2017
By LOW SHI PING in Singapore
For China Daily Asia Weekly

There were four parts to the event, spread across three days, which involved unicorns, a guest list of around 1,200, and a fiery-red sedan chair.

If it seems like something out of a fairy tale, that is not too far from the truth.

These were some of the elements that marked the wedding of Roy Fong and Cheryl Wee, a Singaporean couple, held at the beginning of the month.

Wee is the daughter of high-profile entrepreneurs and socialites Mervin Wee and Jean Yip. Yip’s eponymous group provides services in the areas of hairdressing, beauty and slimming.

But Wee herself is no wallflower either. The 30-year-old former beauty queen has carved a career in entertainment, where she sings, acts and, most recently, started a wellness and weight-management business, Cheryl W.

No surprise then that when she decided to tie the knot, the nuptials were nothing short of grand.

Roy Fong and Cheryl Wee flew to Florence, Italy, for their wedding shoot. Credit: Provided to China Daily Asia Weekly

Setting the tone was the proposal. After dating for 11 years, architect Fong went on bended knee in the scenic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto, Japan, in January last year to ask his high school sweetheart for her hand in marriage.

Accompanying him was a string quartet, hired from nearby Osaka to play Wouldn’t It Be Nice by The Beach Boys, a song that is special to the couple.

“I didn’t expect it to happen then,” said Wee. “I thought we had gone on the trip to celebrate my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. I was really surprised.”

What ensued next was 18 months of intensive planning. Following appointments in London at some of the world’s most renowned bridal couture brands, Wee settled on gowns by Vera Wang.

“Vera’s right-hand (person) was present at the trunk show that I attended, and offered to customize the gown that I would wear for the dinner,” she said when asked what tipped the balance.

The gown she wore for the church wedding was also from the same label, a white confection cinched at the waist with a pearl-studded belt.

Since she had to travel to Europe for the fittings, the self-professed “very practical” bride decided to book wedding photo shoots in Richmond, a suburban town in southwest London, as well as in Florence, Italy.

“I was charmed by the historical buildings in Richmond. I had also never been to Florence before, so I thought it would be a good chance to see the city and take our photos there.”

When it came to the wedding proper, unlike most Singaporean couples, Fong and Wee decided to split up the traditional tea ceremony from the church service and dinner celebrations.

The former took place on June 25, preceded by the “gatecrash”, where the groom and groomsmen try their best to “persuade” the bridesmaids — typically through a series of fun activities — to enter the bride’s house to whisk her away.

“I didn’t want Roy and his best men to look stupid, so I planned with my bridesmaids to divide the gatecrash into three parts. In each part, we gave him specific roles to play,” revealed Wee.

For instance, Fong was asked to be a master chef, which required him and his friends to prepare a meal consisting of salad, pancakes and tom yum soup — all of which are Wee’s favorites.

“The best men thought the girls had to eat the dishes, so they added a lot of extra condiments. In the end, we told them they had to eat it before they could move on to the next part,” Wee said with a laugh.

After returning from Fong’s home, where the couple served tea to his relatives, Wee was hoisted into her home in a traditional Chinese sedan chair by the groomsmen to repeat the ceremony with her side of the family.

Left to right: Wee’s aunt, Singapore singer Dawn Yip, serenaded the couple; A ballerina greeted dinner guests; The ceremony at the oldest Roman Catholic church in Singapore.

But the main event occurred on July 1. The day began with a service officiated by four priests at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, the oldest Roman Catholic church in Singapore, that had just undergone a S$40 million ($29 million) restoration.

“Ours was the first wedding held there since the renovation was completed,” said Wee.

In the evening, 620 friends and family of the bridal couple congregated at The Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore to celebrate. Set to a blush color theme, the event was run by a team from Bliss Pact, a Singapore-based wedding planner.

At the reception area, a forest “grew” overnight with unicorns, deer, doves and a curtain of crystal. In the center, a rotating platform featured a ballerina performance as guests were arriving.

The ballroom, too, was transformed beyond recognition. On the stage rose a grand staircase flanked by a winged unicorn. In the middle of the room was a raised platform, surrounded by pedestals decked with roses and statues of deer, rabbits, owls and more unicorns.

The evening’s program consisted of three acts — The Origins, Chasing Love and Everlasting Love — marked by videos, performances and speeches.

In the first act, the video of Fong’s proposal was shown, followed by a skit from the couple’s parents.

This was topped off by the surprise appearance of Wee’s aunt, the acclaimed Singapore singer Dawn Yip, who belted out Somewhere Over the Rainbow followed by Ave Maria, as the couple entered the ballroom.

Wee’s father then took the stage to give the welcome address, after which he sang the songs, You Are So Beautiful and What A Wonderful World.

Highlights from the second act included the couple’s duet of a Chinese song by Wee, accompanied by a live band.

Fong also surprised his bride by singing Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got You, while playing on a baby grand piano.

In the third act, more performances followed, including one by Fong and the groomsmen in a dance number. Later, Wee took to the floor accompanied by two dancers.

As a fitting end to the evening, the couple performed their first dance together to the strains of Perfect by Ed Sheeran.

The program was repeated the following evening, attended this time by 600 business associates.

Wee smiled wistfully as she recalled the rousing celebrations. “I really enjoyed the whole preparation process,” she said.

When asked about her honeymoon plans, she said they intend to focus on building their careers for now.

Naturally, the question of children also came up. Wee laughed and replied: “This is really up to God’s will and blessing.”

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