Dim Sum Dialogues: Love & Marriage

Weddings in Hong Kong are big business. In every district, small shops advertise dress tailoring, videography or photography packages, and event planning services. Go into any of the big hotels on a weekend and you’ll find over 300 people congregating in the grand ballrooms, feasting over a ten-course meal that boasts elegance and affluence. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to help a friend shoot two local weddings, and on each occasion got an intimate look at the practices and traditions of modern ceremonies in Hong Kong.

The day starts early. The bride is joined by her mother and a few close friends, quickly nibbling on a light breakfast while a crew of photographers set up their equipment in the humble estate apartment of the Bride’s family. Immediately upon my arrival, I’m given a small gold & red envelope that I later discover holds $100 HKD – a generous welcome.
As the bride sits to have her makeup applied, the bridesmaids start setting up what appears to be a series of games. They pass around index cards, poster-boards, markers and containers of food seasoning. Bright red Double Happiness symbols are hung on walls and windows in the apartment, reflecting the hazy morning sun. We’re told that the groom and his groomsmen are in the lobby of the housing estate, and we rush to join them as the groom is handing out his own gold & red packets.

The men take photos and make their way up the cramped elevator to the apartment. Upon reaching the apartment door, they are denied access and the purpose of the poster-board is suddenly revealed. The groom must play a series of games and tests to gain access to the bride, while she anxiously waits in the back of the apartment with her father. The groom sings, answers trivia, and even outlines a chinese character through layers of mayonnaise, spices, and seasoning with his tongue. This is love.

After twenty minutes of displaying his devotion, the groom is allowed to enter and the bride’s father presents the bride to enthusiastic claps and laughter. She is dressed in a pretty, yet simple red dress adorned with gold stitching and small gems. The bride & groom then kneel on bright red & gold pillows to serve a special blend of tea to the bride’s parents.

The parents present the couple with special jewelry – large gold bracelets for the bride, and a small silver necklace for the groom. Pictures are taken, and then the whole party moves to the groom’s parents’ house for a repeat of the same tea ceremony and the opportunity for the groom’s parents to show their hospitality. After the second tea ceremony, the wedding party takes a lunch break. On my first wedding it was traditional dim-sum style food, and on my second it was gourmet cheeseburgers. Another example why you can never expect to always follow strict tradition in Hong Kong.

The next move is to the ceremony, typically held in a Christian church or in the City Hall, depending on the religious affiliation of the couple. The wedding in the Christian church was like most western weddings that I’ve been to with two exceptions: The groom sang a karaoke-esque song to the bride before she was walked down the aisle by her father, and the couple signed the legal marriage documents at the alter. I don’t think I have ever seen this done in an American wedding, but I could be wrong.

The day is capped off with a large banquet at a nice hotel. Everything has been arranged by the hotel staff, from the welcoming signs and displays to the towering eight-tier cake that stands on top of the main entertainment stage. Perfectly orchestrated lights and music are timed to dramatize the presentation of over ten courses of food. Vegetables, fish, chicken, pork, dumplings, noodles, crab, fruit, and even the environmentally taboo shark-fin soup are elaborately presented at tables of ten or so. There must be at least three hundred people in the room – undoubtedly more people than were actually in the audience at the ceremony. There is more singing, a few slideshow presentations, and a video highlight from the day’s events. The banquet climaxes with the couple making rounds to each table in rapid succession, to toast the guests and thank them for coming.

It occurs to me that the bride has changed dresses yet again into an evening gown, and the bride and groom each make speeches on stage. As everything is winding down, they stand at the ballroom’s exit with their family and form a line to shake hands and say goodbye to the exiting guests. A few red faces stumble and slur their way down the line – the sign of a little too much wine, but all in all the wedding is a success. The extremely tired bride & groom collapse on a couch, take a deep breath and get ready to catch a flight to their honeymoon in London.

Check in tomorrow for a look into the legend behind Double Happiness and it’s prevalence in Chinese weddings.