A Chinese bride poses for a pre-wedding photo in London. [Wei Tao/VM Studio]
A gigantic, generously framed photo hanging on the wall may be the most important decoration you will see in the home of a Chinese newlywed. And if a Chinese person tells you he or she is about to marry, social etiquette will be satisfied if you instantly ask if you can see the wedding photos.
Yes, see the photos, for in China most wedding photos are taken as much as a couple of months before the nuptials, rather than on the big day. These photos will not be just tender records for posterity, but more immediately will be must-have elements in invitations, posters and big screens displayed at the ceremony. And of course, bland will not do; extreme glamour is the order of the day, and for the photo shoot bride and groom will don exotic clothes the likes of which they are never likely to don again.
Pre-wedding photos are not new, as is attested by the number of black-and-white pictures you can find of happy couples in army uniform, white wedding gowns and evening dresses.
These days, though, the settings in which such photos are taken are becoming increasingly more exotic, indeed often more exotic than the wedding garb itself. And if it is an exotic location that a couple wants, it is obvious that in many cases, particularly among those who are a little better off, distant shores will beckon.
Such was the case for Liu Wenwen, a human resources officer with China International Capital Corporation in Beijing who went to Greece for 14 days in June and had 400 wedding photos taken in one day.
Liu says she was staying on the island of Santorini and contacted the photographer through the hotel at which she and her fiance were staying.
“I had a good look at the photographer’s website and felt he was trustworthy. He put me on to someone who did my hair and makeup.”
Liu Wenwen and her husband’s pre-wedding photo in Santorini, Greece. [Photo provided to China Daily]
She paid the photographer 1500 euros ($1670) and the makeup artist 500 euros, she says. Earlier she had bought three bridal dresses on Taobao, the popular Chinese online shopping website, specifically for the photos.
“All the buildings are white, with blue roof tops, azure sky and water. … Santorini was the place I had always dreamed of going to; there’s no other place where I would like to have had my wedding photos taken.”
Liu says local photographers were best equipped to know about the ideal locations, being aware of the local culture, so could take her and her fiance to special places, such as a local wine cellar rather than popular scenic spots that most Chinese tourists would go to.
Raymond Wu, director and chief photographer of JR Studio in London, which specializes in wedding and pre-wedding photography, says about 80 percent of his customers are Chinese, others coming from Asian countries including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar, and Brunei.
His company last year did pre-wedding photographs for 170 Chinese couples, he says.
“About 20 percent of those came directly from China just to have photos taken. The rest were Chinese studying or working in the UK.
“But this year, the number of couples flying over from China just for the photos has increased. They come from many different places, including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Inner Mongolia. Most admire English culture, and some don’t even speak English.”
Among the most popular backdrops for pre-wedding photos in London are Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, London Eye, Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Thames Embankment and red telephone boxes, Wu says.
“But some young people come up with their own ideas, unusual backdrops such as very small towns.”
Li Xueyin and her husband in Paris. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Wu, a British Chinese who has been a photographer in London for 15 years, says most Westerners are puzzled about the Chinese ritual of pre-wedding photos.
“Usually when we’re out shooting, locals tend to come up and say things like ‘Congratulations’, and we have to explain that it’s a photo shoot taking place rather than a wedding.”
Wu says his business is growing, and many photography companies from China have approached it asking about the possibility of working together.
One of Wu’s rivals is VM Studios, also in London, whose director, Sasa Jiang, says that besides taking photos the company has a huge selection of bridal and evening dresses and suits to select from.
Competition among pre-wedding photography companies in China is becoming stiffer as many are launching photographic offerings overseas to lure young couples.
Maldives, Phuket Island, and Bali Island Australia and Japan are the top destinations for pre-wedding photos from these domestic companies, some of which work with travel agencies to include air fares into photographic packages.
Liu Xiao, an event organizer in Beijing who is about to marry, says: “Personally, I am not into taking fancy photos. But of course I have to take what my fiancee thinks into account. We will of course have photos taken on the big day but pre-wedding photos have become a bit of a tradition for weddings.
“But I wouldn’t want to have them taken abroad. The whole process is so painstaking and needs a lot of research and communications. I would rather go overseas just for travel or for the honeymoon and be relaxed and take casual photos.”
Li Xueyin, a teacher at China University of Petroleum in Qingdao, says that after comparing the prices and quality of photographers locally and overseas she finally chose one of the latter.
She and her fiance had her wedding photos taken twice during a 20-day trip in February: one day in Paris and one in Dubai.
“We went to the Eiffel Tower twice, early in the morning and late at night, to get different backdrops. We had a very experienced French photographer, 70 years old, who has been in the business for more than 30 years. Our makeup artist also did a nice job and acted as our interpreter during the day.”
Li says she paid 20,000 yuan ($3120) for the Paris shooting and 14,000 yuan for the Dubai shooting, the later of which was impromptu, she says.
“We didn’t plan them. On the way back to China we had a two-day stopover in Dubai. When we got there, I was raptured with the exotic sights, and thought: ‘Why not take some more wedding photos?”