Tying the knot in China can prove a very expensive occasion but as wages in the country surge, the trend is only set to continue. In a nation where showing off is all part of the game, the wedding industry is reaping rich rewards, worth at least $57bn annually, writes Daniel Bardsley
In one corner of this Vivibride showroom in central Beijing, a stylist is putting the finishing touches to the hair and make-up of a woman seated in front of a large mirror.
Just behind, several couples in wedding outfits are sitting about, clicking their heels before their pre-wedding photo shoots begin in a nearby studio.
At the other side of the room, half a dozen soon-to-be husbands and wives are hunched over computer screens, scrolling through elaborate photographs showing them posing in flower-filled fields, beside ornamental clocks or in studios wearing traditional Chinese clothing.
Times are good for China's wedding industry, with the more than 10 million couples marrying each year spending US$57 billion (Dh209.36bn), according to the specialist news portal Ad Age China. Other estimates value the industry at $80bn annually.
"Couples are spending a lot more money than before ... Wealthy people, if their friends have an elaborate ceremony or wedding photo-shoot, they will follow their friends' example," said Li Yan at a Beijing branch of Mona Lisa, a company that organises wedding pictures and provides wedding clothing.
Just east of Beijing's main shopping street, Wangfujing, there is a cluster of wedding outlets trying to entice couples who, taking on board western practices, will spend thousands of yuan on photographs and tens of thousands of yuan on a wedding dress.
At the central Beijing branch of Mona Lisa, one of these couples, Xu Kun, 26, a restaurant employee, and his fiancée, a shop assistant surnamed Wang, are gazing at the pictures as they come up on the computer.
"We want to cherish the memory, to remember this special occasion," says Mr Xu, who estimates the total wedding expenses, including the ceremony, the ring, the clothing and the banquet, could come in at more than 200,000 yuan (Dh115,748), including 6,999 yuan for the photos alone.
"It's a very strange person who says that it's very expensive. It's a large amount of money because we Chinese people think it's important," he says.
"For a person to have a proper wedding, we need to spend a lot of money on it. We don't have large expenses, so we can save most of our salaries. That's why we have saved so much money in the past two years."
This month, more than 600 companies gathered for the China-Shanghai International Wedding Photographic Exhibition, better known as China Wedding Expo, where myriad wedding-photo portfolios, wedding dresses and accessories were on show.
"For most people it's a once-in-a-lifetime occasion so people will pay a lot of attention to having good wedding pictures," says Wang Yuxin, who works in sales at a Beijing outlet of Swarovski. Most are "definitely" prepared to shell out large sums.
Favourite locations for wedding photo shoots include the Forbidden City, the former palace of China's emperors. Other couples go to the coast where romantic shoots amid rocks or on the beach are popular. It is not unusual to find picturesque spots with half a dozen couples scattered about having their pictures taken.
Such elaborate mementos do not come cheap. An album of 30 photographs will set a couple back about 4,000 yuan, with additional pictures costing 80 yuan each.
"People spend a lot of money for two reasons. First, they want to show off. Second, they want to remember their special occasion," says Mr Wang. The most expensive package his company sells are priced at a cool 129,999 yuan. It includes a photo shoot anywhere in China, with 12 outfits, and all travel, accommodation and food costs included. Luckily for some, this is affordable.
"They don't need to save up a long time for the wedding. People are earning high salaries," says Mr Wang.
While the pictures can be expensive, the main cost is the wedding banquet. A top hotel can charge 8,000 yuan for each table of 10 with 200 guests normal at most weddings.
"They want to show they are as good as their friends, so they want to spend money on it," says Ms Li.
As well as the hotels and the companies that organise the photo shoots and the outfits, jewellers are also reaping rich rewards.
China has become the world's second-biggest market for diamonds thanks to customers buying them in engagement and wedding rings or for investment. Diamonds valued at $1.83bn were imported into the country in the first 11 months of last year.
Ari Epstein, the chief executive of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, has predicted China will become the world's biggest market for diamonds within the next five years with the expectations of brides-to-be fuelled by magazine adverts for expensive jewellery.
Given its expansion, it is no surprise China's wedding industry is attracting interest from companies around the globe.
Weddings Beautiful Worldwide, based in the United States, has set up a joint venture in China to train wedding planners, while a popular American wedding website, theknot.com, has launched a Chinese version.
"China is really our focus right now," says David Liu, the chairman and chief executive of XO Group, formerly called The Knot.
"It's the largest wedding market in the world ... the spend is extraordinary. The average age of a bride there is 29 years old and with the one-child rule, you have two sets of parents and four sets of grandparents and this is the only wedding they will ever spend on."
Family money often pays for the most elaborate ceremonies with couples with "super-rich" parents enjoying no-expense-spared weddings. But Ms Li points out spending lavishly is the norm when it comes tying the knot in China.
"Those people who choose the most expensive service are not necessarily the most wealthy people," she says. "A wedding is very important. It happens only once, so some people, even though they're not very rich, they will choose an expensive service."
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