For the first time in two and a half weeks, I wake up under the dreary concrete-coloured skies of south China. It’s as if someone has gone up in a fleet of helicopters and unloaded several tones of concrete powder into the atmosphere. It’s humid, it’s sweaty and, worst of all, today I must work. It’s good work, though. Today is my friend Fong’s wedding day. And by virtue of the fact that I own a camera and a flashgun, I am designated photographer.
Chinese weddings are a bit different to what one goes through back in the West. The most obvious discrepancy is in the fact that Fong, and his bride, Fei, officially tied the knot several months ago. The legal part of wedlock is completely separated from the ceremonial stuff. At that time, Fong and Fei would have gone down to the local registrar and signed a form or two, had a couple of bits and bobs checked and with purity ensured, walked away ‘married’. I understand getting divorced is similarly straightforward.
The ceremonial, and celebratory bit, normally comes later, often, a long, long time later. In China, it’s not that uncommon for a married couple of wait a couple of years before they invite family and friends to share their joy, happiness and cash. The tacit understanding is that one normally has the big day before the belly gets too big. Indeed, with Fei five months along now, Fong is arguably cutting it fine.
When the Chinese celebrate, they do it with food. The day begins with ‘Yum Cha’ – the classic Cantonese steam-basket breakfast with Fong’s nuclear family and friends. Actually, I had no idea this was part of the day until I turned up in shorts and t-shirt to find Fong welcoming us wearing a shirt and tie. ‘Have you bought the camera?’ he asks, quite reasonably in the circumstances. I had not. I turn to Ling. You didn’t tell me the wedding starts now, I point out in a mildly accusing manner. She didn’t know either. For all this country’s energy, endeavour and spirit, clear communication can still sometimes be a problem in China, even among friends. This is one wedding that I sense is not going to run with Swiss precision.
We all pile into a fleet of cars and go on a roam of the city, remembering to pick Fei up from the hairdressers on the way. There’s zero ceremony when the young lovers set eyes on each other for the first time. Fong gets out of the car, at least, but I sense it’s more to marshall the cars behind than it is to complement his wife on her hair-do. Having driven around for fifteen minutes or so, we head to Fei’s hometown, way over in Gao Yao, on the far side of the Xijiang River. The place is surprisingly beautiful. It’s like a citadel, with a wall on the outside and clusters of densely packed houses, separated by narrow alleys, within. Fong and Fei go hand in hand, walking around these alleys now. They head off in front, with friends and family trailing, carrying great big baskets stuffed with live chickens and rice wine. For the moment, the chickens are alive though that won’t last long. If they had any sense, they’d peck the top off the rice wine and really enjoy their last half hour of life.
Fei’s home is a hive of activity. The family has gathered. Some are in the kitchen, hacking the hell out of the chickens; others are sitting around drinking tea. The happy couple loiters, chatting. Before long, Fong is summoned to the village temple. It may be the family temple. According to Ling, the village is essentially just one big family anyway, so either description will do. The place is stunner. It’s been cleaned for the occasion and there’s a real historic ambiance within the four walls. Natural light floods in from a gap in the roof. The architecture is fabulous. I didn’t know this kind of thing still existed. It’s invisible from the main roads that I normally use. I must remember to get away from the main road more often.
The ceremony is an oddity. Fong essentially has to make sacrifices to Fei’s ancestors. ‘They already know Fei, but they don’t know me,’ Fong explains. ‘I must introduce myself.’ He does this with the aid of a bound, stuffed and – presumably – recently killed – chicken. As Fong moves around the temple, so does the chicken. There’s also a pre-packaged pig and a basket of fresh bread. Fong lights some incense, burns some paper, throws three cups of rice wine over the ground and bows solemnly. He repeats the process outside the temple.
The fun and games then really begin. The huge belt of firecrackers that had been slung over a wooden beam within the temple is, suddenly, ignited. The designation fire-starter comes pegging it out of the temple doors with ears firmly clamped in his two hands. Inside it looks like all hell is breaking loose. A thick black pall of smoke is growing in volume by the second and tens of explosions rock the building’s foundations. The process is repeated a short while later. The shot below shows our resident pyro, once again, running away from the scene.
Then it’s back to the village hall for a big feast. The dishes just don’t stop coming. Fong tells me he’s paid 5,000 RMB for all of the morning’s activities. That’s a major sum of cash. Given that we’ve only eaten breakfast two hours prior, it’s an utterly impossible amount of food to digest. It’s the same story on every one of the twenty or so tables. Maybe a third of the food that was bought out is eaten. I am assured that, out here in ‘the village’, wastage isn’t permitted. The food will be recycled. When I see the chef coming round and dumping all the leftovers into one massive dog bowl, I pity the poor sucker who has to eat it tomorrow.
While we are eating, Fei’s uncle lets off a massive firecracker immediately outside the front door of the dining hall. During the cacophony, one lady has the courage to get up and close the door, frantically wafting smoke away from her nose and eyes as she does so. Nevertheless, the blast still fills the dining hall with putrid smoke and possibly renders a few people deaf. I am in hysterics. It is such a seemingly improper thing to do. Just as people are tucking into their food, this elderly and respectable member of the community goes nuts with the gunpowder. And yet there’s not a trace of admonishment for him. Not one person enjoyed what we just went through. Not one person is enjoying the smoke in their mouths and eyes now. Nobody is smiling, or obviously celebrating, and yet nobody looks angry or upset or disapproving. My friend Eric asks me what on earth I am laughing about. Nobody else finds it in the least bit funny. ‘No!’ Eric says. ‘This is part of the programme. It’s normal. Just nobody knows when it’s going to happen.’ I can’t help think that waiting until we had finished eating would have been a better idea, but nobody seems to agree. After laughing for a few minutes, I need to leave the building. The smoke has got into my lungs and I am in fits.
Across the way, this elderly lady looks on. She’s smoking a pipe the size of a small submarine and is weaving baskets between her withered fingers. I try to speak a little Mandarin to her. Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t a clue what I am on about.
We step back out through the red debris and get back into the cars for the return journey to Zhaoqing. We are allowed a few hours off before the evening festivities begin. My break time is cut short when Fong telephones at 5.30pm to say that we are needed immediately at the entrance to the hotel when the banquet will take place. We rush down. The guests have been told to arrive at 6pm but protocol dictates that the bride and groom – mother and father standing at their side – should wait around for an hour so as to greet each and everyone personally, whether they are late or not. Nearly everyone is late. Each group that arrives hands either Fong, or Fong’s father a red packet stuffed with cash, which is then passed over to Fong’s sister who tucks it away in a big bag.
Finally, at 7pm, we head inside. With everyone seated, Fong and Fei enter the room to applause and a chorus of a Canto-version of Here Comes the Bride from a bunch of Fong’s mates. The cutting of the cake takes place immediately and I am barely finished checking the pictures before I am summed to the front to give me speech.
Ling, bless her, has helped me prepare. In between taking pictures of Fong’s guest arriving, I paced back and forth memorizing my lines. Despite the fact that I didn’t expect to have to speak this early, the work pays off. Thing go well. It is, however, a bit unsettling to get the loudest round of applause merely for introducing myself. My flowing prose and heart felt words of pride and affection couldn’t match the sheer novelty value thrill of seeing a ‘foreigner’ speak Chinese. It was all downhill from there.
Fong then gives a speech. Ling later tells me it was a very formal promise to care for Fei as long as he lives. She said that it was a bit stilted and stuffy, but I guess that’s what a wedding should be about – a formal, sincere promise to your bride, made in front of heaps of family and friends who will – hopefully – apply the necessary pressure to keep you to your word.
Then the feast, then the rounds of toasts and party games (the groom’s friends have an absolute obligation to tease the bride and groom with little tricks like the one pictured...in the West, I guess this kind of principle applies during the stag/hen dos, in China, it’s during the banquet). Unlimited alcohol is part and parcel of every hotel’s wedding banquet deal. With the relief of having completed my speech, I try to single-handedly ensure that whoever is paying gets full value in this respect. I even leave with a barely started bottle of red wine under my arm.
And so, an hour or so later, it suddenly ends and everyone gets up and leaves. The Chinese have a great knack and finishing things clinically, and with little sentimentality. Weddings are no exception.