Elaborate weddings are the rave now in Shanghai as couples look for fancy ways to leave an impression as they get married
Couples looking for spectacle when they tie the knot
Ahuge golden crown hanging from the ceiling anchored the European setting where a couple was waltzing between Roman pillars to the tunes of The Blue Danube by Austrian composer Johann Strauss II. Providing the acoustics was a band of musicians from the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra while a series of crystal chandeliers created the illusion of a night sky resplendent with stars.
But this was not a musical or stage production. Instead, it was a wedding show held in the 1,135-square-meter banquet room in The Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, Pudong hotel on the weekend before the Chinese Valentine’s Day on August 20.
Organized by Notting Hill Wedding, the 30- minute show, themed “Crowned Your Love”, cost some 200,000 yuan ($31,297). Li Gang, the co-founder of the wedding planning agency, said that the show drew inspiration from the hotel’s Swiss founder Cesar Ritz who was dubbed the “king of hotelier and the hotelier to the king”.
“That’s the most basic wedding ceremony we can plan,” said Li, a 33-year-old Shanghai native. Li, who was formerly a copywriter at an advertising agency, founded the company late in 2009 with a colleague and has since established it as one of the top agencies in Shanghai.
Notting Hill Wedding, whose name was inspired by the British film starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, has helped organize 450 themed weddings over the past five years. The agency charges clients a minimum of 50,000 yuan and this fee does not even include the cost of hiring photographers, emcees and make-up artists.
Lu Qi, who is the founder of wedding planning company WeddingIsm, estimates that half of the weddings happening in Shanghai now are tailor-made to clients’ specifications while 30 percent of all weddings across China are themed.
Lu and his wife started the company in 2008, when they were unable to find a wedding planner to bring to life their dream wedding. He recalled that bespoke weddings amounted to less than 5 percent when he first entered the industry. WeddingIsm charges a minimum of 60,000 yuan for weddings in Shanghai, and 150,000 yuan for those held outside the city or the country.
Despite the hefty price tags, there is an increasing demand for such bespoke and elaborate wedding ceremonies.
While Shanghai’s sophisticated brides are almost always decked out in Tiffany rings, Vera Wang gowns and Manolo Blahnik pumps, it is evident that these designer items are no longer enough to mark the special occasion.
Couples are now demanding for personalized elements that define their love for one another and help leave an impression in their wedding guests. Custom-made invitation cards, wedding cakes and even wine bottles are all considered essential these days.
In Shanghai, the most competitive wedding market in China with thousands of players, wedding shows such as the one by Notting Hill Wedding are staged almost every weekend at upscale hotels, even during the “low season” months of July and August.
There have even been instances where ballerinas are hired to perform along the aisle like a doll in a music box, presumably to signify how a couple’s love story is very much a fairy-tale. In other cases, cranes have even been used to lift the bride as she makes a grand entrance.
Movie-like wedding videos that reenact how a couple first met have now become a staple in the itinerary. Because of this, photographers who used to specialize in documentaries for national TV programs have shifted their focus to the tears and smiles of brides in this lucrative industry. Likewise, lighting companies which used to cater to concerts for A-list singers and renowned fashion designers have started to open their doors to wedding couples.
“I have never been rejected by my clients for proposing too crazy ideas, but I often have to say no to them because their ideas are impossible to fulfill,” said Lu, who added that the wildest request he has ever received was for the groom to pop out from a coffin to receive his wife.
“Shanghai couples may not come with the fattest wallets, as they are known for their shrewdness, but they are the most open-minded, wellinformed and have the most special ideas,” Lu added.
Qian Yali, director of events and convention services at Park Hyatt Hotel in Shanghai, noted that themed weddings have accounted for more than 70 percent of all the marital ceremonies held at the hotel, and this figure is expected to grow in the coming years. It is estimated that 70 percent is a benchmark for the five-star hotel industry in Shanghai.
Frost Sullivan, a global consulting firm, estimated that China’s wedding market consolidated revenues of 800 billion yuan in 2014, accounting for 1.3 percent of the country’s GDP that year.
China Wedding Association believes that at least 1.33 trillion yuan was generated by the 13.27 million couples that registered their marriages in 2013, based on the assumption that each couple spends an average of 100,000 yuan. It is unclear if these figures include the cost of jewelries, automobiles and apartment renovation fees incurred by the couple.
In comparison, Americans spent an average of $26,444 on their weddings, with couples in Manhattan topping the list with an average spending of over $55,000, according to US wedding website The Knot.
However, Fang Jing, the editor-in-chief of ijie.com, the Chinese version of The Knot, believes that couples from Chinese cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou have the potential to spend as much as, if not more than, their counterparts in the US. This would mean that Chinese couples spend a significantly larger percentage of their annual earnings on the celebrations, as compared to the Americans who already spend about half of their yearly income.
“If the question (from the bride-to-be) five years ago was whether her wedding was the most expensive one around, she is now most worried if it’s the most unique one,” said Li.
Elaborate wedding shows like "Crowned For Love" are a regular fixture in Shanghai, home to China's most competitive wedding market.
Couples have to pay top dollar for customized and unique wedding celebrations, but many in Shanghai don't seem to mind.