China's pre-year of the pig wedding boom

Millions of Chinese rushed to tie the knot before the new year - good news for those in the wedding business, says Fortune's Sheridan Prasso

By Sheridan Prasso

(Fortune Magazine) -- The beaming bride in a white wedding gown, the eyes of 400 guests upon her, grips the arm of her groom and walks down the red-carpeted aisle of the hotel ballroom. It could be a wedding anywhere, except crouching a few feet in front of the couple and trying to stay out of range of the flashing cameras is a white-gloved wedding planner orchestrating their every move.

He motions precisely when to walk in time with the music, when to stop and exchange rings under a canopied gazebo, when to kneel to honor the heavens and the earth, and when to undergo several changes of clothing and hairstyle during the daylong event - for the bride, a lipstick-red dress donned at home in the morning, then a white one for the afternoon march down the aisle, then a peacock-teal ball gown for dinner, then a 1920s-style qipao with a long string of pearls for the seemingly interminable toasting and post-ceremony festivities.

It's an elaborate affair, part of China's new national fascination with the wedding ritual, whose traditions were largely forgotten during the austere communist years of Chairman Mao. It has been made all the more significant because the Year of the Dog in the Chinese zodiac calendar, which ended Feb. 17, was deemed lucky for weddings.

"So many people are getting married now," says Gordon Zhang, the Shanghai wedding planner whose company oversaw the ceremony that brought 27-year-old real estate agent Wang Liming together with her high school sweetheart, Pang Xiao, a steel company manager.

That's good news for Zhang's Wedding Planner Wedding Service Group, which reaped close to $1 million in revenue from the past year's boom, up 30% from 2005, requiring him to hire three extra associates and raise the number of his planning teams to ten. Nationwide, according to government estimates, ten million couples spent more than $30 billion on weddings in 2006.

The wedding craze has sparked a rush of planners setting up businesses - more than 300 outfits compete with Zhang in Shanghai alone. In addition, slow-moving wedding processions have been snarling traffic and causing accidents on Shanghai's elevated highways. Newspapers carry stories about marriages ending acrimoniously after only a week because of eager parents and peers pushing couples to commit while the calendar was lucky. Even more stories abound about mass nuptials in Beijing and other cities to accommodate demand for venues and help couples save money.

Jewelry stores selling diamonds are mobbed: Tiffany & Co. doubled its number of stores in China to four last year and launched a website (though it won't disclose China sales); Cartier announced it would open ten stores in China by next year. Jewelry sales soared 42% in October - the busiest month for weddings - more than triple the growth of retail sales overall.

"Like the advertisement says, a diamond means forever, so it symbolizes that our love will last forever," says An Lei, 33, eyeing a pair of $1,050 his-and-hers rings made of white gold and diamonds in a crowded display case in a Beijing mall.

And, as surely as spring follows winter, China will be facing a baby boom in the new Year of the Golden Pig, which comes around once every 60 years. China's maternity wards are being booked months in advance in expectation of the millions of babies being born this year to the newlyweds of 2006 - far more than China's maternity wards can handle. Baby-product companies are salivating over the sudden prospects of a booming market: Kimberly-Clark says the disposable-diapers market will grow 60% this year.

"Lots of people postponed their wedding from 2005, and lots of people want to have a baby in the Golden Pig year," says Zhang, who used to work in advertising but decided in 1999 that there was a business niche to fill after stints as a best man at two friends' badly organized wedding ceremonies. Back then, Chinese couples typically wanted Cinderella-style weddings with Western dress, but recently couples have started researching Chinese traditions and asking to have those aspects incorporated as well.

"In Shanghai the wedding tradition was forgotten because people's parents didn't have a wedding ceremony," says Zhang, whose average commission is about $2,000. "Now there's a recognition of the old tradition that's getting popular among a certain segment of the population. People want the latest thing, but they create a new way to come up with a traditional message. They like to mix different elements together."

That was in evidence at the Wang-Pang wedding at the Shanghai JC Mandarin in late January. "We've known each other for many years, and they say this year is special, so we want to take this opportunity to get married," says Wang, seated at a dressing table in her parents' modest apartment in a middle-class neighborhood while having her eyelashes curled by a professional stylist on her big day. When her makeup is complete, she ducks into the bathroom, puts on a long red dress, then locks the bedroom door to await her groom.

His arrival is heralded by fireworks to drive away evil, and three times on his way upstairs he is barricaded, as tradition dictates, by Wang's family members, who demand to know his sincere intent. When he reaches his bride's bedroom, which is guarded by her girlfriends, he must offer money and declare his love. It's not enough. They demand that he sing. "The moon represents my heart," he croons to giggles inside the door. It opens, and he kneels to present a bouquet of red roses and declare his love.

"Will you marry me?" he asks. There's no question about her response, but it's clear this is an old ritual they are both enjoying. She says yes. "Finally! This was so difficult!" Pang exclaims.

Wang's mother, who works for the state railway, beams with even more apparent joy than her daughter. "I'm so excited," she says. "I really regret that when we got married 30 years ago it was during the Cultural Revolution and waste was frowned upon. We didn't have anything like this. We just registered in the marriage bureau."

So partly to compensate, her daughter got the works, including the four outfit and hairstyle changes, three trips down the aisle, and various stages of kneeling, singing, cutting cake, pouring champagne, and other mixtures of invented traditions - all guided by Zhang's white-gloved wedding planner.

"Everybody wants a wedding cake, champagne, and an exchange of rings and vows, but beyond that, everybody wants their own style," says Leah Qi, the senior planner for the wedding. For the finale Wang again walks down the aisle, this time in a qipao, wearing a red silk scarf over her head to shield her eyes from her groom - another Chinese custom - as he guides her by pulling a red string.

The groom's family, which traditionally pays for the ceremony, forked out $15,000 for the 400-guest event and banquet, which featured red wine and 13 courses, including abalone soup, baked crab, and chicken with XO cognac sauce. The cost was nearly eight times Zhang's average wedding.

Such extravagance is on the rise in China, where luxury hotels are booked solid on weekends, leaving last-minute committers and those with less money to marry on less prestigious weekdays. Expectations are for a slowdown in an industry that seems unlikely to sustain such a frenetic pace. But so far the Wedding Planner Group says there's been no letup.

"They say 2007 isn't a good year for marriage," says Qi, "but I have a lot of weddings booked already." And if it slows down at all in 2007, the number eight in China is especially lucky. Just try finding a wedding venue for Aug. 8, 2008, which coincides with Beijing's hosting of the Olympics and has given rise to the next frenzy, dubbed "Olympic weddings." If you start now, you're already too late.

Reporter associate Wang Ting contributed to this article. Top of page