One of the reasons I love China is because it is tacky. The great irony is that the discourse of East vs West in my countries of origin is always one of communism and conformity vs freedom and individuality, yet when it comes to fashion and accessorising I find China much more accepting of funky, crazy and downright eccentric choices. Take my phone cover; it has a cutefied version of Donald Duck on the back. In relief. I could never imagine strutting into my former London office with a cover as ridiculous as this (at the time I was already pushing my luck with a black cover with Hello Kitty ears). Yet in China I get countless excited compliments for my “cool phone cover”. That is probably the one aspect of contemporary Chinese culture I appreciate the most. While back home most my friends would generously accept my tacky taste for quirky eccentricity, in China no one bats an eyelid when I walk onto the street in my teddy-bear-specked boots.
The same over-the-top tastes to be found in mobile phone covers and clothing apply to weddings. Purple or pink are common colour schemes for weddings; I am not talking about lavender or rose but full-blown in your face shades that almost singe off your eyebrows with their vibrancy. In terms of themes, more and more one finds the Pan-European romantic cocktail including Eiffel Tower, bird cages and a British Telephone box all in one decor.
As a bit of an artsy person myself (part of my work in Nanjing includes designing the spreads of our magazine and I am also one of those geeks who will voluntarily go look at an art exhibition), the theme of my wedding is of major importance to me. Therefore, I have been trying to find the right theme ever since the split second Mr. Li and I made the decision to tie the knot. That is eight months of attempting to figure out the perfect amount of tackiness for our wedding, much to the despair of Mr. Li, who if it were up to him would probably go dig out those roses he gave me when he proposed five months ago, plop them next to the entrance and proudly call it our wedding display.
The wedding display is the most important decorative element in a Chinese wedding; it is a bit like an exhibition of the couple and also reflects the theme of the wedding. As such it will often include a table full of the engagement pictures of the couple, small items such as the aforementioned European mementos with a romantic and continental flair and in recent times increasingly a collection of themed little cakes, often cupcakes and macaroons.
Now, I am currently on the third iteration of our wedding theme, and by no means certain it will be the last. In the very first instance I simply wanted a lavender colour scheme and no defined theme as such; that was before I found out that Mr. Li’s cousin and his bride went for exactly that same idea. This was just an unlucky coincidence but suffice it to say that cousin’s wife and I have a rather complicated relationship and I was not keen to give the impression I was just copying her wedding.
Slightly lost for what to do, another coincidence brought me to the fabulous Peace Hotel in Shanghai, an institution for the old style of 1930s and 40s Shanghai, Republican China and Jazz. I instantly fell in love with the decor, the elegance of the vintage style and the overall feel of it all. Watching their Old Jazz Band, I felt incredibly overwhelmed, especially since my granddad used to play the clarinet in a band for the Americans after the war. This was it, I felt this has to be the wedding theme. Elegant, reminiscent of the past, a fusion of East and West. I was ready to throw myself into the planning.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that once again I had underestimated the complexities of my country of residence. As is the case in many countries, China has the North-South divide, with plenty stereotypes to be found in each side with relation to the other part of China. However, this divide in China extends into reality in so far that when I tried to find a wedding company in Hohhot to do an Old Shanghai wedding theme, I usually got one out of two answers. Reply a) was “That’s a Southern theme, we can’t do a Southern theme. No one does that.” Reply b) unsurprisingly went “Oh yes, we can do such a theme but it will be 5 times more expensive than any regular theme because we have to buy all the items from scratch.” I was not about to pay 50 000 RMB just so some greedy wedding company could order 1 000 RMB worth of decorations off Taobao.
In addition, I was feeling increasingly depressed by the fact that there was seemingly no wedding company in Hohhot with a professional attitude. Most of the images of glamorous wedding decor on their websites were just stolen from other websites and when MiL visited the company their marketing materials barely extended to a shabby A4 paper printout. Both MiL and Mr. Li only confirmed my worries by constantly stating “Hohhot is too small, there are no good wedding companies here, they are all unprofessional.”
A while later Mr.Li suggested I do the decoration myself, in an attempt to save money and make sure I got exactly what I wanted. While both the big pieces of cloth that are often draped on 2m tall cardboard printouts with the couple’s personal logo and proclamations of everlasting love and the latter are decoration elements I would never dare to attempt on my own, I did feel fairly certain I could cook up a decent little themed table. So I found myself on a weekend in February scrolling through endless items on Taobao putting together a list of all those little items for my Old Shanghai wedding.
Then, through a third coincidence my MiL found the “phallic cake company”. Through the almighty god of soft wares that is WeChat she discovered pictures if a fabulously tacky wedding and managed to out me in touch with said company. They do custom weddings and of course their prices were horrendous, although they did promise me that they could work with any budget. I was incredibly relieved and starting to feel excited; it seems there are capable wedding companies in Inner Mongolia after all.