"You missed a lot! I just won one of the gifts," my friend Jeff, who is still at the wedding banquet at the Ritz-Carlton, texts me.
He follows up with a photo of his wife grinning, holding up a Macbook Air.
I immediately regret leaving early. I am already en route to the train station because I didn't have the foresight to book accommodations in town.
Jeff follows up with a picture of a single shrimp on a plate, lightly drizzled with a tomato-based sauce.
"Shrimp is the size of my fist," he writes. It is one of 14 courses that they are serving at the banquet. My stomach churns with envy; I had only gotten to eat the first of these many dishes. Other courses included sea cucumber soup, duck, fried crab, pork knuckle, a whole steamed fish, soup dumplings, and lobster in cheese.
In 21st-century China, a wedding is a grand affair with an East-meets-West aesthetic. But though brides have long ditched the traditional red garb for a white wedding gown, a lot of ancient traditions are still alive. A tea ceremony is conducted, a groom has to fight to pick up his bride, and red envelopes are accepted in lieu of a gift registry. You'll be hard-pressed to find a dance party after the reception or any religious element to the ceremony. Instead, expect lofty speeches given by an older generation and a multi-course meal with lots of expensive seafood.
Ironically, a couple's friends make up only a small portion of the guest list. Invitees are mostly family members, family friends, and business associates of the parents. Glitz and glamor are naturally expected among Chinese elite. In reality, parents are the true stars of the wedding; it is them who usually foot the bill.
In modern-day China, newlyweds spend an average of $22,000 USD on their wedding and 62 percent of them have parents who will bear the cost. Of course, the market is rapidly growing as the middle class in China expands. Today, the industry is now a $57 billion one that often includes intensive photo sessions before the big day, a team of videographers, and financial negotiations before the ceremony. Last year, Chinese celebrities Angelababy (the Kim Kardashian of China) and Huang Xiaoming spent $31 million on their nuptials. Some context: That's nearly 2.5 times as much as Kimye dished out for their ceremony.
Weddings are more of a show for the families than they are an intimate celebration of a couple. This wedding was no exception; both the bride and groom come from elite Chinese families in Shanghai.
But I didn't even know the couple. I still don't really know the couple.
My friend Jeff, who is close to the family, had heard I was in China and invited me at the last minute. Told that I was a writer interested in Chinese culture, the bride and groom welcomed me with open arms and let me follow their bridal party around for the entire day.
I knew I was going to get access, but when I saunter into the hotel suite at Shanghai's Peninsula Hotel at 9 AM and see a gorgeous, glowing bride getting her hair done— surrounded by only her closest friends and immediate family members—I'm shocked at how close they're letting a complete stranger get. It was a kind and grand gesture of hospitality, a testament of the power of guanxi (connection) in China.
It was immediately clear that the families were from money. First, the bride had a younger brother—meaning that, in a country with a one-child policy up until last year, the family was able and willing to pay the mandatory fees for a second child. Second, most of the bride and grooms' friends, all in their early 20s, were fluent in English. A significant chunk of them had gone to college in the States, a luxury that could only be afforded by wealthier families in China.
In the airy suite at the Peninsula, a professional team of videographers snakes through, getting glamor shots. Little children run around. A tiny girl purposefully dressed in red tugs at my jacket and beams up at me. A basket of tangerines—an auspicious fruit symbolizing fortune and luck—sits on the table.
Eventually, the groom and the groomsmen arrive, pounding at the door of the hotel suite. The bridesmaids, nine of them (a lucky number), yelp in excitement and ask for money. The bride remains hidden, locked behind the bedroom door. A packet slips under the door; the boys are promptly let in.
This is called chuangmen—a wedding game that is played before the groom is allowed to see his wife. The girls have planned a series of challenges for the boys, and throughout the game, the guys will have to give up dozens of red packets filled with money. These are betrothal gifts for the bride; the price the groom pays to marry her.
"First, you need to jump up and down this mat barefoot," a bridesmaid announces. She points to an acupuncture mat filled with sharp grooves. (Earlier in the morning, I had seen a bridesmaid test it out in curiosity. "This will be painful," she had concluded.)
The guys look at each other in horror. Eventually, one guy pats the groom on the back and sacrifices himself for the clan.
The room roars in laughter while the poor groomsman yells in pain, jumping up and down. He begs to be relieved of the challenge. The girls demand more money; he relents and each of them are handed a red packet.
"Next, you need to dig out the red M&Ms with your mouth only," the girls say. They point to a plate of flour on the table. The candy is hidden inside.
More challenges follow. One poor guy has to wax his legs; others have put lipstick on each other using only their mouths while blindfolded. At one point, the boys are instructed to eat toast with wasabi spread all over it.
The elderly stand back and watch in silent amusement and approval. This is all part of the process; a man and his friends have to work to get married. After all, the family is giving up a daughter and she will not be taken away without a struggle.
Eventually, the girls open the locked bedroom and the groom gets to his bride. He beams at her and squeezes her hand while their friends continue the games.
Finally, the bridesmaids line up in a row by the bed and one of them announces the last challenge. "We need you guys to find the bride's shoe. One of us has it."
"Is it between your breasts?" a groomsman jokes. The girl glares back at him.
They fight and yell, all in good fun. At last, they uncover the shoe—a Louboutin—duct-taped to one of the bridesmaid's thighs.
The bride puts on her shoes and everyone files out of the room. In the hotel lobby, we're instructed to get into any car that has a blue ribbon tied to the door handles. The ribboned cars are all Rolls-Royces and Mercedes. There's an entire fleet of them.
We're shuttled to a fancy restaurant for what I'm told is going to be a quick lunch. It's a full-on banquet, with cold plates and lobster and sea cucumbers—all lucky wedding foods. It's a relatively small gathering of at least 50 people, all on the bride's side of the family. Within an hour, the bridal party is instructed to get back into the cars. Everyone else stays and continues eating. Food, after all, is a continuous motif in a Chinese wedding. People rarely take home leftovers; surplus is considered a good thing.
We arrive at a Palladian-style apartment complex that looks like a five-star hotel. There are two grand pillars in the front; the lobby has marble floors and gold accents. This is where the couple lives. Everyone huddles by the door and potpourri is thrown up into the air as the groom carries his bride, according to tradition, into the building. They go up the elevator, and into their apartment—where the groom's side of the family awaits.
This is typical of Chinese weddings: parents will provide their kids with a new house or flat as a gift.
Their new digs have floor-to-ceiling windows with jaw-dropping views of the Shanghai skyline, a guest bedroom, a fully equipped kitchen, and an extremely large walk-in closet. A framed glamor photo of the bride and groom hangs in the living room. It looks like a shot from a movie set.
Dessert is served, specifically bowls of tangyuan (glutinous sweet rice dumpling) soup with a boiled egg inside. Tangyuan is a typical Chinese dessert that can be found anywhere in town, but this was the first time I had never seen it with an egg.
"The egg's roundness symbolizes unity in the family," a bridesmaid tells me. The saying that goes with this dish is "Tuan tuan yuan yuan," which means "union" in Chinese. There's also loose-leaf tea, spiked with a considerable amount of sugar. This, of course, also has meaning. Sweet things are accompanied by the phrase "Tian tian mi mi" ("sweet as honey"). It is a wish for the newlywed's upcoming life together.
Now comes the most iconic step of a traditional Chinese wedding: the tea ceremony. The parents sit on the couch and the bride and groom approach them, each holding a bright red gai wan (a Chinese teacup), steeped with lotus seeds and red dates.
Chinese believe that lotus and dates will help newlyweds produce children early. The Mandarin word for date is a homophone for "early" and the word for lotus sounds like "male offspring."
The couple kneels down and hands over the tea. Mom and Dad give them both red packets full of money. Cameras flash madly around them. The ceremony symbolizes the end of the transaction between families.
It's time to feast; it's now off to the Ritz Carlton for the banquet.
At this point, it is evening and things start to become blurry. There are simply too many things for me to process. There are 53 tables, each with two bottles of wine and a box of Maotai, one of China's most expensive distilled liquors. In the waiting area, a popcorn machine with an attendant attracts all the small children. A small orchestra of violinists begins playing music. In the banquet hall, a giant, T-shaped stage in the center is installed in the middle with disco lights and galaxy-themed décor. Bride and groom stand in front of a backdrop and guests begin to approach them to take photos. Wedding portraits are broadcasted on the walls along with a silhouette of the couple's horoscope signs.
I start talking to some of their friends; all of them studied in the States and are now back in China for work. They tell me that while this is a fancy wedding, it isn't the most elaborate they have seen.
"Some weddings will have private rooms for more prestigious guests, like government officials who don't want to be seen by the public. Each room will have a live stream of the event," a girl tells me. I am told stories of weddings with up to 800 people, weddings with performances by international pop stars, weddings with helicopters. This particular wedding only had local Shanghai celebrities as hosts. Standard stuff, I am told.
The groom steps out on the stage. He is shaking, clearly nervous.
"Please welcome the most beautiful and the most lovely woman of the night!" the announcer booms.
Lights dim and dramatic music crescendos. The back doors swing open and the smiling bride, now wearing a veil and (appropriately) a crown, floats in, accompanied by her father and a bright spotlight. She looks relaxed, graceful. The audience breaks out in applause.
Rings are exchanged and the couple, for the first time in the entire day, exchanges a kiss. A government official gives a stirring speech. Pieces of calligraphy are presented to the couple. We're served wine; a series of cold platters come out on the table. There is duck and fish and jellyfish. This is just the appetizer.
I look at the time. I have to go—my train leaves in an hour.
I bid goodbye to my table and rush out of the Ritz, into cold, rainy Shanghai night. After an entire day of riding in a leathered car with a private chauffeur, my commuter train feels like a pumpkin. After all, I just walked out of a fairytale. I ride back silently daydreaming, trying to process everything, slightly tipsy from all the wine, wondering if I should've just stayed and missed my train.
My phone buzzes again. It's Jeff with another update, this time, prefaced with exclamation marks.
"They're giving out iPhones like water."
I should've stayed.
Clarissa Wei is currently backpacking to all the provinces in China. She plans on single-handedly eating the entire country. Follow her adventures on Facebook.