It's 11 AM and pouring with rain. I'm huddled under a tree by the church at the intersection of Kent Street and Harry Street, waiting to meet Elsie, my guide for the day. Despite all the evidence suggesting otherwise, I'm not in a quaint, drizzly English town. I'm in Shanghai. Elsie is the co-owner of a local wedding photography company. We're meeting in Thames Town, a Shanghai suburb built to resemble a British town, because it's the location for today's wedding shoot.
The torrential rain forces us to begin the day inside. Thankfully, in true British style, Thames Town is prepared for the rain. Underground, beneath the mock Tudor houses, Thames Town hosts a purpose built wedding photography studio. The studio houses around 30 different backdrops used by couples having their pre-wedding photographs taken.
In Chinese cities such as Shanghai, these pre-wedding photographs, taken in a variety of poses, outfits, and locations, are an essential part of the wedding ceremony.
"The photos are mandatory," says Sophie Zhang, a 29-year-old receptionist from Shanghai. "Everyone has them," stresses Angel, a 35-year-old Mandarin teacher. Elsie explains that there's a certain expectation that couples will have these photos on display on their wedding day. Those who choose not to are "very special people, you know—headstrong," she adds.
After an hour of hair, makeup, and selfies, the bride leaves the dressing room in her first outfit of the day, a white lace dress and a pair of bright pink Nikes. I don't think this is an attempt to channel Lily Allen; she probably just wants some ankle support for the next nine hours. Song Song and Peng Lan, the bride and groom, have their first photograph taken against a backdrop with hundreds of lamps hanging from the ceiling, while nearby another couple are having a photo against what looks like the top of the Eiffel Tower. Elsie explains that this couple's outfits are an example of last year's fashions, as are the poses they're doing with an umbrella—which, even to my untrained eye, don't look too on trend.
From the traditional alpine cottage with evergreen trees and fake snow to the 19th Century library with its giant painting of Napoleon, there's no shortage of imagination when it comes to the backdrops. Perhaps my favorite is the "Hello Kitty Café" façade, a bright pink room where I find a bride in an orange tutu and green velvet top lying on a pink bed having her photo taken, a sight that almost breaks my retinas from the sheer overdose of color.
After a few hours the weather has cleared, so we head outside to take photos by the church. For many, these European landmarks are simply a fashionable backdrop, but for Song the photos are particularly symbolic because she's due to be baptized in a few weeks time. Both Song and Elsie are part of China's growing Christian population. Elsie explains that sometimes the company is asked to decorate the photo albums with sentences from the Bible "because, you know, the sentence in the Bible is beautiful."
The photos themselves, however, have nothing to do with religion, nor are they a longstanding cultural tradition. The history of the practice is purely commercial.
"These kinds of businesses come from Taiwan businessmen," Cheng Li, owner of a studio in Wuhan, tells me. He explains that the practice originated in Taiwan, where wedding dress manufacturers offered photo shoots as a way of selling more dresses. Then, in the 1980s, "they brought the business to the mainland because, you know, the mainland is bigger, so they can have many couples here," says Li.
This was shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution, in which Maoist policies had effectively paralyzed the country. "Because some people maybe [thought] they [would] never go abroad," says Li, "they [started taking pictures in front of foreign-looking landmarks] before their weddings, and then this became the fashion."
These days, there's big money to be made in the industry. In January of 2015, CCTV America reported that China's wedding photography industry is estimated to be worth almost $30 billion a year. Most people spend at least $1,500 on their photos at Elsie's studio, but for those looking to really splash out, going abroad to a real Thames Town—or to Paris, or New York, or Rome—is popular, providing you can afford to pay $1,200 a day for each member of staff on top of everyone's flights, accommodation, and food.
I'm intrigued by what it is about this practice that makes it so popular. Though Sophie and her boyfriend are yet to confirm a date for their wedding, they have taken a trip to the nearby city of Hangzhou to have their photographs taken. "I take these photos because when I'm old I want my children to know I was beautiful once," she explains.
And where do the ideas for the shoots come from? "Women—always the women," Elsie tells me.
However, it's easy to forget that this isn't necessarily the norm for couples across the whole of China. As Elsie explains: "I know people from big cities and small cities always have the photographs, but I'm not sure about those from far away, in the very poor countryside. My hometown is in northwest China, and the photographs there are terrible. The dress, the makeup, the hair—it's not good; it's still more old fashioned."
As the shoot finishes, nine hours after it started, I ask if it's been a special day for the couple. "Yes," the groom replies, "because today my stocks dropped."
Marriage and money is related, Elsie tells me. That's true of most countries, of course—you can't put on a wedding without a bit of cash. But in China, among those who can afford to stage these elaborate photo shoots, absolutely no expense is spared.