Wednesday, August 7, 2013

weddings, part II: fairyland

It is around 7:00pm on December 26, Boxing Day (a remnant of British colonialism).  Most of the world is recovering from Christmas festivities, while I’m sitting in the Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel in a noisy banquet hall.  The newlyweds, in their mid-30s, are true Hong Kongers in the sense that cartoons, fairy tales and princess attire define their wedding celebrations.

Exhausted from a month of musical activities and performances (the plight of any professional musician during December), I prop my head on my hands during the forty-five minutes of formalities that begin this banquet: emcees who crack humorless jokes and translate every announcement into both Chinese and English, slideshows and videos, introduction of special guests, and the serving of beverages (hot water, wine or orange juice).

The bride and groom eventually arrive, walking stiffly into the room, as various tunes from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast play loudly overhead.  The bride—a friend of mine—typically wears little or no makeup, so she is almost unrecognizable under layers of thick face paint and false eyelashes.  Her princess-like dress poofs out around her, such that she can hardly move, much less sit.  The groom sports a loose black suit with thick gold trimming, looking like a character from a Chinese version of Aladdin.  Standing before a sparkly purple curtain, surrounded by decorative bushes in the shape of Mickey Mouse ears, the couple stands with smiles plastered on their faces.  Massive cartoonish chandeliers hang overhead, short antique-looking streetlights sit around the stage area, and heavily gilded walls and ceilings bring to mind images of castles and grand houses in Disney films.  Not understanding this adult obsession with cartoons, which pervades Hong Kong society, I roll my eyes discreetly and wonder when the food will arrive.

Not to worry—here it comes.  The lights are dimmed to a purple glow, “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast begins to blare, and waiters march in with barbecued pigs on platters; one for each table.  We take a quick look at the whole swine, which is then whisked away to the kitchen.  Minutes later, the music recedes and we are served bits of crispy pork skin and fatty meat slices, topped with a tasteless pastry in the shape of a cartoon pig’s head.  (The turnaround was so fast that this food could not have come from the same pigs that were marched in before.)

Typical wedding banquet courses follow: shrimp balls, whelk and mushrooms, snow peas and scallop, seafood and melon soup, bak choi and mushrooms, whole steamed fish, and chicken.  (The latter sounds innocuous, but is always served whole, chopped into pieces—bone and meat sliced together—covered in bumpy, yellow skin, looking pale and almost undercooked.)  Refills of orange juice are continuously offered, a pairing I’ll never fathom.

The happy couple changes outfits several more times, as is customary, and all guests are expected to appear onstage for photos, group by group and as individuals.  Swarms of professional photographers and videographers keep busy throughout the evening.

More slideshows follow, set to “Tale as Old as Time” sung by Angela Lansbury.  We see childhood photos and videos, engagement photos, wedding photos from the church ceremony that morning, and a recap of the entire day.  I gain insight into the enormous amount of activities and traditions expected of the bride and groom on that day.  Bridesmaids already attired in their wedding finery and makeup appear at the bride’s door around 4:00am that morning, dragging her out to complete a multitude of “tasks”—like college student hazing, or I-dare-you teenage stunts, or bridal shower games.  It seems a poor choice of day/time to engage in such nonsense, but this is as normal and obligatory as the lingerie shower and bachelor party are to their American counterparts.

The groomsmen and groom conduct similar activities early in the morning, until it’s time to get ready and undertake more serious rituals: traditional breakfasts, tea ceremonies, presenting gifts to important family members, paying homage to elderly relatives.  By the time I arrive at the church around 11:00am to play the piano for the actual wedding, the poor bride and groom are wiped out from a full morning of formalities.

And we—the wedding guests—are watching this in video format at the banquet that night around 10:00pm, as the bride and groom woodenly smile from the stage.  As the meal continues, the couple moves around the room to greet guests again.  When they approach a table, guests stand up, toast the newlyweds, and pose for yet another photograph.  This is followed by a lucky draw (what Westerners call “door prizes”), organized by the emcees.  I do not win anything.

It is nearing 11:00pm, my interest in waning, and I’m relieved to see the final course arrive at our table.  Dessert consists of a mild-tasting bit of cake, a few bites of fruity mousse, and a Mickey Mouse-shaped herbal gelatin—none of which is actually sweet, in my chocolate-partial opinion.  I am grateful that my ride is ready to depart, knowing that the banquet will likely drag on for another few hours.

We encounter the bride and groom in the hallway, take another half-dozen photos, and eventually emerge from the banquet area into the hotel lobby.  Walking past gingerbread houses, Christmas trees laden with Disney paraphernalia, full-sized cartoon statues and life-sized scenes from well-known children’s movies, I breathe a sigh of relief when I step out into the cool night air.

Why don’t more people elope?