Oh, the irony. Throw yourself back to 2019. The year 2020 beckons – the shiny, futuristic-sounding start to an entirely new decade. And matrimonial-minded couples across Asia are thinking, “Well, that would be an easy anniversary date to remember!” Plans are made. Banquet halls are booked. RSVPs are sent out. 2020 is coming, and there will be weddings.
We don’t need to tell you what happens next.
The fuller irony is this – in Chinese-speaking cultures, the year 2020 holds an especially auspicious significance. As the number two symbolizes doubling – or in the case of wedded partners, coupling – two is a particularly lucky number for matrimonial unions. Traditionally, wishes of “double happiness” abound at Chinese weddings, and the phrase “bi yi shuang fei”, which literally means “wing to wing, flying as a pair” is often used to congratulate newly-wedded couples and wish them well. In modern Chinese lexicon, dropping a “520” is also equivalent to saying “I love you”, making 2020 a rough translation for “love you, love you”. All of which meant that 2020 was meant to be a banner year for Asia’s wedding industry, with many couples, particularly those of Chinese descent, earmarking this as the year for wedded bliss.
As we said – the irony.
Excluding those who crossed the mark in February 2020 – an exceptionally lucky month (for them, truly!) in a particularly lucky year (for the world, questionable?) – getting married while grappling with the fallout of a global pandemic has been… a rollercoaster, to say the least. Less like two doves gliding through the dawn sky, more like two pigeons flapping their way desperately through a tropical thunderstorm. One moment, the clouds briefly part; the next, there is rainwater slapping you in the face. Speaking to several recently/soon-to-be married couples gave us insights on what a tumultuous 2020 might mean for the future of weddings in Asia.
#1: Smaller weddings are here to stay.
Note that we say smaller, but not necessarily small. In 2020, social distancing, nationwide lockdowns, and global travel restrictions resulted in a global upsurge of small, intimate weddings. But, the minimony/micro-wedding trends are not likely to become standard in Asia, where wedding norms are driven largely by familial expectations and community customs, not social trends.
“We always wanted a smaller wedding and thought COVID was a good excuse to have one,” says recently married Angeline. “We did a digital registration of our marriage that only had about 20 to 25 people in total, including physical attendees and digital audience. [But] we were told to do another more ‘formal’ wedding where we would have the tea ceremony and reception with all our relatives present. For our ‘second’ wedding, I think we’d still need to pander to my parents’ wants.”
In Asian cultures, weddings are – for better or for worse (and, yes, in sickness and in health) – social statements about status, prosperity, connections, and face. When it comes to these, decisions are rarely made at the sole discretion of the bride and groom, but also by their parents and elders, too. In India, for example, weddings are where other marriages are often brokered, with parents networking amongst themselves to match up unmarried sons and daughters. In cultures where a wedding guest list could potentially include literally everyone your parents ever knew in their whole life and their families, “small” is a deeply subjective term that could mean anything from 50 to 500 people.
Given that many Asian cultures also traditionally regard the size of a wedding as something intrinsically linked to its sense of occasion, we aren’t going to see the disappearance of grand, festive affairs. The big, fat Asian wedding will eventually return, it’ll just be a little small…er. The rise of domestic travel could turn destination weddings into intra-national affairs, for example, and abbreviated guest lists could translate to more lavish occasions for a smaller group.
#2: Year(s)-long wedding planning could be on its way out.
Across Asia, weddings are generally thought of as extensively pre-prepared affairs that require planning a year, if not years, in advance. In India, where parents are typically responsible for marrying off their children (and planning their weddings), the process of buying wedding gifts and assembling trousseaus pretty much begins once one has a child. For particularly auspicious dates, Asian couples typically “have to” book their venues of choice a year or more in advance. The earlier, the better. Photographer? 10 months, perhaps more. Dress? At least six. And so on.
Post-pandemic, these timelines are likely to dramatically shorten. “Planning a wedding in four months would not have been possible pre-COVID,” says Amol, a groom who, in October 2020, set a wedding date for February 2021. “Expectations are higher, and most are pre-booked as far as nine months in advance. But now, the shorter timeline forced us to keep things simple so that we could get the planning done in four months. It is possible, if you’ve got a clear plan in your mind and your vendors are able to accommodate your requests as well.”
For a world in constant flux, flexibility is now the name of the game. Harsh penalty fees and long “lock-in periods” will become much bigger issues as couples seek more accommodative vendors that enable them to be fluid in their plans, and adapt to circumstances that can change from one month to the next. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that life is short. Who has the time or the energy for excessively laborious wedding planning?!?
#3: The digitization of weddings creates new opportunities.
Weddings, the Zoom party is coming for you.
Just as we adapted to doing pretty much everything that involved meeting in large groups over remote conferencing calls, the pandemic has also introduced a novel digital component to wedding ceremonies. Indian pandits now perform wedding rites remotely over Zoom, and guests dance “together” onscreen at virtual sangeet parties. Elsewhere, people have also transitioned from having unplugged weddings to including livestream or video conferencing components where friends and family who couldn’t be there in-person are able to virtually observe, and even participate in the proceedings.
“Initially, we would have had 200 guests and no social media presence beyond the stray photos and Instastories that these guests would post, tagged to a tacky hashtag,” says Quanhan, who switched plans after COVID-19 hit to include a full multi-camera livestream of his wedding day, in order to accommodate guests who would no longer be able to be there in person. “[Doing a livestream] helped us to broaden our reach to friends and family members we might ordinarily not have gotten in contact with. In a sense, it helped us to consider more people whom we were close to in the past. I do foresee this trend to continue although I would highly recommend couples go with something fuss-free like YouTube rather than Zoom where you have to admit and mute participants.”
Savvy vendors could find new opportunities arising as weddings shift towards hybrid physical-and-virtual events. And not just videographers, too. Instead of a massive buffet for over 500, what about catered meals delivered to remote attendees for a virtual banquet? Instead of a live band, how about a bespoke track to go with your livestream edit? Instead of lavish on-site decorations and floristry, what about more elaborate wedding favours sent to commemorate the occasion, post-event?
#4: As priorities shift, new rituals for couples emerge.
In a post-pandemic world, do weddings even matter? For many Asian communities, of course, this isn’t a question at all. Weddings will continue to be important milestones – markers of not just money and status, but also faith, tradition, and communal ties. But with many weddings derailed or put on hold, many couples are now in fact devoting their freed-up time, energy, and money to other endeavours, creating new rites of passage to help mark their transition from “dating” to “partners for life”.
One area that particularly benefits from this shift is housing, with the marital home emerging as an especially meaningful site for couples to invest in, both financially and psychically – “The pandemic shifted my priorities significantly. In terms of my wedding and home, but more broadly, in terms of my overall financial planning,” says Chen Wei. “While a wedding is a major life event, it’s really the smaller moments that happen in our day to day lives that will leave an impact. My home is where I’ll be spending most of my time anyway, while a wedding [is something] you just need a few photographs to cherish.”
As global lockdown has forced some couples into a longer-term separation, other rituals beyond marriage and cohabitation are also coming to the fore. “We actually had nothing that we were working on together that made our future feel jointly owned,” says Sydney-based Graham, whose partner, Prague, remains in Bangkok. “I made a spreadsheet of a savings plan that we put in place because we don’t have shared finances. So every month, we both put in and screenshot the remittance note and send it to each other, then capture it in our spreadsheet. The extent of our future together is manifest in this little spreadsheet… And now it’s a bit weird, every month we do this little ritual and confirm our financial future together.”
As we move beyond Covid-19 and assess its impact on our lives, it could be that the emergence of smaller, more personal, and more routine rituals will diminish our over-reliance on the wedding as the marker of couplehood. Weddings will undoubtedly continue to be powerful statements that couples or communities make about their identities, their status, and their relationship. But perhaps it will be a statement amongst many others. After all, if this year has taught us anything, it’s that there are greater things to worry about than a wedding.
Itching to get under the skin of Asian culture? Reach out to us at [email protected]