If you’ve walked by the red telephone boxes on Parliament Square, chances are you have seen an Asian couple in full wedding dress posing for a photographer. A strange place to go after a wedding, you might think, but the odds are that they’re not (yet) married — and won’t be for some time. This is, instead, a new Chinese phenomenon: the pre-wedding photo shoot.
Pre-weddings are now as essential to young Chinese couples as honeymoons are to the British. With ever more money to splash, and their sights set on farther horizons, a sweet pose under a blue sky is no longer enough, as it was for my parents. Today’s twentysomethings demand to see what it would be like to be the protagonists in their own global fairy tale: gown, tiara and all. Pre-weddings are popular because they can be staged, edited and shown at the actual wedding.
As the Chinese become more international, you can see them at landmarks all over the world. The Eiffel Tower is for romantics; the stone temples of Bali for the spiritual; the blue painted roofs of Santorini for anyone fashionable. And London, well, that’s for those with refined tastes.
I tracked down Ceng Hao, a wedding photographer based in Putney, and joined him on a shoot last weekend. It meant a 2 a.m. start. After three hours of hair and make-up for the bride and groom, we arrived at Parliament Square as dawn broke. This was the beginning of an eight-hour shoot.
The demands for fantasy and storybook romance mean that these Chinese lovebirds never look for western photographers, who too often value authenticity over perfection. So the photographers in the pre-wedding industry are all Chinese, too. Hao has never studied photography, but his pictures are fit for the most difficult of clients, precisely because he understands their extravagant aesthetic sense.
Owning a good camera isn’t enough; Photoshop skills are also essential. Hao digitally enhances all colours and skylines to make them surreally vivid. I ask how he has managed in recent months, with Big Ben covered in scaffolding? ‘I’ve found a good quality stock photo, and spent a little longer in post-production,’ he laughs.
The early start at Hao’s little terrace house was largely for that hair and make-up session. But it would also have allowed the couple to pick from the dresses and
suits that overflow in Hao’s spare bedroom — he has 40 bridal gowns and 30 suits. In fact, though, today’s bride and groom brought their own outfits, for which Hao gives them a discount.
Even then, none of this comes cheap. At £1,680 for an eight-hour shoot, Hao’s pricing is on the moderate end of the spectrum. VM, a leader in the London market, would charge £2,400 for the same session and £5,000 for a whole day. A three-day shoot will work out less per day — a bargain at only £11,800.
Hao doesn’t think much of those who splash out for the sake of it. ‘There’s a noticeable difference between my clients and those of more mainstream places.’ Does he mean that those other customers are richer? He says it’s more that: ‘Those clients are more nouveau riche.’ The irony of making this judgment in an industry whose raison d’être is materialism is bemusing. But Hao has a point — a quick look at his portfolio shows that his pictures emphasise the happy glint in his lovers’ eyes, rather than the opulence of the location you see in other catalogues (or, as in one photo, a classic sports car the bride just happened to lean on).
Although no young person would admit it, globetrotting wedding photos are really just another way to flaunt wealth, and no doubt they’ve gained such traction in recent years because there is so much new money around, as a fresh generation of Chinese youngsters make the best of the educational and financial perks of being the only child. For their parents, those infamous tiger mums and dads, the photos are also useful for displaying their cosmopolitan, successful and beautiful children. My daughter is a banker, and she went to Prague for her wedding photo, see?
But, again, Hao’s shoot doesn’t feel as much like showing off as some. On the South Bank, the bride and groom lean over the Thames, chatting sweetly as he captures a few candids. By 9 a.m. Westminster is well and truly photographed (Parliament, Abbey, and telephone boxes all ticked off). We take ten minutes in McDonald’s to warm up and scoff down a breakfast wrap. Was the future bride having fun? She beams at me: ‘It’s a very special experience.’