The Girls With the Dragon Weddings

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Among Chinese-American communities, not even half a world's worth of distance can squelch some colorful marriage traditions.

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Elizabeth Dilts

In 88 Palace Restaurant , on the third floor of the East Broadway Mall under the Manhattan Bridge in New York City's Chinatown, three Chinese weddings are going on at the exact same time in the exact same room.

Each party has 250 guests at 25 tables of 10 and, with no real walls separating the wedding parties, everyone can hear everyone else's celebration. The walls are red, the chairs are gold, and dragons and phoenix and signs of double happiness are everywhere. The three newlyweds are all recent immigrants from Fujian Province, China, and they are celebrating their weddings on a Sunday last April during the most auspicious year of the Chinese zodiac calendar, the year of the dragon. But the date was oddly significant for another reason: with roughly nine months left in the Year of the Dragon, these couples managed to tie the knot with just enough time to conceive a child before the end of the year.

Standing at the front of the rooms for the tea ceremony, a tradition in many Chinese weddings, the couples pour tea for their elders who, in exchange, hand over their wedding gifts: 24-karat gold jewelry and red envelopes of cash. The masters of ceremonies call out each gift like auctioneers.

"From grandma's sister number four, that's $500!"

Guests applaud and continue eating.

"From uncle number three we have $800!" an MC says from another section of the room.

As the gifts get more extravagant, the guests pay more attention.

"From auntie number two, $1,000!"

Each time, the bride and groom bow to their relatives, and the tea and money continues for an hour or more. The larger the gifts, the louder the MCs shout. A thousand dollars, two thousand dollars, and people started jumping out of their seats. Four thousand dollars, five thousand dollars, and people started shouting, "Ai-ya!" (Wow!) And "Jiayou!" (Let's go!) Like it's a competition with the other two weddings. Then, from the wedding located in the middle, the one with the loudest, most crackling sound system, the MC's voice booms so loud that the speakers fuzz.

"From aunt number five, that's ten thousand dollars!" he hollered, sounding like a Spanish soccer announcer calling a goal. "That's ten thousand dollars folks, not renminbi!" There are just over six renminbi for each U.S. dollar.

The ceremony keeps going, but this wedding clearly won the competition in revelry. The groom, a young student at Baruch College in Manhattan and the first-born son to an important Chinatown businessman, will start his marriage tens of thousands of dollars richer.

Welcome to the world of Chinese weddings at the height of dragon-year madness.

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Evidence for this surge in auspiciously-timed marriages isn't just anecdotal. According to CBS News, a poll taken at the beginning of the dragon year found that 70 percent of Hong Kong residents wanted to have a baby in the ensuing twelve months, while the Los Angeles Times reported that fertility clinics and surrogacy centers in the city saw an average 250 percent spike in business from Chinese couples wanting dragon babies.

But it's not just babies. This dragon year, which officially lasted from Jan. 23, 2012 to Feb. 9, 2013, was also a good year for marriage, said Laura Lau, author of Wedding Feng Shui, the Chinese Horoscopes Guide to Planning Your Wedding.

"If a marriage has a dragon personality, it could inspire fierce loyalty, passion and ambition," Lau said. This year was particularly special because it was a couple days longer -- meaning the Chinese first day of spring, li chun, came twice. Lau said this is auspicious." "It helps lay a fruitful foundation, ideal for a marriage or new businesses to begin."

Focus studies have found that couples in China are willing to spend up to 90 percent of their life savings on their wedding, according to the Chinese branch of TheKnot.com, named Ai Jie. Asian-Americans, for their part, spend on average 145 percent more on their weddings than any other ethnicity, and account for a $2.9 billion dollar slice of the national industry, according to the Wedding Report, Inc., a trade group.

The surge in weddings from couples like these from Fujian Province represent a part of the diaspora-wide boost to both the Chinese birth rate and its economy. Weddings are never cheap, and the extravagance with which Chinese families are approaching weddings is a telling symbol of the group's growing prosperity.

Weddings also reflect where an immigrant is in his or her personal integration

But it's more than that. What you buy says a lot about who you are. As everything about China is changing, conventional wisdom would follow that traditions, some of which are very costly, would change, too. The dragon year is a year heavy with tradition. Chinese couples across the world still splurge on weddings or rushed to have dragon babies, showing that some traditions -- and superstitions -- persist even as globalization shapes Chinese values.

"There seems to be a lot of connection between economic status and immigration and how a family decides to ritualize," said anthropologist Dale Wilson.

Wilson, an expert on ritual music, spent about a year researching wedding traditions in New York's Fujianese and Cantonese communities for a 2006 article about the refashioning of wedding traditions. He focused on the role of flower shops where customers could find the standard wedding bouquets, but also arrange for traditional wedding musicians and classical Chinese instruments.

Wilson grew up British in Hong Kong and was familiar with many Cantonese wedding traditions. But he got the feeling in Chinatown that many immigrants zealously held onto traditions and superstitions, perhaps because they either couldn't afford to back in China, or just felt far from home.

"I think there was a craving for a sense of tradition because many of them didn't have it in China," Wilson commented. "It's like how [British people] used to say that the British are more British when they're in Hong Kong. All of a sudden, mannerisms are exaggerated."

Weddings also reflect where an immigrant is in his or her personal integration, said Kenneth Guest, a China expert at Baruch College and author of God in Chinatown: Religion and Survival in New York's Evolving Immigrant Community, a book on New York's Chinese immigrants. 

"Weddings are a reflection of who we wish to be and how we wish to be seen," Guest said. "It's a public performance of people's core values, but I also have a sense that in a Chinese wedding, the money is spent as a performance of who people wish to be; their sense of hope and intention, their performance of their status and movement within the different groups of the immigrant community"

Of course, people working in the Chinese wedding business in New York don't bother dissecting the reasons people buy what they do.

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Elizabeth Dilts is a New York City-based journalist for Reuters.

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