Commoners’ wedding parties in Hong Kong

Asia Times explores wedding outfits locals wore over the last century at the Heritage Museum

Photo of a banquet hall decorated with dragons and phoenixes at the Diamond Restaurant in Hong Kong in the 1970s. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum
Photo of a banquet hall decorated with dragons and phoenixes at the Diamond Restaurant in Hong Kong in the 1970s. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum

Hong Kong was under British colonial rule for more than 150 years till 1997, yet surprisingly many of the wedding customs still resembles those practised in Beijing than in London.

Such similarities can be seen from the “Ceremony and Celebration – The Grand Weddings of the Qing Emperors” exhibition in Hong Kong, jointly organized by the Hong Kong Heritage Museum and the Palace Museum in Beijing, running till February 27.

The program dedicated a special space for wedding items that ordinary Hong Kong people used in the last century, a period when the economy boomed and first gained its fame as one of the “Four Asian Dragons.” Many of the exhibits came from local museums and through donations from residents.

“Many of the security guards [at the museum] would visit and say ‘it was just like my own wedding’,” Joyce Ho, an assistant curator at the Hong Kong Heritage museum, told Asia Times.

The museum security guards, mostly middle-aged women, were excited about reconstruction of the “Grand Hall of the Dragon and Phoenix” in the famed Diamond Restaurant in Sheung Wan, which had closed in 2002.

The family who owned the restaurant donated the entire scarlet red interior – that had been in storage for 14 years to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

“These items came to us in pieces, we had to clean, repair and assemble them before displaying them to the public,” Ho said. Scarlet red symbolizes good luck and happiness in Chinese culture.

Photo of a banquet hall decorated with dragons and phoenixes at the Diamond Restaurant in Hong Kong in the 1970s. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum
The famous dragon and phoenix banquet hall of the Diamond Restaurant, popular in the 1970s, has been recreated in the museum. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum

The first design of the grand hall could be traced back to the 1960s, when the economy boomed and Hong Kong people could generally make a better living.

The Diamond was one of the many Chinese restaurants keen to attract customers to hold wedding banquets and celebrations. Founded in 1947, its grand banquet hall was the only one of its kind at the time.

The “double happiness” roundel at centre of the back wall is flanked by a pair of golden dragons and phoenixes carved from wood. The dragons are entwined on the pillars, a feature also seen in the illustrated record of the grand wedding of Zaitian (Emperor Guangxu).

This extravagant decor enlivened the jubilant and harmonious atmosphere of the wedding banquet. Guests often took group photos with the hosts against the ornate wall.

While this type of decor is still common in Hong Kong, the most important feature – a bride’s gown – has evolved.

Evolution of bridal suits in the 1900s. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum
How bridal gowns changed in the 1900s. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum

Plenty has been discussed on the loss of community and the rise of individualism in Chinese families, and this can be seen in bridal gowns.

Wedding gowns in the early 1900s mostly had motifs of clustered fruits and flowers. The stitching had blessings and wishes for the new couple to have many children – just like the clustered images.

Bridal suit embroidered with peony motifs (left) and bridal suit embroidered with grape motifs (right), both symbols of blessings to many descendants. Photo: Asia Times / Liu Hsiu Wen
Peony motifs (left) and grape motifs (right) on wedding gowns, are both symbols of blessings to many descendants. Photo: Asia Times/Liu Hsiu Wen

In the 1950s and 1960s, motifs of dragons and phoenixes began to appear on bridal outfits. Dragons and phoenixes are the perfect couple in traditional Chinese feng shui, they complement each other in creating a yin-yang balance to harvest successful matrimonial bliss. It was less about family, but more about the couples.

Some bridal outfits have also become more prestigious. The so-called “queen of bridal gowns” was the most prestigious and extravagant one that usually took up 18 months. Seamstresses would hand stitch motifs on the fabric with mainly gold and silver threads.

“Super bridal suit” fully embroidered with dragon, phoenix and peony motifs in gold, silver and multi-coloured threads from the 1950s to 1960s. Collection of Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum
The “queen of bridal gowns” is a hand embroidered outfit with dragon, phoenix and peony motifs in gold, silver and multicoloured threads from the 1950s to 1960s. Collection of Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum

Though Hong Kong people have been following cultural rituals passed on through the generations, most old-fashioned traditions have disappeared, except the sending of a dowry, which today can take the form of gifts.

Wrapping paper for wedding cake from the 1950s to 1960s. Collection of Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum
Wrapping paper for a wedding cake from the 1950s to 1960s. Collection of Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum

Read: Royal weddings with Chinese characteristics

Sequinned and sem-studded bridal suit with dragon, phoenix and peony motifs. This particular type of bridal suit enjoyed popularity in the 1960s. Collection of Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Photo: Liu Hsiu Wen / Asia Times
Sequinned bridal gown with dragon, phoenix and peony motifs. This type of bridal suit was popular in the 1960s. Collection of Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Photo: Asia Times/Liu Hsiu Wen
Suits dressed in weddings for males were much more simpler than females back in the times. Photo: Liu Hsiu Wen / Asia Times
Hers and Him bridal outfits for the couples who preferred simplicity in the 1900s. Photo: Liu Hsiu Wen / Asia Times
Bridal phoenix crown in the 1950s. Collection of Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum
A bridal phoenix crown in the 1950s. Collection of Hong Kong Heritage Museum. Photo: Hong Kong Heritage Museum

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