By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; A13
BEIJING When the Miracle Love Marriage photography studio opened at 8:30 a.m., the attentive young women who ensure that love in modern China is neatly packaged and saved for posterity were already at the front door practicing their calisthenics.
But it was Liu Ting, who sells cosmetics, and her fiance, Sheng Yue, a telephone equipment manager, who should have been stretching. Both 24, they were about to spend one month of Sheng's salary and more than nine hours of their time on wedding photos that, according to the studio, would convey "a passion which consumes all thought and deed" and fill their lives "with ecstasy."
As the couple waited for makeup -- three mobile phones and a boxed lunch before them -- other wedding photo studios on North Xidan Street opened their doors.
Their storefronts were filled with white angel wings, confetti-filled balloons and red hearts. Their model albums displayed pictures of the imaginary worlds that the couples could enter -- themed sets including French boudoir, jungle love and steamy bathroom, all complete with costumes and recommended poses.
With names such as Paris, Love in New York and Rome Style Life, the mostly Taiwanese-owned studios that dominate one of Beijing's busiest shopping districts have capitalized on a Chinese obsession with Western-style wedding pictures.
For the equivalent of $375 to $750, packages include at least five costume changes and a trip to pose in front of a nearby Roman Catholic church, even though most couples aren't Christian. "It fits the Western style of the dress," said Huang Ling, 23, director of the Miracle Love Marriage studio.
Even if most couples prefer Western wedding fashions, the big day itself often still features at least one Chinese outfit, a Chinese banquet and an auspicious wedding date. It is an especially busy time now because, in an unusual quirk, this lunar year twice includes the day that marks the beginning of the lunar spring.
"It stands for a lucky year, for them to have more children," Huang said. "Last year if you wanted to make an appointment, you waited less than a week. This year it's two weeks. We have 20 couples a day on the weekends."
By 10:30 a.m., Liu's hair was curled and her eyelids were bright blue. Sheng's face was smoothed with foundation. Other young women picked out billowing white, Cinderella-style gowns.
A few feet away, another couple peered at a computer screen, trying to choose the most flattering shots from their marathon photo session last week.
"I prefer the natural shot," said Xu Quan Zhen, 27, examining a studio-created image of himself and his bride-to-be, Chen Ying, 26, on a Hawaii-like beach in front of a crystal blue wave. An assistant assured the couple that their teeth could be digitally brightened.
Makeup complete, Liu and Sheng climbed into a 16-seat minibus with another heavily made-up couple bound for St. Joseph's Church in the Wangfujing district. "I prefer to get married next year, but his parents prefer this year. It gives them a good psychological feeling," Liu said. "For us, we are just worried about how expensive it will be."
Their Sept. 10 wedding will cost $1,250, just over three months' salary. But that's nothing compared with the wedding being thrown by Sheng's brother, who spent $2,250 to have his photos taken in Paris -- the French capital, not the competing studio down the street.
At St. Joseph's Church, Deng Peng Peng, 25, wilted in the noon heat, her Western-style wedding dress held in place with safety pins. Her fiance, Liu Can, 28, wiped sweat from his brow and pulled at a foundation-stained shirt collar.
They, too, chose to hold their wedding on a traditionally lucky date. Deng's parents had asked them to do so. "We'd like to follow our parents' wishes," she said. "And we hope to be lucky."
After the couples had been suitably posed against the backdrop of the church, smiling at each other, standing under a shaded tree, they were bused back to the studio. Deng sat down to touch up her makeup.
"I'm hot, and sick and tired of switching from place to place," husband-to-be Liu Can muttered.
Liu Ting changed into a red evening gown, lace and sequins running up her leg. Her fiance, Sheng, chugged bottled water.
Around 2 p.m., in a room at the back, another couple wasn't quite getting in the mood, even after assistants pumped perfume and soft music toward them. A photographer, Wu He Jia, looked on.
"Please touch your noses together," he said, "as if you're enjoying this."