BEIJING -- An enormous "Double Happiness" sign formed the backdrop for the young Chinese couple, who beamed at their families, friends and the videocamera.
No one seemed to care that the props for the ritual had all been rented -- from the bride's bouquet of artifical flowers to her gown to the ringbearer and the pair of flower girls. These days, it's important for young couples in China to have a wedding ceremony with all the frills and a minimum of hassle.
An organization in Beijing -- which claims to be the first of its kind in the country -- is trying to appeal to busy couples by offering to handle their wedding ceremonies from start to finish.
Purple House (the color purple symbolizes jubilation and luck) will send out wedding invitations, rent the bride her wedding gown, provide the room for the ceremony, videotape and photograph the happy event, and host the traditional Chinese banquet in its basement hall.
"Most people have to spend two to three months running all over the city buying things and getting ready for a wedding," said Yang Yi, a deputy manager of the state-run enterprise. "We can save them some time and inconvenience."
The average cost of a wedding handled by Purple House is 1,500 to 3,000 yuan -- about $315 to $640 -- equal to half a year's salary for an ordinary worker. Although the couple might spend less on their own, some young couples say they would prefer to spend the extra money to save themselves and their families trouble.
"A wedding is a big event in one's life," said Ma Jingjun, 26, as he waited anxiously for his bride to put on her wedding gown for the ceremony. "We decided to do this because it would save a lot of headaches."
The company sells wedding supplies on its first floor. In addition to wedding gowns, which range in price from about $100 to $340, the store sells such mundane wares as watches, calculators, photo albums, batteries and cigarette lighters. The ceremonies are conducted in a hall on the second floor; the dining hall and party room are in the basement.
Officials for the company, which opened this summer, say business is good, but they won't say how much of a profit they make.
The only problem so far seems to be booking weddings on odd-numbered days. Chinese have a custom of marrying on even-numbered days: the word for "even" is the same as the word for "pair" while the word for "odd" is the same as the word for "single." No one wants to get married on an odd-numbered date for fear that it will mean bad luck for the marriage.
Couples can choose from a variety of wedding ceremonies, but the one that seems most popular is part Western-style, part traditional Chinese, and, it seems, part American game show, complete with enthusiastic host.
One recent Saturday, Ma and his bride, Zhang Lina, 22, walked into the hall to the strains of the wedding march. She wore a high-necked white gown with a long train and pearl earrings (all rented). He wore a dark suit (his own) and a red ribbon marked "bridegroom."
A ringbearer and two flower girls, chosen by the company from a nearby kindergarten, accompanied them to the front of the hall, where they faced the guests and the videocamera. As a master of ceremonies presided, the couple pledged to love and cherish each other, exchanged rings, and drank a glass of wine that the master of ceremonies said would symbolize "the sweet, sour, bitter, peppery" tastes of their life together.
After a kiss, they were instructed to bow several times, in the Chinese tradition: to their parents, to the gathered guests, and finally, three times to each other. "The last bow is the most important," said the master of ceremonies. "You are signifying your commitment to have only one little precious one," he said, referring to China's one-family, one-child birth control policy.
The groom, a salesman at a machinery export-import company, recounted shyly that he first spotted his future bride, who works at an electrical appliance factory, six years ago, but that it took another year before they were able to get acquainted.
In less than an hour, the couple and their families had photographs taken, made their speeches, and trooped downstairs for the banquet. Total cost: $640.
"Originally we were going to have a simple wedding because I have a lot of relatives," said Zhang, as she changed out of the rented gown into her own clothes. But after she saw an advertisement on television for the services, she changed her mind.
The couple will be luckier than most other newlyweds because they have their own apartment and will not have to live with their parents. They have also bought all their furniture, imports from Romania, Zhang said proudly.
"The only thing we don't have yet is a VCR, so we won't be able to watch our wedding tape," she said. "But until we buy one, we can go to my grandmother's house. She has one."