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Money can’t buy you love but it can buy things in China that may not be on the market in some other countries — such as a surrogate drinker-cum-sexual harassment decoy for your wedding, in the form of a bridesmaid for hire.
For a sum so small that it wouldn’t buy wedding favours elsewhere, Chinese brides can rent a professional to show up at 6am on the big day to cluck over their hair do and giggle about the wedding night, just like in all those western wedding movies.
Professional bridesmaids are rare in other countries, where they seem to be a mutation of the wedding planner. But in China they may have to get drunk on the bride’s behalf, handling ritual toasts in her place as she moves from table to table at the reception; provide scripted emotional support for a woman whose friends are too busy building the Chinese dream to attend; and bear the brunt of the traditional teasing, flirting and sexual innuendo that some amateurs these days are unwilling to stomach.
Global Times, the tabloid offshoot of the Chinese Communist party flagship People’s Daily, recently called it “bridesmaid bullying”. This month, the paper called attention to an incident where a celebrity bridesmaid to a famous Chinese couple getting married in Bali was manhandled by a bunch of star groomsmen and nearly thrown into a pool against her wishes.
When the video of the incident went viral, netizens disagreed over whether or not she was sexually harassed; but state media were pretty sure the incident would be a boon to the bridesmaid-for-hire industry.
Vision Peng, 23, is a full-time wedding planner and part-time professional bridesmaid for Suren Wedding Services in Chongqing, one of those increasingly affluent places in south-west China where the middle class is spending ever-larger amounts on nuptials.
Peng says she fell into the job by accident: a client found herself short an attendant at the last minute, after two friends became pregnant just before the ceremony. In China, bridesmaids must be unmarried and definitely not baking a bun in the oven. They must not be too pretty, either: on her first gig, the mother of the groom complained that the hired bridesmaid was more beautiful than her son’s mate. Peng had to wipe most of her make-up off to avoid stealing the show.
Most brides still want their friends to stand up for them, she says, but “many people marry late now and can’t find unmarried friends to be their bridesmaids”. Then there’s the hazing: “Professional bridesmaids like me are tougher than amateurs,” she says. “Some best men will tease bridesmaids or be fresh with them. Professionals like me can solve the embarrassment easily and quickly. That’s one reason I think why people hire me, to protect their friends.” She sees it as a “human rights” issue.
The whole thing can be an ordeal in any country: even 30 years after my last appearance as a bridesmaid I am not sure I’ve recovered my self-image after some of the nuptial confections I was forced to wear. But at least I didn’t have to totter from table to table on stilettos, downing shots of firewater on an empty stomach so the bride wouldn’t have to do it.
So what if the bridesmaid’s a fake: sometimes the chapel is fake too. One Shanghai entrepreneur built an entire chapel-style annexe to her hotel, complete with vaulted ceilings — not for the solemnisation of vows but as a prop for the photos and to attract clients to her banqueting halls. In Thames Town, on the outskirts of Shanghai, there’s an entire fake cathedral that never opens its doors.
It is tempting to say such faux-western weddings are all form and no substance, much as Christmas in China is just a shopping festival, stripped of all its spiritual or even cultural significance.
But maybe substance is overrated: at least China is honest about the superficiality. No one pretends the rented bridesmaid is a best friend forever and everyone knows the chapel is there only for Photoshop purposes. China has a spectacularly unsentimental relationship to its new money: mainlanders pay for what they need. Cash will not buy marital bliss — but, if the bridesmaid-for-hire service allows a bride to outsource her morning-after hangover, I’d say it is cheap at the price.