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In Shanghai, Photographing the Wedding They Never Had

Many older Chinese couples are at long last indulging fantasies of glamorous nuptial portraits.


SHANGHAI — The 65-year-old grandmother in the ruffled wedding gown with puffy sleeves and faux diamond-studded pearls is batting her fake eyelashes and struggling to keep her head at the right tilt. The 67-year-old grandfather in a long-tailed white tuxedo and golden cummerbund is forcing his legs into a wide kung fu stance, striking a romantic pose with his wife of 40 years.

The young photographer in a ribbed white T-shirt and thigh-hugging black slacks is teasing them for more smiles: "Miss! Miss! Look this way!"

For the Chinese who married during the lean years of Communist rule during the 1950s, '60s and '70s, money was tight and Western wedding clothes were considered the costumes of "imperialist running dogs." Instead, brides and grooms wore the ubiquitous gray Mao jacket or blue worker uniform then called the Lenin suit. Even the traditional Chinese red robes worn by women for centuries had been condemned as backward. The most extravagant wedding-day commemoration was a black-and-white photograph of the couple in their plain clothing.

Seizing the tremendous market potential of disappointed brides now beyond their prime, as well as the higher incomes and freer economy of present-day China, Twilight Red opened last year as the country's first wedding photo studio catering specifically to an older clientele. They opened their first outlet in Beijing. Business is so good in the Chinese capital that the studio is shooting portraits of as many as 1,000 couples a month.

In December, Twilight Red opened here in Shanghai, China's fastest-graying and wealthiest city. Though there are wedding studios here on every major block, middle-aged and senior couples feel uncomfortable at those trendy outlets where the prices are usually higher and the dress sizes smaller. The Shanghai studio has attracted an average of 500 couples a month. The next open time slot for a portrait is not until late March.

"Most of our customers are in their 50s and 60s. The youngest is 40, and oldest is 98," said Cao Juibo, the studio manager. "Shanghai has about 2.4 million seniors over the age of 60. Most of them have never taken a proper wedding picture before."

Wang Zuqing and Cui Xiande married in 1965. "We spent $4 on a bag of candies and passed them out. That was it," said Wang, a 65-year-old gynecologist, as she wiped foundation from her face after her recent photo session.

But she and her 68-year-old husband did manage to take a rare black-and-white picture together about five months after their wedding. It still hangs in a frame above their bed. They both wore short hair, V-neck sweaters with turned-out shirt collars. As was the custom at the time, the photo shop hand-painted their sweaters blue and pink and gave Wang rosy cheeks, even though she does not normally wear makeup.

"We were so poor we didn't own an iron," said Cui. "I took a tea mug, filled it with hot water and tried to roll it around the shirt collar."

He Xongxing and Guo Xuiqin also took a simple black-and-white portrait to mark their big day 40 years ago. But they haven't seen it in years and feel little need to find it. They made up for the past at the studio, where they changed into more costumes and struck more poses than any other elderly couple there.

"I wore a blue Mao suit, she wore a yellow sweater," said He, 67, describing their 1961 wedding photograph and looking increasingly disoriented as he changed from white to black tuxedos, then switched into a plain blue suit. But he kept pace with his 65-year-old wife, who chose a cobalt-blue Cinderella dress with spaghetti straps, a sultry feathered scarf and a shining butterfly pin in her dyed black hair. Then she glided into a subtler white Chinese qipao, a form-fitting dress now back in style, with a blue parasol that her husband was told to hold at an angle behind her head.

Shen Yumei and Bao Ping still have their drab portrait from 1955. But there is no room for it on their bedroom walls or dresser shelves, which are crowded with more than a dozen glamour shots they just had blown up and framed in white and gold. Shen's favorite is the one in which she and her husband are dressed up like opera's Carmen and her bullfighter. In a different pose they are sporting Japanese kimonos.

"We were married in 1951, but we couldn't afford to get our first picture taken together until 1955," said Shen, 68, a retired correctional officer who still speaks with the careful cadence of a Communist cadre. "All we would dare think about was work, to reform criminals and keep society safe."

Back then, the typical wedding gifts were a hot-water bottle, a plastic wash basin and a spit bowl. Today guests bring hundreds of dollars as presents and expect to see a lavish banquet at a fancy hotel, a limousine to deliver the newlyweds and a honeymoon to an overseas destination.

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