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Beijing Nuptials Spoiled by SARS

Fear of the disease is forcing couples to alter long-standing reception and travel plans.

June 13, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Love in the time of SARS has not been easy for 29-year-old Meng Sha.

She and her fiance had planned to get married last month, go off on a romantic honeymoon and throw a big party for family and friends to set the seal on their new life together.

But severe acute respiratory syndrome intervened, inspiring panic across China. A phobia of public gatherings and a freeze on travel out of Beijing -- hit hard by the epidemic -- forced Meng to scrap her honeymoon and rethink plans for an elaborate reception.

"What else could we do?" Meng, an accountant, lamented.

Disruption has been the norm for weeks now in the Chinese capital, under siege by fear of SARS. Although life is slowly returning to normal here -- SARS cases are waning and public morale is lifting -- the impact of the mysterious virus lingers for the millions of residents who retreated into their homes, put on face masks and socialized by phone to avoid direct contact for fear of infection.

Few have felt the sting as keenly as young lovers who were ready to celebrate a joyous milestone in their lives, only to watch months of meticulous planning fall victim to an illness no one knew existed until several months ago.

Spring usually produces a bumper crop of weddings in China, raucous, convivial affairs that light up the social calendar. Caravans of fancy cars trailing pink ribbons and paper flowers clog traffic; cardboard cutouts of the Chinese symbol for "double happiness" grin from the walls of hotels and restaurants.

But the SARS outbreak sent prospective newlyweds and the entire wedding industry into a funk, the worst that many in the business can remember.

With people shunning social events and venues refusing large bookings, hundreds of disappointed couples have been forced to cancel their nuptials, including some who had already issued invitations, reserved banquet halls, picked out flowers and practiced smiling for the cameras.

"A lot of engaged couples who came here were in tears, saying, 'How could we be so unlucky as to run into a situation like this?' " said Ban Yu, the owner of Hand-in-Hand, a wedding-planning firm. "They prepared for so long, yet suddenly they couldn't have their wedding after having invested so much energy and money."

This has been a grim season for enterprises such as Ban's.

May is usually one of the two busiest months of the year for Hand-in-Hand, with enamored couples eager to take advantage of good weather, auspicious days on the Chinese astrological calendar and a weeklong national holiday at the beginning of the month.

But this May turned out to be a complete bust. By the time the weeklong May Day holiday rolled around, the Chinese government had just admitted to concealing the extent of the SARS crisis, frightened residents had gone into lockdown mode, and the city's ordinarily busy social gears had ground to a halt.

Gregarious by nature, Beijingers were suddenly in no mood to party, leaving Ban and his colleagues glumly confronting a massive pileup of love's labors lost.

Out of dozens of weddings that Ban's company was organizing last month, only 1% to 2% actually took place, he said.

Another wedding-planning firm, Purple House, the city's oldest and largest, reported that 200 of its clients had canceled or postponed their nuptials by May 6.

The ensuing effect was pronounced. Car rentals sagged. Dressmakers twiddled their thumbs. Rolls of film and blank videotapes gathered dust on the shelves of mom-and-pop stores.

Ban, who has up to 200 people working for him during peak periods, is the only one in his office these days. The smell of incense wafts from a burning stick, following the popular, if totally unproven, notion that incense helps cleanse the air of nasty germs like SARS.

The rest of Ban's staff sit at home with nothing to do, indirect victims of an invisible enemy that has caused Beijing to lose $54 million in the first four months of the year, according to state-run media.

But the SARS onslaught broke at the worst possible time for Ban's business.

Some customers were determined to press on, but health precautions turned a happy, carefree occasion into a subdued and somewhat surreal one.

One couple who got married May 1 pared down their guest list and tied the knot at an outdoor ceremony, rather than inside, to ensure good ventilation. Lunch, instead of dinner, at a five-star hotel was served in individual portions, not family style as is customary at Chinese restaurants. The waiters and waitresses were muffled behind surgical masks.

As far as Ban knows, nothing untoward happened as a result of the wedding.

But other weddings have triggered small crises. In the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, a township official threw a wedding celebration for his son May 5, a huge event attended by nearly 1,000 people.

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