Writer's Block

The USA is the place I was born. Canada is the place I was raised. Taiwan is the place in my heart.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Red, Gold and New

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue- is how the saying goes for western brides on their wedding day. If there were an equivalent for Taiwanese brides it would be: something red, something gold and everything new.

In Taiwan 'tis always the season to get married it seems. Over the past year there have been more than a few occasions when I've been shopping and have been asked if I was planning to get married. Two instances in particular stand out.

The first time this happened, I was browsing 24 carat gold necklaces. 24 carat gold is a quite specialized category of jewelry in Asia. The almost orange-like color of 24 carat gold might seem garish and odd to many foreigners but it is a classic favorite in Taiwan. 24 carat gold's bright, orange-like quality is due in part to the copper which is added to it. The Chinese word for copper is a homonym for another Chinese word which means "two hearts as one."

Many jewelry shops exclusively carry 24 carat gold jewelry of all different types, coming in various shapes, sizes, and styles, ranging from a whimsical Mickey Mouse pendant, to simple modern shapes to showy, gaudy pieces. At several of the gold jewelry shops I visited, the salesgirl excitedly asked if I was looking for something for my wedding. At first this seemed like a strange assumption. With so many shapes, sizes and styles there could be any number of reasons that someone is looking to purchase 24 carat gold jewelry. Does a woman need to have an "excuse" to treat herself?

24 carat gold jewelry was and is still popularly worn by brides in Taiwan. In the past, the wearing of gold symbolized wealth- perhaps they were part of the bride's dowry or gifts from the groom.

In Taiwan, marriage is regarded as that "all important day" that a young woman waits for and it's a reason to splurge and to shop 'til you drop. More examples will follow to plead my case.

Marriage is also viewed as the passage into true adulthood and independence. Of course this is true in many cultures, but it seems quite pronounced in Taiwan where Taiwanese adults often continue living with their parents even after completing a university education and entering the workforce. Getting married is the first step to independence and often what propels young adults to move out of the house.

The second time I was asked if I was shopping for my upcoming wedding was only a few days ago. I was in a department store when a lovely pair of hot pink, sling back shoes caught my eye. Lucky for me they were on sale, the last pair and exactly my size. As I tried them on and took them for a test walk and a look-see in the mirror, the salesgirl asked my Mother if I was getting married. Marriage does seem to be that all important event that licenses one to go on a shopping spree.

Later I realized how it must have looked as my Mother sat watching me try on the shoes, with our shopping bags, which included a conspicuous bag of bedding that she had bought for herself, not for me and my fictitious future husband. My mother also enlightened me by telling me that wearing something red (or something in the red color family- which includes pink, burgundy and purple) is a must for Taiwanese brides. Then she quipped, I'll bet that E's bride (whose wedding we would be attending in a few days) will be wearing a white wedding gown with pink or red shoes underneath.

I thought she was just joking, but sure enough when the day of the wedding came, we were invited to the ceremonial entrance of the bride into the groom's home and as the bride lifted her gown to step over the burning coals placed in the doorway, and onto a ceramic tile forcefully crushing it- I clearly saw her lovely pink shoes. Stepping over burning coals symbolizes burning away the past and beginning anew. Crushing the tile is an act that will supposedly promote fertility. Everyone in the bridal party, without exception, wore some shade of pink or red.

The color red is probably best known in the form of a red envelope of money- which is given by parents to children during the Lunar New Year or to the bride and groom on their wedding day. It is a color that represents good luck and fortune and appears at most major celebrations and events in one's life. It is the color of an egg given to a child on his or her first birthday, the color of decorations and strips of paper with celebratory messages hung in doorways or homes during the Lunar New Year and the color that brides traditionally wore on their wedding day, though today's brides opt for the standard white wedding dress and make three dress changes during the wedding banquet- with one of the dresses inevitably being red.

And now, something new... Everything worn by the bride must be new. With the exception of the bride's wedding gown, the Taiwanese don't have a tradition of wearing things borrowed or old.

Interestingly, Taiwanese brides rent their wedding gowns from a professional photography studio (which shoots wedding photographs in "glamour shots" fashion). But I'm not sure how or why this rental trend emerged, but perhaps it serves a practical purpose since part of the Taiwanese wedding tradition is that the bride makes at least three dress changes during the wedding reception and wedding photographs have become such an elaborate affair with numerous photos taken in dizzying variety of locales, poses and wedding dresses. Wedding photography studios are a big business in Taiwan. They are a one stop shop to immortalize your wedding memories in modern or nostalgic style. The wedding attire for rent ranges from contemporary evening wear to more colorful, traditional Chinese Ch'ing dynasty robes, much like those worn in Chinese operas, complete with elaborate headdresses for the bride. Photographs are shot at various locales indoors and out, and in various types of attire and poses.

Taiwanese wedding photos are notorious for their super-strength touch-ups. Any effects or flaws can be airbrushed, digitally enhanced, added, removed, manipulated, and created... Taiwanese brides look flawless in their photographs and on their wedding day due to the magic of the photography studio's industrial strength makeup artistry, hair extensions, wigs, double eyelid tape, etc. The transformation is sometimes quite remarkable when you don't even recognize the bride on her wedding day. The wedding photography package is an essential part of wedding planning in Taiwan. Brides and grooms often book a day of wedding photography- weeks, even months before their actual wedding reception. On the wedding day, selected photographs which have been blown up poster size are displayed on an easel at the entrance of the wedding banquet hall and wallet-sized photos and given to guests as favors.

Many couples are rushing to get married especially at this time of year, before the next coming Lunar New Year, the year of the monkey, because apparently, next year- 4702, is a very unlucky year to get married. Couples who marry in this year are doomed to have a bad marriage; but when I asked a few "local experts" what the consequences would be, I simply received vague answers: the couple will be separated (physically/geographically due to circumstance or breakup), there will be some kind of general misfortune, they will have a difficult, unharmonious marriage.

The Taiwanese are notoriously superstitious about choosing an auspicious day for a marriage. When planning to get married choosing a date is of utmost importance. The bride and groom's date of birth along with a whole range of astrological indicators all factor into the equation calculating that most auspicious day. The number four, a homonym for the word death is back luck and it is unlucky if the bride and groom's age differs by six years.

All this focus on marriage, reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my girlfriends, J (who is in her mid-thirties and single), which cemented it all. So, I offer a final piece of evidence to demonstrate how marriage is seen as that all important event that women plan all their lives for and the day that her independent life begins, or so she hopes:

J had recently purchased her own apartment in a prime location in downtown Kaohsiung. When I congratulated her on the wise investment and shared her excitement over home decorating ideas, she told me that she when she shared her news with others, she was most surprised by the reactions from certain "concerned" friends who asked her if this meant that she was giving up on any hope of getting married.

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