Wedding Photo in Taiwan

One of the most popular sites for Taiwanese to shoot wedding photos is Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Built in memory of the late ROC president, the Hall covers 250,000 square meters in Taipei's Jhongjheng District, flanked on both sides by two notable buildings, the National Theater and the National Concert Hall. Surrounded by well-maintained trees, flowers, lawns and paths, it makes a good backdrop for photos.
The grandeur of CKS Memorial Hall helped propel the wedding photography industry in Taiwan, which, with over 1,000 shops and 20,000 employees islandwide, generated approximately US$300 million in revenues, according to a Dec. 14, 2006 report from the Chinese-language ETtoday news Web site. Taiwan was one of the largest import markets for Kodak film. This was driven in large part by the wedding photography industry on the island, which was attracting an increasing number of foreigners.

"Nowhere else in the world can you find a thriving wedding photography industry like here," said Mai Tsan-wen Feb. 27, who founded Photo Max Co. Ltd. in 1983. "The phenomenon of various professional wedding photo studios springing up across the nation not only is an economic miracle but is also uniquely Taiwanese," added Mai, who also headed the Taipei Wedding Photography Association. In Taiwan, over 90 percent of newlywed couples had their pictures taken at photo studios, a figure that attested to the sector's popularity.

The opening of CKS Memorial Hall in Taipei City in 1980 significantly boosted the wedding photography industry. Before the Hall was built, people took relatively conservative photos and paid less attention to wedding photography, which was regarded as a luxury. Newlyweds generally sat side by side in an indoor studio, posing for two or three black-and-white photos. That changed after the Hall was finished. Featuring a wide area, dramatic architecture and an enchanting sea of flowers, local photographers started taking customers there to shoot outdoor wedding photos, Mai said. Through word-of-mouth, demand from local consumers grew, and resulted in an increasing number of wedding photography shops opening on Aiguo East Road, which runs along the south side of the Hall. As a result, that road has been named Taipei's "wedding zone."

Within a short time, around 20 photo studios set up shoulder to shoulder on this road, Mai recalled, adding that "each shop has a different style and displays its latest, most eye-catching wedding gowns in the shop windows." The wedding photography business, which reached its height in the years after the influx of studios to Aiguo East Road, was regarded as a cultural industry with unique Taiwanese features, wrote Lee Yu-ying, associate professor of Graduate Institute of History and Historical Relics in Feng Chia University, in a Chinese-language research paper published in May 2004. The services that this emerging sector provided, Lee wrote, were far more varied than those offered by traditional shops, because wedding photos could be used to cross-sell related services, such as banquet arrangements, gown rental and wedding make-up.

"As society develops, businesses in the sector have to offer comprehensive services to local customers," said Zeng Cai-ning Feb. 27, vice president of Joy Wedding Photography, established in 1994 and located in Sindian City in Taipei County. Since people in modern society had less time to deal with the complicated process of arranging a wedding, they wanted the wedding photography businesses to handle everything from beginning to end, noted Zeng. "Competition in the sector is getting fiercer, so the key factor to attract savvy consumers from numerous competitors lies in how well each store provides extensive and tailor-made service," she pointed out.

As Aiguo East Road became jammed with photo shops, several of them moved to Jhongshan North Road, where some embassies, banks and luxury hotels are located. With around 40 wedding photography studios, Jhongshan North Road became the nation's second wedding zone, where services were more expensive and personalized. For example, shops on that road introduced the use of wedding planners, event-planning specialists that handled everything for newlyweds, such as making reservations for the banquet hall, designing distinctive activities for guests at the wedding and recording a video of the whole process.
According to an April 15, 2005 report from the CommonWealth magazine, four wedding companies have dominated the domestic market. Julia Wedding News, established in 1987 by Mai and Julia Muh, president of Wedding Group, has set up wedding boutiques in Taiwan. Staffed with wedding-gown designers, the company has branches in Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong. Sophia Wedding Studio Ltd., established in 1990, has wedding gowns inspired by European designs and manufactured with French and Italian fabrics. Ching Hua International Co. Ltd., founded in the late 1980s, was the first local company to set up a branch in Hong Kong and has tried to break into the Japanese and Korean markets. LinLi Studio started up in 1987, initially doing photo shoots for entertainers and celebrities, later extending the star treatment to brides and the general public.

"Even after our wedding, my wife and I often look through the photo album or watch the wedding video to remember the most beautiful moment in our life," said Andy Lin March 3, an employee of Far Eastern Textile Ltd. who was married last year and had wedding photos taken by Lishe Inc., a studio on Jhongshan North Road. After comparing services and prices among different shops, he decided to follow his friend's recommendation and chose Lishe to organize the important event. "Besides those beautiful photos, the company arranged for my wife and I to sing a love song at the wedding and even played a special video made in advance to tell our love story to all the guests," said Lin.
As the marriage rate dropped in recent years, the wedding photography sector was inevitably affected by a decreasing number of couples holding court at lavish wedding banquets. According to a Jan. 25 news report from Taiwan's Broadcasting Corporation of China, 110,000 couples were married in 2006, a drop from 130,000 in 2005. In the past, as many as 180,000 couples got married each year.
"Although fewer people nowadays get married, we found more and more foreign customers visiting Taiwan and its photo shops to record their memories in photos," said Zeng, stressing that the wedding photography business was not limited only to weddings. With a rise in disposable income, people now had many occasions to take photos, such as for wedding anniversaries, graduations, Valentine's Day and even family reunions, noted Zeng.

"The high quality and creativity of Taiwanese wedding photography businesses are destined to spread to other countries," Mai claimed, adding that people in Japan, China and other Southeast Asian countries had seen the impressive work done by Taiwanese businesses.

Last year, the Taipei Wedding Photography Association proposed to the Tourism Bureau under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications that the bureau could introduce Taiwan's wedding businesses to foreigners while promoting tourism. In doing so, foreign visitors could come to Taiwan to appreciate the beautiful scenery here and enjoy being the stars in exquisite photos, Mai claimed. "Since the local wedding photography sector has been deemed a cultural industry, it should be integrated into tourist literature to attract travelers," he suggested.

Getting married like a movie star was serious business in Asia, since wedding banquets demonstrate the financial standing of newlyweds and their families. "Guests attending a wedding will form an impression based on how many tables are reserved at the banquet hall, how good the food is and how fine the gowns the bride wears at the reception are," said Mai.
While getting married was a union of two different families, taking wedding photos was a private occasion at which a couple symbolizes their love, wrote Lee. "I believe in 50 years' time, we'll still be glad to show the proof of our love to our children and even grandchildren," said Lin.
 


Taiwan's one-stop shops for brides and grooms

This photographer could easily be mistaken for a film director. He barks orders, gestures emphatically, and runs to and fro smoothing out creases and fluffing up ruffles. "Gaze into each other's eyes lovingly! Move your faces closer! That's right! Such a loving couple!" snaps the photographer as he hovers around the couple shooting off photos. Next door in a cosy room, love songs gently loll brides-to-be as make-up artists and hairdressers flutter about them. "The whole process just makes me happy," says Chen Juei-fen.

She and her fiancé have been posing for photos since early morning, changing clothes, make-up, hairstyles and back drops over and over so their photos are interesting and varied. This is the routine in a popular Taiwanese pre-wedding ritual. Although some grooms may not like it, most brides consider a session at the wedding boutique an indispensable part of marriage. "Photos are significant because they give you something to remember. They complete the ceremony," Chen says. "It's fantastic to be treated like and look like a superstar."

Over the last two decades, wedding boutiques in Taiwan have had a steady flow of business. Their picture windows feature fancy wedding gowns and display photographs of adorable couples. Such salons first began to appear in the mid -1980s and have since mushroomed across the island. In Taipei, they are clustered along Jhongshan North Road and Aiguo East Road in virtual colonies.

Mai Tsan-wen attributes their sudden emergence and popularity to their inherent practicality. President of Julia Wedding News, Mai is also the chairman of the Taipei Wedding Photography Association. He started out with a photo studio in 1980, primarily serving celebrities, entertainers and models, and transformed it into a wedding salon in 1986. "Before these salons came about, couples had to go to the beauty parlor, the dress shop and the photo studio in sequence. It took a lot of time and energy," Mai says. "Taiwan put all these together into one-stop shops for the first time."

Lee Yu-ying, associate professor of the Institute of History and Historical Relics at Feng Chia University, says the bridal business is typical of Taiwanese culture and customs. She thinks the photographic ritual, particularly for brides, is a symbol of the Cinderella dream-come-true in that the prince and princess finally tie the knot and live happily ever after; the couple's love story becomes a visible romance.

"The bride-to-be is coddled every step of the way; she is carefully attended by a hair stylist and make-up artist and dressed beautifully," Lee says. "Such treatment is extraordinary, making her feel like a leading lady. That's what keeps this niche business thriving."

Lee also thinks that the photo service, the wedding ceremony and banquet are displays of the families' financial standing and are therefore deeply connected to ideas of face. "Here in Taiwan, marriage is not only the linking of the bride and groom, but of their two families," she says. "Considerable emphasis is placed on wedding rites. As long as the marital system exists, the bridal business will always boom."

Taiwan's wedding salons not only attract locals, but are also gaining popularity around East Asia. Mai has noticed a marked increase in the number of clients from Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea in recent years. "Our boutiques' biggest advantage is their provision of comprehensive and efficient services at competitive prices," he says. "With photos for example, the photographer works as director and photographer simultaneously and gets the job done in and outside the studio in just one day." Basic packages are priced at about NT$50,000 (US$1,587) in Taiwan, compared with NT$100,000 or more in Singapore and Japan.

Tsai Ching-hua, chairwoman of Ching Hua International Co., estimates that her shop lures approximately 500 couples a year from abroad. She says the opening of Taiwanese society in recent years has, to some extent, contributed to the development of the bridal industry by making it more creative, diversified and dynamic.

Tsai thinks that bridal photos are still taken in a rigid and uniform way in many countries, with the bride and groom standing shoulder-to-shoulder, facing directly toward the camera, whereas they are done in Taiwan with more variety. Here, the couples change outfits several times and pose in different places of their choice. This has set Taiwan apart from and given it an advantage over its foreign counterparts.

The bridal market in Taiwan, however, now faces saturation. Rising competition compels proprietors to offer better products and services in order to survive.

Six years ago, Tsai spent NT$10 million (US$317,500) on digital photography equipment and fostered a strategic alliance with Epson for technological development.

Her husband, Tsai Jung-feng, a senior photographer, also went to New York to learn new techniques for half a year. "Image digitization has improved photograph quality and has made boutiques more sophisticated," she says. "The application of such technology is also a competitive advantage." Wedding photos are now provided on a disc with background music as well as the traditional hard copies.

Mai says that bridal gowns, styling and photography were once sold as a package, and that was enough to make customers happy, but now customers scrutinize every part of the business, forcing the salons to be perfectionists.

He established a brand name, Julia, for bridal gowns produced by in-house designers. "Having our own designers, we hope to make dresses for our customers that not only fit their figures but also tie in with fashion," he says. "Tailor-made services are a trend as well as a competitive edge for our operation."

Likewise, David Huang, marketing manager of LinLi Studio, says the bridal shops in Taiwan have paid increasing attention to gowns by offering custom-made services. "Due to increasing competition, domestic boutiques strive to offer differentiated products and services at higher quality," he says. "Hand- or tailor-made wedding dresses, for instance, are gaining popularity over mass-produced ones, despite the considerable price difference."

Huang thinks that Taiwan has become one of the world's major design and manufacturing centers for wedding gowns, due to its experience in contract manufacturing for several leading foreign brands. As a result, the wedding gowns made in Taiwan are at least in line with, if not ahead of, international fashions.

Chen Ying-mei, a staff member at Judy Wedding Photo, says most customers are more concerned with service than price. They are particularly attentive to the effect of their photos and whether the clothes fit their personal style. At Judy's, if the customers are not satisfied with their photos, they can request a re-shoot, and if they cannot find any wedding gowns they like, they can ask for custom-made ones at preferential prices.

Shen Chih-hsiang and Chiang Mei-huei plan to get married in October and are shopping around for a bridal photography service. "Getting married in Taiwan involves a great deal of red tape. Thus, our major emphasis is on the completeness of the package that the boutique can offer. We've little knowledge about what to prepare, nor time to handle it as we're both working," Shen says. "We don't mind paying more for better service and product quality. It's a once in a lifetime practice and we want to make it just right."

Along with fierce competition, the wedding business is facing something neither technology nor quality can alter: a declining marriage rate. Latest tallies from the Ministry of the Interior show a drop in marriages from 2003's 170,000 to 130,000 in 2004. There are an estimated 1,000 wedding salons in Taiwan, competing for a piece of the ever-shrinking pie. As a result of stiff competition and a withering customer pool, the average profit margin has dropped from 30 percent a few years ago to the current 15 to 20 percent. Meanwhile, production costs have increased with enhanced service and product quality.

Mai thinks wedding boutiques should build their own brand name and expand their operational scope to deal with the situation. Rather than targeting merely the soon-to-be-married couples, Mai's salon has started to cultivate the market for wedding anniversaries, births and family groups. He also established a planning department to offer catering, car rental, decoration and cards for the complete one-stop wedding shop.

In terms of expanding marketing, he has set up a shop in Singapore. He understands that in recent years many Taiwanese proprietors have set up shops in China, the United States and Canada.

To attract more foreign nationals to Taiwan, the association has teamed up with the Tourism Bureau of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications as well as travel agencies, airlines and hotels to provide preferential package tours.

"The best development for the [bridal] industry is to create a bigger pie for all to share, rather than resorting to price wars," he says. "Given its decades-long experience, I'm confident in its ability to do well in foreign markets while attracting customers from overseas."

Ching Hua's Tsai has adopted similar new marketing schemes to cope with rising operational challenges. She set up a shop in Hong Kong early this year. Besides serving local customers directly, her Hong Kong branch encourages couples to come to Taiwan for the service. "My ideal is to promote Taiwan's bridal industry to the international arena as well as using my business to market Taiwan by publicizing its natural beauty," she says. "Of the three-day, reasonably-priced packages that we provide in cooperation with domestic airlines and hotels, the couples can have their photos taken in the island's major scenic spots and get a holiday at the same time."

Tsai says she is not afraid of competition. She cares about her company's continued development and is especially attentive to cultivating talent. Her salon closes for one day every month, or what she calls "corporate culture day." On this day the staff has on-the-job training, mainly lectures and films.

"The success of wedding boutiques does not hinge primarily on large investment in advanced hardware facilities or technology," she says. "Rather, it has more to do with service quality. If we can satisfy the needs of customers, we can win their hearts. This is a cultural thing that calls for humanistic training."

Lee Yu-ying thinks Taiwan's bridal industry leads the Asian market. What might be dismissed as a national bias is perhaps more objectively borne out by bridal shops in China that pass themselves off as Taiwanese or put Taipei in their names. Taiwan is clearly perceived as the best in the wedding game.

 



Taiwan's Bridal Photgraphy Empire

Taiwan's bridal photography industry (hunsha sheying hangye) and its distinctive visual styles, which by the mid-1990s had become an integral part of almost every wedding banquet in Taiwan, has become a transnational visual phenomenon with geographical implications. In this article, I analyze the ways in which the bridal photography industry's distinctive styles command space and construct place. My analysis derives from a set of seemingly unconnected observations recorded in my fieldnotes during a year of research in and around Taipei's bridal photography industry. It begins with the list of observations related to space and place; next I offer an introduction to Taiwanese bridal photography as the context from which these geographic processes emerged; and then I proceed to analyze these translocal processes in the light of theories of competitive consumption, imagined communities, and time-space compression:

  • Among the bridal salons gracing Taipei's avenues in the mid-1990s were those named Love in Venice, French Classics, French Superstar, Taipei-Spain, Paris, Milan, Mona Lisa, Harvard, and Hollywood.
  • In the mid-1990s, entrepreneurs and photographers from as far away as China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the United States traveled to Taipei to attend bridal fairs where they sought concepts, purchased materials, and established connections with Taipei's entrepreneurs, with an eye toward emulating Taiwanese bridal photography in their home countries.
  • Tour groups from Japan visited Taiwan for brief visits, beginning with a makeover and photo sessions at a bridal salon on the first day, and ending with a visit to Taiwan's internationally renowned National Palace Museum on the second.
  • Feeling that Taiwan's bridal market was oversaturated with competitors, many of Taiwan's bridal industry entrepreneurs were investing in the bridal business in the People's Republic of China. Their investments were not only economic but also human; some entrepreneurs took successful Taipei photographers and stylists to the mainland to train local workers in their arts.
  • Taipei bridal salons and photographers regularly sold copies of bridal albums to salons located elsewhere in Taiwan to be displayed, falsely, as samples of local work.
  • Many Taipei brides commissioned middle-of-the-night makeovers by Taipei stylists (zaoxingshi) so as to allow time for the made-over bride to be driven to rural or urban locations elsewhere on the island in time for the start of their morning weddings. Others paid exorbitant fees to Taipei stylists to travel long distances from the city to perform on-site bridal makeovers.

TAIPEI'S BRIDAL INDUSTRY

To make sense of these cultural geographic signposts, one first needs to understand what Taiwanese bridal photography is, something about the industry that produces the photographs, and the social lives of the photographs. Bridal photographs or portraits (hunsha sheying) are newer than and different from wedding photographs (jiehunzhao). In practice, though, these Mandarin terms are at times used interchangeably. Typically, couples sit for bridal portraits prior to the wedding so that the finished products can receive prominent display at wedding banquets. Occasionally, however, couples whose marriages are not celebrated at a banquet sit for photographs considerably after filing marriage papers. Other couples who were married sometime ago without the benefit of a studio sitting may commission bridal photographs much later. In all cases, the photographs fall into the category of bridal photograph or hunsha sheying so long as the woman wore a white, Victorian-inspired bridal gown (hunsha). The term hunsha sheying is not commonly used to describe day-of-the-wedding photographs, because it implies the involvement of a bridal salon or hunsha sheying gongsi (literally, “bridal gown photography company”).

Bridal salons offer one-stop-shopping packages consisting of the rental of three Western-style gowns for the wedding day (one white and two colored gowns), six or more costumes for use at the pre-wedding photo shoot, a complete hair and make-up styling for the bride, an eight-hour photo session shot on two-and-a-quarter film and involving a photographer and one or more posing assistants, and a specified number of retouched studio portraits. The centerpiece of the photo package is a framed enlargement (frequently more than a meter tall) that is first displayed outside the wedding banquet and later hung above the newlyweds' bed for many years to come. Also important are large photo albums in which each photo is large enough to be a wall hanging, by American standards. In Taipei in the year 1997, album portraits were minimally 15 inches in height. Eighteen inches was the standard among the middle-class people with whom I worked, though I occasionally saw 20-inch-high albums. Albums pictured page after page of the bride and groom; the slimmest bridal album I encountered during a year of research contained two dozen portraits. Forty-portrait albums were common, and I attended several weddings where 60 or more portraits were on display, filling two thick albums. Only rarely were images of people other than bride and groom included in bridal albums. To relieve the visual monotony, then, bride and groom dressed in a variety of colorful costumes: she in at least two Victorian-inspired white gowns and three Western-style formal gowns in addition to other costume choices such as the Chinese qipao, Chinese imperial-style crown and gown, Japanese kimono, medieval European court attire, lingerie, blue jeans, and baseball uniform, with the groom wearing costumes to coordinate with those of the bride.

Photographers also enliven photo albums with other kinds of variation. Taipei bridal salons have several dozen studio backdrops; some claimed to have one hundred backdrops. For an additional fee, salons offer location shoots in parks, beaches, restaurants, shopping centers, mass-transit stations, and indeed anywhere else a couple might wish to be photographed. Composite printing, over-painting, and computer software allowed photographers to offer additional variation: for example, an image of an embracing couple overlaid upon crashing waves on a sunset-lit beach or a quiet street corner in New York City, or a close shot of the bride's face printed in sepia tones with her eyes and feather boa painted in bright green. Photographers told me that achieving variation through setting and photographic manipulations is quite easy. More difficult is evincing a strong variety of “feelings” (ganjue) from bride and groom, demonstrated in poses and facial expressions. No amount of variation in costume, setting, lighting, or focus can compensate for a lack of emotional variety in the portraits.

Photographers sought to assemble proof sets of approximately one hundred sellable images in the hope that couples would purchase hefty albums full of portraits. At the time of my 1996-1997 field research in Taipei—Taiwan's cultural, economic, and political capital—the minimum cost for these services was approximately NT $25,000 (then just under US$1000) and middle-class consumers minimally spent NT $40,000, though I encountered numerous instances of consumers spending double or even triple the middle-class minimum. The same services could be had in rural locations for considerably lower prices, though couples I encountered who purchased bridal photography packages in rural locations tended to take advantage of the lower cost by buying larger packages, of greater quantities and larger prints.

Beyond matters of costume and size, Taiwanese bridal photography works within a particular set of visual conventions established in transnational mass media, particularly in fashion and beauty industry advertising. Liao Hong-peng, a former bridal photographer who, when I met him, worked as a fashion photographer and bridal photography instructor, explained that bridal photographers must disguise facial lines, especially those running from the sides of the nose to the sides of the mouth. Photographers adjust studio lights to fill shadows cast by the face; large light boxes and reflectors flood the bride's face in light from all angles. The resulting high key images wash out wrinkles and minor costume imperfections, emphasizing higher contrasts such as make-up darkened brows, eyes, and lips. Bridal photographers typically set the negative exposure time to create a standard exposure (that is, according to the specifications made by photographic equipment manufacturers), but in film processing they shorten the exposure of the print to further wash out the appearance of fine lines, lumps, and pores. Underexposure in printing also whitens a photograph, making the bride's skin appear very fair. During the period of my fieldwork, most bridal photographs were shot without a light-diffusing filter on the lens. A more subtle diffusion is achieved by using a filter on the enlarger during printing. Without creating an overly soft or blurred look, the enlarger's diffusion lens softens the photograph just enough to hide the remaining imperfections on the skin; it is a “realistic” level of blur. Because the final portraits are hand-printed, the printer can also cast a slight diffusion over selected areas of the print—the face—while leaving the rest in clear focus to show, say, the finer details in the gown. Many bridal photographers also use cross-processing to produce glamorous images, shooting on slide film but developing negatives from the film in such a way that the prints are so washed out and flat that frequently the bride's nose seems to disappear, only the dark holes of the nostrils left visible. These techniques for vanishing detail in bridal photography (and in commercial beauty photography generally) render the physical differences among women less apparent. It is a visual genre where homogeneity is valued and detail is considered ugly.

The predecessor to the contemporary bridal salon was the zhaoxiangguan, a business that offered studio and location photography for all occasions, with weddings providing a large portion of the photographer's income. Zhaoxiangguan continue to exist today, though since the advent of the bridal salon their share of the bridal market has decreased considerably and forced most zhaoxiangguan to reconstitute themselves as bridal salons or face extinction. Zhaoxiangguan have their roots in Taiwan's Japanese colonial period (1895-1945) when Japanese-trained entrepreneurs opened xiezhenguan, beginning in the 1920s. Photographs were prohibitively expensive so that most families could not afford even a single photograph and others were able to purchase just one or two photographs on only the most special of occasions, weddings being topmost among those. The cost of photographic equipment and supplies went down as the standard of living in Taiwan went up. By the 1960s many families began commissioning two or three wedding photos: a studio shot of the bride and groom (often one of them seated and one standing) and an on-site portrait of the groom's extended family. The democratization of the photograph eventually led to the proliferation of photographic possibilities in weddings, including more variety in portraits of the couple, expansion of the number of kin and friends photographed, and reportage-style photographs of wedding ceremonies themselves. At the same time, the fields of hair styling, make-up, and dressmaking became increasingly specialized for the bridal market. Dressmakers and photographers joined forces to form the first modern bridal salons in the early 1980s, though bridal salons became widespread only in the late 1980s. Bridal salon owners added hair and make-up artistry to their menu of bridal services in the 1990s.

Wedding-day photography remained important but was deprofessionalized. In the 1990s, most families were recording their weddings through the complimentary services of camera-wielding uncles and camcorder-wielding cousins. A few hired professional photographers to shoot on-the-spot portraits of banquet guests posed with bride, groom, and their parents. Even fewer hired professional photographers and/or videographers to shoot wedding ceremonies themselves; professional reportage photographs were least common because they were least valued.

Which photographs are most highly prized and prominently displayed varies by generation. Parents and grandparents tend to display comparatively small framed portraits (professional or not) of the bride and groom surrounded by family members. Parents and grandparents tend to display wedding photographs in the most public room of their homes, the living room (keting), sometimes hung on a wall or standing in the most prominent location of all, on top of the television. Younger married couples usually keep their most prized photographs, those they commissioned from a bridal salon, in the least public room of their homes, the bedroom. These photos, however, are hardly hidden. Not only do they receive prominent public display at wedding banquets; nearly every young woman shows her bridal album to coworkers and friends shortly before or after the wedding.

The consumption of bridal services is one of the ways in which women and men seek to express status distinctions and construct identities. Creating a modern, bourgeois look for brides is precisely the business of bridal photography salons throughout the island, thus the distinctions between salons and their products lie in the smallest of details and the timeliness of fashions. In big cities where there are hundreds of salons, many brides visit a dozen bridal salons before selecting one. The wedding day is said to be a woman's “once in a lifetime” opportunity to be a star, to dress like a princess. The bride is the visual focus of the day; her appearance reflects not only her own status but that of the groom and both families. Many women are very nervous about their appearance as The Bride and spend a great deal of time, energy, and money in preparation to be beautiful and stylish on the wedding day. The groom, by contrast, normally wears a dark business suit on the wedding day with no special adornment other than a red ribbon reading “Groom” so as to distinguish him from other similarly dressed men at the wedding banquet. It is the bride's appearance that matters on the wedding day—her make-up, hair, jewelry, and gowns reflect not only her own status but also that of her family, the groom, and groom's family as well.

TIME-SPACE DIMENSIONS OF BRIDAL FASHION

The need of brides to appear both beautiful and classy mobilizes geography because social distinctions take on spatial direction, both literally and metaphorically. Veblen [1902] argued that people seek to emulate the practices of the social class immediately “above” their own. Competitive consumption today has come to take place on a global playing field. Much as Anderson argues that nationalistic identity formation took place through the spread of newspapers, which for the first time allowed people to perceive themselves as members of a community much greater in size and space than previously imaginable, the intensity of global mass media flows now makes real the possibility of an imagined cosmopolitan community. But as in most communities, inequality is a central component of the international community. Not only are there rich and poor countries, which the people of Taiwan understand only too well as a result of their very recent ascent into the former category, there are rich and poor strata within particular locales. Emulation of those just above oneself on the global stage requires that one first ascertain who is up and who is down.

In Taiwan, international experience and cosmopolitan habits are strong class markers, perhaps second only to educational attainment. Even wealth is a less salient index of class than are airs of cosmopolitan sophistication because, in recent decades, rapid structural class mobility produced significant numbers of nouveaux riches who lack cultural capital to match their economic status. Not all kinds of international experience are equally valued, however. The transnational travels of Filipino and Thai guest-workers are not constructed as evidence of worldliness, even while Taiwanese whose vacations have taken them to the Philippines and Thailand wield their travel photos as evidence of membership in the global elite.

Weddings in Taiwan have long been important occasions for status display and exaggeration. Recent social shifts may have brought even more intensity to status competition in weddings. Of Greek Cypriot weddings, Argyrou notes that late marriage and the development of a culture of dating in which premarital sexual intimacy is common shifts the significance of weddings from rite of passage to “rite of distinction,” a reference to Pierre Bourdieu's analysis of social class in France. With weddings no longer strongly meaningful as the onset of adulthood, consumer one-upsmanship slips in to fill a vacuum of meaning.

Bridal industry workers I interviewed universally subscribed to belief in an international fashion hierarchy with its pinnacle in Europe, particularly France and Italy. French and Italian bridal designs, they argued, are “more advanced” than those of any other country. Many Taiwanese bridal salons reflect this preference in their names, such as “French Superstar” and “Love in Venice.” As a U.S. citizen accustomed to assuming my country's geopolitical supremacy, I asked Xiao-lan, an editor for one of Taipei's glossy bridal fashion magazines, why Taipei's bridal industry was so focused on Europe. “Europe is romantic. It has castles. The United States is very modern, not at all romantic,” she argued. Bridal fashion industry insiders told me that American bridal fashions are not an important influence because the American bridal market is too conservative (baoshou) for Taiwan's tastes. America—viewed in the forms of fashion advertising, Hollywood films, and MTV videos—does strongly influence photographic styles, however.  Informants described the next level “down” in the hierarchy as Taipei, where bridal designers monitor French and Italian styles but also take in influences from Japan. At the next step down were Taiwan's second-tier large cities, Kaohsiung and Taichung, where new styles are slower to catch on and consumers described as more “conservative.” Lower still were the bridal salons of rural Taiwan. At the bottom was the People's Republic of China, where Taiwanese investors were opening many bridal salons in the mid-1990s. Gowns that became too tattered from multiple rental use or too out of date for the high standards even in the countryside of Taiwan were shipped to mainland China for reuse by the less discriminating consumers there. The development of bridal beauty services in Taiwan has since expanded rapidly; were I to reinitiate interviews in Taipei's bridal industry in 2006, I suspect that descriptions of the bridal fashion hierarchy would shift, positioning well-to-do urbanites in Beijing and Shanghai as “above” rural Taiwanese in their tastes.

Harvey  has argued that time-space compression is one of the defining characteristics of the present period. The distance from cutting-edge European fashion is what counts, and that distance is determined not by geography but by transnational flows, which disproportionately “shrink” certain distances by reducing the time it takes for ideas, things, and bodies to travel. The same processes effectively “lengthen” other distances. Relations of political and economic power shape these processes, of course. Hence, Taipei is “closer” to Milan than is the city of Urumqi in northwestern China, both in terms of clothing styles and in terms of how long it takes people and goods to move between destinations. Taipei, a global city, is the primary node through which European designs find their way to the rest of Taiwan and to much of China's exploding bridal photography industry as well, due to the pivotal role of Taiwanese entrepreneurs there. Those reaching upward through the bridal hierarchy are likely to do so via Taipei, either by visiting the city's bridal district (hunshajie) on a fashion scouting mission or by photographs carried deeper into fashion's peripheries by entrepreneurs hoping to improve their share of the market by the introduction of new products. If Milan and Paris represent the future of bridal fashion to Taipei, Taipei represents the future of bridal fashion to locales below it on the ladder of style.

In addition to time-space compression, this geography of bridal fashion partakes in another, older logic: unilineal evolution. The greater their distance from the apex of bridal fashion production in Europe, Taipei bridal industry interviewees argued, the more “conservative” are bridal salons and their consumers. First slowed in the process of discovering new fashions by the objective matter of “distance” from fashion's center, they are further impeded by their own provincial attitudes. According to this cosmology, those who are lower in the fashion hierarchy are not mere victims of geography; their lack of fashionability is partially due to their own unwillingness to accept (jieshou) new styles. Perhaps more than 40 percent of the Taipei metropolitan area's population consists of migrants from elsewhere in Taiwan [Speare, Liu, and Tsay. It is easy, then, to leap to the conclusion that many of those who have chosen not to move up and out of less globalized areas are conservative by nature. Less able to follow the fast-paced currents of fashion and less interested in doing so, those on the peripheries appear stuck in the past, behind the times.

The very concept of fashion is intimately bound up with temporality. Niessen argues that for scholars, from Georg Simmel's essay published in 1904 right up to those writing at the end of the 20th century, “fashion” has assumed rapid historical progress, a tempo of change imagined to be driven by “the constant need for improvement, the climb toward higher social echelons” that is absent outside the West.

Fashion theorists have assumed that people living outside the West, much like Westerners at an earlier point in history, are people without fashion, lacking the change-propelling dynamics of competitive consumption that drive fashion's temporality. As Niessen points out, this notion that fashion is an exclusively Western phenomenon (or the result of globalization) is partially a product of Orientalist logic and partially a result of sheer ignorance due to a lack of longitudinal research by anthropologists of non-western clothing systems.

Taipei bridal industry workers did not speak from a position of ignorance, however. Many people in Taipei, perhaps even most, have intimate knowledge of the countryside due to the high percentage of Taipei's population that consists of recent migrants from rural areas. Nevertheless, many in Taipei expressed the view that one may view the past by traveling to the countryside, neatly paralleling the views of unilineal evolution theorists who mistook sociocultural diversity across space for historical diversity across time. Unlike unilineal evolution theorists who viewed savages and barbarians as stuck in time—unlikely to climb the ladder of evolution in the absence of colonial intervention—Taipei informants assumed that the countryside has been and is changing, though it is ever behind in the race to fashion distinction. Many informants declared that bridal salons in the rest of Taiwan are “three years behind” Taipei. They used the term “still” (hai) in highly suggestive ways in talking about people in places that are rural or more rural (jiaoxiangxia), as in: “They still like to wear very unnatural make-up” or “They are still unable to accept black or dark blue gowns.” These statements imply that such people engage in a style from which Taipei has moved forward and, further, that the future of fashion in the countryside is known, predetermined by the stylistic choices already being made in Taipei. By contrast, the lack of predictability of bridal fashions in Taipei generates excitement, speculation, and consternation. Taipei fashion buyers and photographers never know what to expect; many have had the experience of investing in products and concepts that never took hold, only to have to spend additional capital on a different style that came into fashion instead.

Women and men I met in Taipei's bridal industry saw the world of fashion not in black and white (or hot and cold) but rather in grayscale. They understood enough about the countryside in Taiwan to know that it, too, is ever changing. Gone are the days of brides in homemade red gowns carried away from their maternal homes in palanquins; such scenes now occur only on television. As for the much discussed backwardness of the People's Republic of China, Taipei residents know that the communist revolution generally, and the Great Cultural Revolution specifically, produced extraordinary change in mainland China. From Taipei's perspective, China's course of change has been inferior, reckless, and even immoral, but no one can maintain an illusion that mainland China has been unchanging. Nevertheless, Taipei interviewees saw themselves as the vanguard of fashion for the People's Republic, whose long-repressed consumers are not sophisticated or daring enough to copy the styles of Europe directly but whose lack of cosmopolitanism causes them to look only to Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, and Tokyo for fashion trends in general and to Taipei for bridal fashion in particular. Thus, Taipei entrepreneurs' investments in mainland bridal businesses in certain respects appear to be safer than their domestic investments. While the former are subject to the unpredictable vagaries of political relations between two regional powers that have been perpetually at the brink of war for decades, the latter are subject to even greater instability, that of fashion in a global city high on the rungs of fashion's hierarchical ladder.

Though Taiwan's connections to the People's Republic are most extensive, significant linkages to bridal photography services in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and North America also exist. Entrepreneurs and photographers from other countries regularly attended major Taipei bridal photography events and purchased books and magazines from Taiwan to help them study Taiwanese bridal photography's visual conventions and stylistic practices. “Wang Sir,” the author of a book about “next generation” bridal photography, told me that though he knew there was not a large domestic market for his book; he published it with the overseas market in mind. In southeast Asian countries, Australia, and North America, the Chinese diasporic community propels the market for bridal services that emulate those of Taiwan. Seeing Taiwanese bridal photography as the best and Taipei as the center for bridal fashion in the Chinese diaspora, wealthy families in North America and Australia often go so far as to send the bride and groom to Taipei to be photographed. Alternatively, families use local Taiwanese-style bridal salons (which can be found just about anywhere there is a sizable immigrant population with ties to Taiwan) that emulate the styles on display in Taiwan's glossy bridal fashion magazines and, in some instances, which send negatives to Taiwan for retouching, hand printing, overpainting, and packaging in albums.

International interest in Taiwanese bridal photography is not exclusively Chinese, however. A bridal photography instructor told me he had a man from Korea in his course; the student planned to return to Korea to practice photography there. Organizations in both Korea and Japan have hosted tour groups of entrepreneurs and photographers to attend bridal exhibitions at Taipei's World Trade Center to gather ideas, products, and contacts. I also met a Taipei bridal salon owner whose salon was an international travel destination. She had established ties with a Japanese travel agent who organized tours centered on makeover and photographic services.

Even while customers, photographers, and entrepreneurs from abroad travel to Taipei in search of photographic ideas and practices—thus establishing and confirming Taipei's position as a high status node in the journeys of visual styles—many Taipei consumers are unable to rest easy in their high position in the bridal fashion hierarchy. The movements across space and place described above are motivated by movements “upward”—people who aim to decrease the cultural distance between themselves and high status visual styles. The same dynamics also propel movements across space and place motivated by the desire to keep from falling down the ladder. For brides, grooms, and their families, the stakes seem high because weddings occasion a high degree of status competition.

Although Taipei is a well-established global city, many of its residents came to live in the Taipei metropolitan area as a result of internal migration, and retain family ties in distant urban and rural locales. Weddings, with the intense involvement of family they entail, underscore the fact that Taipei is a city of migrants. Many families require bride and groom to travel to the groom's family's ancestral altar for a wedding ritual, which is frequently outside the Taipei metropolitan area in a smaller city or rural township. It is customary for the groom's family to throw a banquet in celebration of a wedding on the evening of the wedding rites. In rural areas, wedding banquets are often held beneath a rented tent put up near the family's home. These customs present a problem for Taipei brides who view rural visual styles as backward. Couples can easily commission photographs from Taipei photographers and display these at their rural weddings (to which many urban friends and colleagues are invited), for the photographs can be produced many weeks or even months in advance. More troubling is the bride's wedding-morning makeover and hair styling. Often, Taipei brides fear the work of non-Taipei stylists whose preferred styles are, by Taipei standards, backward and gaudy. Many resolve to undergo a Taipei bridal salon makeover in the middle of the night before beginning the long drive to the groom's family home. So many Taipei brides face this dilemma that they constitute a considerable market for specialized makeover services. Independent stylists make a living by offering on-site bridal styling services to Taipei brides whose weddings take them away from the urban center. Often such brides rent a hotel room in the nearest city to the groom's family home. The hotel room serves as the site from which the bride bids farewell to her parents and grandparents and doubles as a space for a costly, private makeover by a stylist who makes house calls.

Those who cannot afford such services (or who fail to book a traveling stylist well in advance of an astrologically lucky date for a wedding) but who nevertheless wish to avoid being made over to look like an unsophisticated bride, resolve the problem of space by lengthening time. Jenny, a Taiwanese bridal hair and make-up artist whose specialty is transforming faces beyond recognition, posts her fee scale next to her workstation. The dependent variable in Jenny's fee calculation is how much sleep she must lose to get the job done. The standard fee applies when the makeover session begins at 5 a.m. or later. She posts increasingly high surcharges for start times of 4 a.m., 3 a.m., 2 a.m., and 1 a.m. Most family wedding ceremonies take place in the morning as a result of astrological calculations aimed at facilitating the happiness and prosperity of the marriage. By beginning the bride's physical transformation at 5 a.m., the made-over bride can be ready at 7:30 a.m. to return to her home in time to be picked up by a posse of representatives from the groom's family, thank her parents and bid them farewell, and bow to the groom's parents, grandparents, and ancestors at an appropriately early hour according to astrological calculations, often 9 a.m. A 5 a.m. start for the makeover, however, does not allow much time for travel: herein lies a wrinkle in the space-time dimensions of the bridal industry. A bride whose makeover begins at 1 a.m. and concludes two hours later has time for a four-to-five-hour drive out of the city. The additional cost of her make over, in this case, is less troubling to a Taipei bride than the problem of staying awake during the long ride so as not to ruin her hair and makeup before the wedding. The added expense and effort are made worthwhile by the avoidance of a “lower” bridal salon makeover nearer to the wedding site.

CONCLUSIONS

Globalization makes possible the rapid movement of people, goods, and ideas across great distances. The movement of people and goods across the globe, nevertheless, entails considerable expenditures of both time and money. Ideas can move more quickly and inexpensively thanks to state and private investments in the infrastructure upon which telephones, fax machines, and computers depend. Language barriers, however, constitute a major obstacle to the movement of ideas, resulting in ever-increasing emphasis on the visual. The intimacy Taipei bridal industry workers have with European fashion centers rests strongly on visual communication. Occasionally photographers, dress designers, and entrepreneurs visit Europe, speak with bridal industry workers there, and purchase fabrics and gowns, but the bulk of intercontinental communication is disembodied and purely visual—televised fashion shows, magazines, and images circulated via the internet. Equally important, though less idealized, are images from Hollywood, MTV, and Madison Avenue advertising firms that influence photographers' shots, poses, and settings. Visual flows from Taipei outward to the rest of Taiwan, China, and the region are extensive, propelled both by the push of Taipei-based entrepreneurs and the pull of the market for images of upward mobility for brides to whom Taipei is a symbol of cosmopolitan classiness.

The relationship between visual images and the substance of the social lives through which they emerge is the subject of my book on Taiwanese bridal photography, Framing the Bride. One wonders to what extent the social dynamics that make this particular visual genre wildly successful in Taiwan also exist or will come to exist in the peripheries of Taiwan's bridal empire? Intergenerational struggles over the meaning and purpose of marriage, I have argued, are key. The photographs seem to boast individualistic pursuit of romantic pleasure precisely because the period immediately before a wedding represents “the last time” that young people, young women in particular, enjoy the freedom of living outside the logic of family duty. The domination of wedding rites by family elders, whose values and purposes the wedding rites encode, renders the production of romantic photographs highly significant for brides, for the photographs boast (and enshrine) a completely different set of values. In addition to their value for competitive consumption, then, Taiwanese bridal photographs bring the younger generation's worldview into weddings, in the form of images rather than ritual practices.

It is unlikely that the same social dynamics that fuel Taipei's bridal photography industry are also behind the popularity of this visual style elsewhere. Wedding rites in Japan and Korea largely take place in commercial wedding halls and are organized by wedding industry workers in contrast to wedding rites in Taiwan, held in family homes and organized by parents and grandparents with the help of kin and fortune-tellers. The social dynamics surrounding weddings are thus quite different. For Japanese and Korean spectators, I suspect, the visual surfaces of Taiwanese bridal photographs break free from the social relations that produce them and can be attached to new meanings, new contexts. Published photo albums of Japanese female film celebrities inspired key aspects of Taiwanese bridal photography, in fact . Much as karaoke democratizes musical stardom for the masses, Taiwanese bridal photography—like North American shopping mall “glamour shots” but more widely distributed and on a more elaborate scale—democratizes high beauty as defined by professional beauty and fashion industry photography.

Outside East Asia, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, the visual empire of Taiwanese bridal photography is tied closely to the dynamics of the Chinese diaspora. The “homeland” in China, given its recent history of terrible political and economic struggles, may look less culturally appealing than Taiwan (Taipei specifically) to people in Southeast Asia and North America who identify as Chinese and look to “China” for cues on how to be both Chinese and globalized moderns. It is easy to imagine how weddings, given their association with reproduction, would inspire brides, grooms, and their families to look for ways to reconnect with cultural practices in “China,” which Taiwan claimed it was until the 1990s. Given the association of weddings with competitive consumption, however, the appeal of this flashy practice that visually positions couples as members of the global elite is similarly understandable. In postsocialist China, moreover, the wealthy, worldly residents of Taipei, Hong Kong, and Singapore seem to have already forged a way into modernity that is both “Chinese” and cosmopolitan. Is it significant that Taiwan's bridal photographs seem to have strong international visual traction even while Taiwan is infamous for having the highest rate of divorce in the region To what extent do those who emulate Taiwan's visual styles emulate or avoid marriage and family practices that predominate there? These remain fruitful questions for further research.










 


To Book or Enquire

Please call us now on +612 9267 1308.
Toll Free:
1300 TAIPEI (1300 824 734)

Alternatively, you can enquire with us by clicking the button below.

 

 

Join our Wedding Photo Album & Honeymoon in Taiwan 10 Days 
Package start from $3230 p.p.
Click here for more details

BONUS Free Asia Destination from Taipei at the end of your Taiwan experience.