Taiwanese Bridal Photography

You might have seen this article in yesterday’s Washington Post. Titled “For Wedding Photos, Chinese Couples Strike a Western Pose” the article focuses on the “Western” garb adorned in Chinese bridal photography:

With names such as Paris, Love in New York and Rome Style Life, the mostly Taiwanese owned studios that dominate one of Beijing’s busiest shopping districts have capitalized on a Chinese obsession with Western-style wedding pictures.

For the equivalent of $375 to $750, packages include at least five costume changes and a trip to pose in front of a nearby Roman Catholic church, even though most couples aren’t Christian. “It fits the Western style of the dress,” said Huang Ling, 23, director of the Miracle Love Marriage studio.

Before we go any further, I encourage everyone to look at some of the photographs online. I bookmarked these for my students when I was teaching Bonnie Adrian’s Framing the Bride: Globalizing Beauty and Romance in Taiwan’s Bridal Industry last year. (Bonnie informed me that she had wanted to include more in her book, but it would have made the cost prohibitive.)

There is no denying that there is something “Western” about these images, just as there is something “Eastern” about Yoga. But women in designer paisley outfits doing yoga at the local gym are as separated from the “Eastern” origins of Yoga as Chinese brides donning dress after dress at Taiwanese run salons. These photographs represent a Taiwanese notion of “glamor” and “romance” that is rooted in the global fashion industry, but takes a very particular East Asian form.

Most importantly, this particular kind of wedding photography is very much a Taiwanese product. Even Taiwanese I know in the United States go back to Taiwan to get their photographs done there because they feel that the Taiwanese industry is more up to date with the latest fashions than Taiwanese-run studios in the States.

It is a competitive industry as well. One of Bonnie’s biggest challenges was convincing her informants that she wasn’t planning on stealing their “secrets”:

Even with Xiao-lan to introduce me as an anthropologist, salon owners and photographers continued to assume that I intended to open a bridal salon of my own once I finished by doctoral degree. many anthropologists have been suspected of being CIA agents, development workers, or missionaries in disguise. That the bridal salon owner’s worst fear is industrial espionage by an American posing as an anthropologist is telling. It speaks to the self-confidence that some people in Taiwan can enjoy in globalizing processes, including the one that this book presents.

I find it unfortunate that Maureen Fan felt it necessary to spin this story as a Chinese obsession with the West, when it is the role of Taiwanese in shaping Chinese popular culture which strikes me as the real story here.

9 thoughts on “Taiwanese Bridal Photography

  1. A…hem. This style of photography and the multiple changes involving both Western and native costume has a long history in Japan. My hypothesis would be that the idea of doing a whole package like this is borrowed from Japan instead of directly from the West.

    Also, a bit of nostalgia. I doubt that I could find it anymore, but once upon a time a wrote a paper titled “Unwrapping the Bride” about the adoption of white, Western-style wedding dresses in Taiwan. I had discovered that the traditional red Chinese wedding costume is worn over a white undergarment, and “red packets” (hong bao) are, of course, the traditional way of presenting gifts of cash to those with whom one wishes to maintain a carefully distanced relationship. So instead of seeing the switch from red+Chinese to white+Western, I noted the symbolic appropriateness of unwrapping the bride, removing the red outer wrapping associated with marriage as an arrangement between two families and revealing the bride in a more private and personal manner. It is, you see, an incredibly apt representation of the shift in public presentation from marriage as an exchange between groups to marriage as a relationship between individuals.

  2. I have come across these kinds of interpretations in my own work on sexuality. Although so far my research has focused on the United States, being in California where much of the gay/lesbian population is immigrant, I’ve begun working in the cultural issues on a global scale. In much of the queer migration literature, the critique of power is problematic: although it rightly points out historical inequality between West and rest, it underestimates the power of local cultures to indigenize and modify cultural practices for their own uses. Wearing a white bridal gown like that in Taiwan necessarily has a different meaning than a midwestern bride of european ancestry. These differences in meaning are imbricated in the flow of power in global transaction of cultures, but they are received and adapted in complicated ways.

    I’ve come to appreciate a naturalistic approach to the blending of cultures in the present (which accounts for the past or history of the movement of symbols and practices as well as their present uses and meanings).

    Writing the history of the global spread of the idea of “bride” or “marriage” requires a careful managing of conflicting historical forces and a relatively sophisticated theoretical model of how human beings exchange, develop and modify cultural meanings. As American/western cultures and politics have spread around the world, even in Europe, it turns out that local communities don’t adopt full-scale the foreign cultural paradigms. Rather, they adopt certain American signs, objects, practices of community/identity/politics without adopting the meanings (at least not wholesale); they adapt and change them so they have meanings specific to their own contexts and experiences. Local cultures reject much of what they receive (or at least, some of the culture signs/practices don’t make the crossing). The emerging idea of “Western imperialism” destroying local cultures (or in the case of this article, of the fetishization of the west on the part of “silly” natives) for the past 40 years becomes highly problematic when the focus remains on the ground with the people whose cultures are changing. Although the power differential between the West/America and the rest of the World makes the exchange of ideas/practices/signs unequal and therefore problematic, I see people adopting the cultural meanings they find useful or salient, modifying those which are attractive but don’t quite fit, and rejecting the stuff that just doesn’t work at all.

    The practice of Taiwanese wedding photography, including its fashion sense, must be unpacked in the context of its practice. The meaning of these practices can only be discerned by watching the practioners interact with each other and their objects.

  3. I am unfamiliar with the Taiwanese weddings, but I am wondering if this “western” dress extends to the wedding service itself? Wedding services have begun to incorporate more personal elements. I recently attended one in which the service was on a rock outcropping, the groom wore a Scots kilt, the bride in traditional white/pink, the groom sang a song to his bride in Spanish, and members of the bridal party recited poetry, one included a First Nation’s blessing–I mean this is personalizing the ceremony! Is there something like this in the Taiwanese weddings, or are the wedding photos separated from the service itself?

  4. The photographs are completely separate from the wedding day itself. The wedding itself is not a public event, but then there is a very important “wedding banquet” during which the bride is usually expected to do at least three costume changes. A white wedding dress is not necessarily one of the costumes worn on this occasion. The photographs will usually be blown up and prominently displayed at the banquet.

  5. I was married about a month ago and in the early stages it was a little unclear how much Chinese culture would be incororated into the ceremony (b/c of the bride, not the groom). We ended up wearing red at the ceremony and wearing the little ‘bride’ and ‘groom’ bow/corsages at the rehearsal dinner. But I put the cabosh on the photoshoot, and the multiple changes of costume at the reception. Then again, there were no string quartets playing medlies from _Fiddler_ either, so I guess it all balances out in the end.

  6. I don’t understand the objection to characterizing these pictures as Western. The Chinese word for a men’s suit is xifu which translates into “Western Clothes”. Of course what a suit is for – what it signifies and the way it is used is very different between China and the US (I’ve never seen someone wearing a suit on an American construction site, but its common to see workers in China welding in a suit)

    I don’t think that the clothes or photographic styles used by Chinese wedding photographers are the same as they are in the US. Even the same dress, the same suit signifies something different in the two cultures. Sure.

    But since the end of the Qing dynasty and picking up speed at the May 4th movement (and of course stopping, twisting and turning at various points), the self-conscious desire to adopt aspects of “Western” culture that would be beneficial to China is a theme woven throughout a lot of modern Chinese history – from military modernization, various political ideologies, Wei Hu’s Shanghai Baby, etc. Of course, all of these take a very distinct Chinese form, but to the extent that they are conceptualized as being “Western”, how are they not a western influence? They’re certainly not completley unrelated to things that are happening in the West, and while they may be hybridized, transformed, fabricated, etc., it would seem to be a pretty clear cut case of cultural diffusion.

    Of course they don’t partake in any abiding Western essence, but then again neither do the Western counterparts. To study tai chi in New York City isn’t traditional Chinese culture, but neither is studying it in Beijing.

  7. Of course what a suit is for – what it signifies and the way it is used is very different between China and the US (I’ve never seen someone wearing a suit on an American construction site, but its common to see workers in China welding in a suit)

    I don’t think that the clothes or photographic styles used by Chinese wedding photographers are the same as they are in the US. Even the same dress, the same suit signifies something different in the two cultures. Sure.

    … Of course they don’t partake in any abiding Western essence, but then again neither do the Western counterparts. To study tai chi in New York City isn’t traditional Chinese culture, but neither is studying it in Beijing.

    Where is the disagreement here? Just joking, see below:

    I am not objecting to the word \”Western\” itself, but rather the framing of the article in these terms. There is nothing \”of course\” about the points you make above in the minds of most people who have not studied anthropology or traveled extensively, and the NY Times does not help by expressing this phenomenon entirely in terms of \”Westernization\” as if that explained everything.

    And, as John McCreery points out, \”Western\” in East Asia is often filtered through Japanese culture (and increasingly through Korea and Taiwan as well). Not unlike how \”Eastern\” culture was once filtered through German literature and philosophy for many in the \”West.\”

  8. “Western” in East Asia is often filtered through Japanese culture (and increasingly through Korea and Taiwan as well

    Korea is an interesting example these days and a great illustration of the complexities involved in analyzing cultural influence. Consider the following observations.

    1. Since at least the mid-1990s (when I became aware of the phenomenon) , Japanese marketers have been worried about the growing popularity of Korean “culture” (mainly celebrities, music, movies) and products as competition for Japan, especially in East and Southeast Asia.

    2.Visible evidence, gleaned mostly from watching local or regional versions of MTV suggests that Korean fashion has a more vivid, harder-edged quality than current Japanese styles. The look is bolder, more in-your-face, more in tune with Chinese tastes. More primary colors, more big gestures, more eye contact.

    3. No question about it. Korean companies have been going after Japanese competitors in the way that Japanese a few decades ago were attacking competitors based Europe and America. I recall being at a big Telecom show in the late 1980s when the crew from the Samsung booth next door were all over the Canon booth that I was working on and how my Japanese colleagues commented on how “pushy” they were. I recall being on a business trip in Seoul in the 1990s and picking up a local business magazine in which LG was announcing its goal of becoming the largest electronics company in the world. LG hasn’t made it, but last year Samsung beat out Sony in the annual AdAge list of the world’s most valuable brands.

    4. Strictly at the level of rumor, several years ago I heard someone asserting that while Japanese companies were all moving aggressively upscale, adding more bells and whistles and going after rich consumers in developed countries that the Koreans were doing an end run by producing very reliable, very durable, relatively inexpensive products for, in particular, other Asian markets, slipping under the Japanese radar and establishing a strong foothold in Asia.

    5. It is interesting in terms of counterflows that one of the reasons most often cited in Japan for the recent success of Korean movies, TV series and, especially male, celebrities in Japan is their appeal to middle-aged and older Japanese, who identify with their clean-cut, hardworking, sharply distinguished gender roles image and few them favorably in contrast with their children, who are seen as, you guessed it, scruffy or fashion-obsessed, lazy, greedy, unmasculine and unfeminine.

    Plainly there is a hot mix here of ethnic and generational stereotypes, together with the corporate strategies of companies that have turned themselves into major global players. “Westernization” doesn’t cut it, even as description, let alone explanation.

  9. Some day I will learn to spell. “View” not “few” in the third line from the bottom.

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