Sitting on a plastic stool, just a link in a circular chain of family members lining the room, I lean backwards to avoid the zooming lenses around me. There's a murmuring silence, but the atmosphere is very much alive. As relatives shift around on the off-cream leather sofa, I know I'm about to see something special.
Save for big plans, big money and, well, a big party, weddings in Hong Kong are nothing like weddings in the UK. For starters, the main component for Brits - actually getting married - is the least significant part of the day here. This morning, my cousin Leo, and his girlfriend of ten years, Bea, officially signed on the dotted line, wearing traditional Chinese wedding attire - for the bride, an opulent Oriental red dress, with dazzling gold stitching (known as a qúnguà), and the groom, a black suit with his signature white Adidas trainers (the latter not so traditional).
Now, at 10am, I'm at Leo's family's modest flat for their equivalent of vows. The tea ceremony, a custom dating back to the seventh century, is the official introduction of the bride to the groom's family (today, as in most modern societies, the families are already friends). It's usually only attended by immediate family members, so I feel privileged, if not a little like an intruder. Kneeling, a nervous Bea passes the tiny vessel of Chinese tea to her mother-in-law, ignoring the flashes and clicks aimed her way. The couple have to offer tea to the groom's parents, grandparents and, in modern times, the bride's family, too. Afterwards, Leo's parents give Bea a pair of impossibly gold bracelets, secured in a velvet box. They're not so much a fashion statement as an invitation, a 'welcome to the family' gift.
Once the ceremony is over, it's back to business and tables are pulled out, quickly blanketed in plastic sheets. Someone arrives with bags of takeaway food and it's dished out to whoever's in close range. I give my seat up, happy to give the immediate wedding party some space.
I'm early to the venue that evening, but the groom is already there, donning a white suit. I pick up a few laminated photographs of the couple, taken weeks before today. Holding balloons, gazing into each other's eyes; the business-size cards are the perfect keepsakes and all part of the wedding process over here. In the function room, huge round tables waltz around each other, leaving empty pockets for a stage at the front, a walkway for the couple's grand entrance and Mahjong tables, which are entertaining a gaggle of elders, their laughs and jabbers filling the air.
When the room is full, Bea emerges, a vision in white, Leo beaming by her side. Once the applause has died down and they're seated, the banquet begins. Crab claws, abalone, pork belly, all on silver platters. But perhaps the most delectable feature of the night is the range of dresses Bea showcases. From white to red, sea-blue to pale pink - each one an extension of her. At the end of the evening, Leo takes the mic and talks about his new wife, reducing us to a sea of glassy eyes.
As I queue to have a photo taken with the newlyweds, I wonder if others might see the customs and priorities of the day as backward. But, looking around the sea of happy faces, arms around shoulders and hands clutching hands, I can't think of anything more honest, and joyous, than this.
PHOTO CREDIT: LEO FUNGSuggest a correction