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Lian Island, and the Art of the Perfect Beach Wedding Photograph

The beach makes my heart sing. The smell of the salt water, the burn of the hot sand getting hotter and hotter with every step as you dance across the sand to the closest shade, then the feeling of complete freedom as you dive under the water, salt water stinging your eyes.

In the last forty years of my life I have never gone more than three weeks without a visit to the beach, and I mistakenly thought China with its long eastern coastline would have plenty to choose from, but much of the coast is beach-less river delta where rivers widen dramatically to meet the sea over a broad flat tidal expanse of mud. Not ideal for swimming.

When I began to plan our trip I desperately wanted to find a beach, somewhere beautiful and not crowded. I asked around, I consulted maps and guidebooks, but other than the beaches of Qingdao (too crowded) and the beaches of Hainan Island (too far south, and inaccessible without a plane or boat) I drew a blank.
Wasting time one day last week I opened Google Earth and scrolled randomly up and down the east coast, just looking and hoping. Near the town of Lianyungang in Jiangsu province (a place I’d never heard of) was a small island connected to the mainland by what looked like a causeway. As I zoomed in I felt building excitement –  the island had two perfect crescents of sand separated by lush green hills, and other than a small resort development at one end appeared largely uninhabited. Even more promisingly I could see rows of beach umbrellas lining the smaller beach. Yes!

Lian Island turned out to be even better in reality – a laidback seaside world. The island’s entry road is lined with little shops selling retro shell souvenirs line and rows of fresh seafood restaurants, fronted by outdoor tanks of live fish, shrimp, molluscs and crayfish just waiting for customers to come along and choose their own catch of the day. Bypass these if you’re not hungry and drive past the fishing harbour to the island’s northern side where an exquisite small cove called Suma Wan awaits, the lush green jungle tangled with vines and flowers tumbling down the hills to the blue sea. Peacocks wander in and out of the gardens, occasionally showing magnificent plumage and calling their distinctive call through the jungle.

Bookending the beach are two rocky promontories topped with traditional Chinese pavilions. I often forgot where I was as I swam out to deep water, unti I looked up and saw the gracefully upturned eaves in the distance.

The beach itself is perfect – a sheltered cove with fine, shell-strewn sand and lines of thatched beach umbrellas. The only major oversight as far as I can see is the distinct lack of a cocktail bar, but other than that you can keep yourself busy with water bicycling, tumbling around on the water in an inflatable hamster wheel, jetski touring, or just floating around with a fluorescent life preserver around your middle.

What strikes me is that swimming is not a skill possessed by most Chinese visitors to the beach, hardly surprising given China’s massive internal land mass, far from oceans. Mao though, famously swam every day when able in rivers, the ocean, or lakes.
The unfamiliarity with swimming becomes clear from people’s dress – most are wearing bathers bought from the small shop on the beach, and a quite a few are swimming either fully clothed or in their underwear. Adults and children alikeare protected from the waist deep dead calm water by wearing life preservers or clinging to the floating guide ropes in the water. 
The few who can swim do so ostentatiously, dressed in full and proper Olympic swimming kit – short, close-fitting trunks, bathing cap, goggles and nose clip. They go out just deep enough for everyone to see they know what’s what and with great sense of purpose swim a few strokes in no particular direction, then emerge striding from the water. 
It’s a lovely relaxing day, everyone is enjoying themselves in the sun….and then the brides and grooms arrive, all fifty-eight of them, over the next few hours.



上周某一天我为了消磨时间打开谷歌地图随便浏览了一下东海岸,无意中发现,靠近 江苏省连云港市有一个小岛。随着我将画面推近,不由得有一丝兴奋——岛上有两处沙滩,中间隔着郁郁葱葱的小山,而且仅有一小部分得到了开发,在另一头则大部分无人居住。更令我充满希望的是哪里有成排的沙滩阳伞。太棒了!




很搞笑的是,当我们都很努力地要把我们苍白凄凉的皮肤晒成古铜色的时候,我们身旁的中国游客们从头到脚都裹得严严实,还打着伞来保护他们美丽的白色肌肤免受日光侵扰。当我 今晚躺在这儿,皮肤被晒得又红又烫时,我倒是也希望自己能有白白的肌肤。

Beach Wedding Photography, Chinese Style

The clutch of brides, more beatiful than the white peacocks roaming the beachside gardens, spill out of a minivan in full wedding regalia, long white dresses sweeping the ground, hair arranged in sleek black chignons topped with dramatic headpieces crusted with flowers and pearls, and ears heavy with long pearl and diamante drops. 

Their eyes, heavily rimmed with kohl, turn towards us oddly dressed foreigners in our swimming costumes and towels as if to question the suitability of our attire for attending the beach, and then with one long sweep they scoop up the trailing trains of their dresses over their arms, revealing scuffed plastic Crocs and cutoff denim shorts. The illusion dissolves immediately.
We follow them down the wooden stairs, all six bridal couples accompanied by a brace of photographers, assistants, make-up artists and gophers carrying assorted props – bags of fake floral bouquets, rainbow-coloured windmills, a violin in a case, a red and white life buoy, and six reflector screens covered in foil.
The Chinese wedding photography industry is a mysterious country of its own, with its own government and bylaws, its own ethnic factions, and its own currency and festivals. Couples enter into this land through the portal of glittering shops with names like Paris and LoveWedding, where they sit for days with wedding consultants poring over style books to decide on the style of wedding they would like, the only irony being there is no wedding and they’re not actually married. 
The actual wedding, compared to the splendor of the wedding photography, will be a drab affair months later involving five hundred guests in a fancy Chinese restaurant surrounded by life-size images of the couple as they appeared in their wedding dream, as realized by those magician photographers on a memorable day in the distant past.
Like all magicians, there is a great deal of smoke and mirrors involved in the transformation of a pair of short-sighted graphic designers from Lianyungang into a romantic beachside vision of true love. Here’s how it’s done.
The wedding dresses are made of machine-washable synthetic, one size fits all, and are fastened with bulldog cips at the back if you’re on the small side, or an infinitely expandable corsetry lacing if you’re not. The grooms, in white suits with ruffled shirts and enormous collars chosen to match the wedding dress, look stiff and uncomfortable as they’re directed into position. But the suits are completely wrinkle-free.

The make-up, lavishly applied to both bride and groom, is made from heat, sun and sand-resistant polymers that probably last for days afterwards on your skin.

Props are chosen, poses are positioned, and then the couple strip down to their underwear right there on the beach and change into Bridal Ensemble Number Two, usually a brightly coloured version of Bridal Ensemble Number One. And the whole scene is repeated in blazing technicolour polyester.

After watching this magic for two whole days and more than forty couples on Suma Wan’s tiny and now very crowded beach I have realised there are five standard poses in any Magic Beach Wedding photography set:

1.  The Standard – bride and groom side by side at the shore line, dress draped artfully on the sand. Variations include props placed artfully on the draped dress, such as dried starfish or the jaunty red and white life preserver.
2. The Distance Shot – often the groom stands behind the bride, facing away but looking back wistfully at her over his shoulder
3. The Happy-Go-Lucky shot – this involves hands in the air, or kicking water, or jumping simultaneoulsy. It doesn’t usually involve a group of swimmers and four other couples in various stages of dress/undress, as shown here.
4. The Groom Solo Shot – embracing married life, as it were.
5. The Novelty Shot. This involves the couple bringing something of their own personalities to the scene – crazy glasses, funny hats, or in this case a pair of bunny hand puppets. I know, I know – you wish you’d thought of this for your wedding photos too.

So there you have it, Chinese wedding photography for the uninitiated. Dusk falls, golden hour is over and the couples traipse in a straggling column back up the steps. The dresses and suits have been stuffed tightly into bags for washing.
At last, the beach is empty and the only sign of the photographic love fest that has just taken place is a lone pair of false eyelashes, marooned on the sand.

Suma Bay Eco Park
suma gang shengtai yuan
Admission: Adults 50 yuan, Children 25 yuan, Vehicles 15 yuan
Open daily 9am-6pm
Beachside overnight cabins available for rent

Campsite Notes: Lian Dao

We camped in the small secluded carpark just west of the Suma Bay Eco Park ticket office and entrance – the park closes at 6pm so the nearby carpark is empty at night. Between 7pm and 8.30am next day there were no other cars.
We considered overstaying closing time within the park itself but all the suitable parking sites have CCTV cameras so it seemed likely we would be moved on by the staff as they left for the day.

Co-ordinates: Lat  34.757590° Long 119.492593°
Water: nil
Electricity: nil 
Public Facilities: nil
Quietness: Crickets and breezes
Nearest water/groceries: Liandao village, at the entry road to the island (limited supplies)
Outlook: overlooks ocean

Introducing: Yongkang Lu

Let me introduce you to Yongkang Lu, a perfectly lovely old street that has been right under my nose all along, but I’ve only recently rediscovered. Thanks to friends living nearby, I’ve been kept me up to date about the addition of a wonderful boulangerie/fromagerie and a boutique beer vendor, and the opening of quirky new shops and cafes. They’ve all moved into Yongkang Lu since I last visited for the specialty foods festival at Chinese New Year, and the whole street has the aura of revitalisation and excitement. I’m going to feature some of them over the coming weeks.
Yongkang Lu runs east-west, from Taiyuan Lu all the way to Jiashan Lu, itself a vigorously lively street with a daily riot of fish-gutting, vegetable chopping, card games, street barbers and angle grinders. Halfway along its length Yongkang is bisected into neat and quite opposite halves by Xiangyang Lu, a street struggling to become trendy but thanks to constant hammering roadworks and a cartel of noodle and snack stalls has been able to resist gentrification for now.
The west side of Yongkang Lu is lined with leafy plane trees, and this end of the street is quiet and relaxed with small local shops selling dumplings, stationery, fruit and vegetables. It’s a lovely street to walk along, busy without being overwhelming and with very ittle road traffic.

As I cross over busy Xiangyang Lu the ear-splitting sound of firecrackers reverberates along the eastern end of Yongkang Lu, the noise ricocheting between houses hung with washing. It’s the middle of the day but that doesn’t mean anything particular, firecrackers can go off anytime, anywhere, for anything. 
The eastern end of the street has a totally different appearance, with closely packed apartments overhanging a street almost devoid of greenery. Further along the red firecracker papers litter the middle of the road, and I walk there to see what’s happening along with a bunch of other onlookers.
It’s a wedding! A white stretch limo is parked on the street, the bonnet festooned with flowers attached with adhesive tape. I can’t tell if the bride and groom are inside the car because the windows are too heavily tinted. They may be visiting the groom’s parents in one of the nearby houses, a wedding tradition.
More eye-catching is the second wedding car, a fanta-orange fantasy of an Audi with more restrained decorations, just two small corsages taped to the door handles.
Without warning another round of firecrackers is set off in the middle of the road, drawing all the neighbours (many in their pyjamas) out to watch. Nobody tries to protect the Audi from the small explosions. By the time the crackers are finished the road is carpeted with shreds of red paper and the air is full of sulphur.
It seems, after a while and some discussion from the crowd, that the bride is in the back of the stretch limo after all, and the groom soon comes dashing out of the nearby dry-cleaners (his parents’ home and business?) before jumping in the passenger seat and taking off to the next round of festivities and pyrotechnics.

The neighbours watch on as the limo pulls away and normal traffic is restored.

Nothing left to do but have some fun with all that lovely sulphurous red paper! Now isn’t that just the sort of thing you like to see when you go for a Sunday walk along your favourite street?
Do you have a favourite secret (or not so secret) street in Shanghai? Please tell!

The Wedding Cars

Ah, the Chinese wedding car. I haven’t seen one for weeks – presumably san fu‘s stinking weather means it’s off-season for weddings in August. But now at the tail end of the month the temperature has dropped to a practically chilly 35 degrees and only 91% humidity, which means weddings are starting to crop up all over the place.
 This wedding car was parked on the Bund yesterday, on the footpath, right outside Cartier. I don’t know why there weren’t parking cops or Cartier doormen all over it like a rash, hauling them newlyweds off to parking hell. Perhaps the wedding was being held inside the store? 
The rest of the entourage cars were parked nearby in an alleyway, all six of them. In China, the number of cars in the wedding entourage gives people an indication of your status, so seven cars = pretty well-off, but certainly not rich enough to afford anything at Cartier. Odd numbers are good. Avoid four cars, because the word for four sounds like the word for death. Not auspicious. Anything more than eleven cars is getting into serious status territory – filthy rich, or high up in the Party, or both. Luckily, the cars don’t need to be matching, so you can call up all your mates and have them sticky-tape roses to the car doors and meet you en route.
One wedding car rule is set in stone – the lead car must be different from the others, and it must have a wedding pair of stuffed Disney characters stuck to the bonnet, plus a heart-shaped floral arrangement and a special wedding themed license plate cover. Hello Kitty pairs are okay, but only if one of you is Taiwanese, or if the shop has sold out of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy and Goofy.

Chinese Wedding Cars

While we’re on the topic of weddings, every Saturday and Sunday morning on Nanchang Lu, wedding cars line up to be decorated. Now these are the cars that take you to your actual wedding. Not to your ‘Themed Wedding Photo Day’.

The decorations take hours, and may involve flowers, attractive Disney stuffed toys and pretty pink registration plate covers.

If you can’t afford the stuffed toys, what the hell, just sticky-tape a few flowers to the doors and be done with it. And if a bit of duco comes off in the process…..never mind, you can probably repaint the whole car for less than the cost of the flowers.

Chinese Weddings

Maybe I just haven’t lived here long enough, but I don’t understand modern Chinese weddings. After the Official Registration Process, you have a small, understated do in a restaurant somewhere (the groom will probably wear jeans). The bride might splash out on a new dress for the occasion, but the main emphasis will be on food and drink. Lots of drink.

Then, the money and energy you would have otherwise spent on the wedding itself can be invested in the purchase of a very expensive set of Themed Wedding Photos. For this you will have to find the right Themed Wedding Photo Shop. There are dozens of them on Huai Hai Lu. Here you can spend hours with a consultant (aka shonky salesperson) poring over ‘lookbooks’ of different wedding photo styles and backgrounds. Western style is the most popular, but you can have Traditional Chinese, Salsa, Scottish, Scarlett O’Hara or anything in between. 

Then, on a completely different day, usually in the months after your actual wedding, you and your beloved will get up early, climb in a minibus, and be driven to your chosen scenic destination. Here, in the nearest public toilet, you will change into the hired wedding outfit, have your hair and make-up done, and with a photographer, gopher, lighting guy and stylist have your themed photos taken. This will cost you quite a small fortune. I’m so glad that the rip-offs applied to weddings in the West have also found their way to the East.

You can save a bit of money by travelling in a group!

Here’s a tip though – if you choose a popular destination, you should position yourself carefully….

…………….to avoid the annoyance of having a pair of strangers in wedding dress and their photography team in the background of your photos……………….alternatively, choose a location no-one else would ever think of………..

……….like outside our local fine-dining establishment, Monty’s Steakhouse. Now that would make a unique set of wedding photos.

Tongli Wedding

We just spent a weekend in Tongli – it’s a small town west of Shanghai with a maze of small canals and old stone houses. Despite the bitter cold a happy wedding group set off to the ear-splitting sound of hundreds of confetti fire-crackers, followed by an entourage of friends and family as they walked beside the canal on their way to good food and a day of celebration.

Now, in Tongli there are 49 stone bridges criss-crossing the canals, but three are particularly famous – the Taiping (peace) bridge, the Jili (luck) bridge and the Changqing (celebration) bridge. Newlyweds should walk over all three to guarantee a long and harmonious marriage filled with good fortune.