South Korea's K-Pop scene attracts tourists from around the world, but this particular segment of wealthy Chinese couples spend much more on deluxe hotel, grooming, and photo packages.
Standing by a French chateau’s window, the young bride-to-be glows in the afternoon sun as she gazes into her fiancé’s eyes. This Chinese couple’s fairytale moment, however, isn’t unfolding at a Bordeaux estate.
The 20-something Beijing lawyers and fans of South Korean pop idol Rain are part of a small but growing number of affluent Chinese for whom the craze for all things South Korean means flying to Seoul for the weekend to have wedding pictures taken.
China is the source of one quarter of all tourists to South Korea, and a handful of companies in South Korea’s $15 billion wedding industry are wooing an image-conscious slice of the Chinese jet set happy to drop several thousand dollars on a wedding album with a South Korean touch.
The draw for many of the well-heeled Chinese isn’t Seoul’s ancient palaces or the fiery cuisine. It’s an elegant urban style exemplified by Gangnam, the tiny Seoul district made globally famous by South Korean rapper PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” Helping shape that image is the popularity of South Korean cosmetics and fashion and the many South Korean stars whose looks are widely copied in China.
“The style in South Korea is more sophisticated and cuter than what we have in China. We came here because South Korea is the leader in fashion and makeup,” said the bride-to-be, Yang Candi, as two stylists fussed over her hair with a curling iron and giant hair clips during a recent photo shoot.
South Korea’s tourism ministry estimates that more than 2.5 million Chinese visitors spent an average of $2,150 per person in 2012, more than any other nationality. That’s helping companies such as iWedding, which is the largest of the South Korean wedding planners hosting Chinese tourists, to flourish.
Every month for more than a year, iWedding has done business with 50 to 60 Chinese couples, the company said, including the Beijing attorneys whose love of South Korean TV shows and music brought them to Seoul.
A South Korean competitor, Design Wedding, recently partnered with a Chinese company in Shanghai and has photographed more than 50 Chinese couples since May. Chuka Club, another South Korean wedding planner, said it gets Chinese clients even though it doesn’t advertise on Chinese websites like rivals iWedding and Design Wedding.
“Chinese look up to South Korea for its sophisticated urban culture, style and beauty,” said Song Sung-uk, professor of South Korean pop culture studies at the Catholic University of Korea in Seoul. “Rather than visiting traditional palaces or shopping for antiques, they would rather go to Gangnam to experience state-of-the-art shopping malls.”
Song said South Korea, which built the fourth largest economy in Asia from the rubble of the 1950-53 Korean War, is synonymous with the good life that middle-class Chinese aspire to. South Korea’s pop culture plays a big part in cultivating that image.
“I always wanted to come here, especially after watching South Korean TV shows,” said the groom-to-be, Chen Jingjing, his face gleaming with liquid foundation, his eyebrows carefully contoured.
The couple said they had high expectations for their trip and were excited about the prospect of glamorous photos mimicking the pampered lifestyles of their favorite South Korean celebrities. The trip, they said, would also give them bragging rights at home with their friends and family.
After nearly three hours of hair, makeup and frequent amorous glances, Chen and Yang, dressed in wedding white, are chauffeured to a nearby photo studio where they spend the next eight hours striking poses before facades resembling cobblestoned streets or Loire Valley estates. The continental European backdrop is a favorite of Chinese visitors and South Koreans. That likely stems from the popularity of Western-style bridal gowns and tuxedos; many wedding planners began thinking that those European outfits looked better when photographed in front of a European set.
The heart of the day for Yang and Chen was overseen by a nimble South Korean photographer who orchestrates the eight-hour photo session with an air of Gangnam cool, cooing enthusiastically to get the couple’s poses just right. Other helpers rushed to adjust Yang’s hair or dust off Chen’s lapel as mellow South Korean pop tunes wafted from speakers embedded in the ceiling.
The photographs are arranged in a leather-bound album, part of a South Korean package for couples that includes transportation, doting assistants and a hotel option, according to Yu Mi-ra, a Chinese-speaking South Korean coordinator at iWedding. The service costs $2,000 to $4,000.
Yu said the reason cosmopolitan Chinese come all the way to South Korea for wedding pictures is a higher quality photography and makeup service than they’d get in China.
But that doesn’t mean expectations are always met.
While Chen and Yang seemed at ease with the attention — smiling at the photographer’s attempts to speak Chinese and generally operating like celebrities accustomed to paparazzi and the staged glamour of red carpet events — six hours into the photo session, Yang’s smile disappears. She is unhappy with the photographs.
“My cheekbones are sticking out,” said Yang after looking at the pictures through a camera viewer. “We came all the way to Korea to look our best. But these pictures are plain. I’m a little disappointed.”
Yang’s South Korean translator and assistant eventually persuade her to go on with the photo shoot. And Yang again bats her fake eyelashes and smiles for the camera. At the close of the day, she seems generally pleased.
“Everyone is nice. They must be tired too,” she said.
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Photo credit: In this Tuesday, July 30, 2013 photo, Chen Jingjing, left, and Yang Candi of Beijing, China, strike a pose at a wedding studio in southern Seoul, South Korea, during an eight-hour photo session part of a South Korean wedding tourism package for Chinese couples. Elizabeth Shim / AP Photo