By Chinese betrothal custom, the groom presents his bride's family with a whole celebratory suckling pig. The pork, a culinary symbol of the girl's virginity, is roasted patiently to a crackling ruddy brown. But at a recent engagement party in Hong Kong, the food came quickly, turned out by restaurant workers at the pace of the city stirring outside. Guests on swivel seats raised chocolate milkshakes in a giddy toast. The couple shared a long, red-splotched French fry, meeting midway for a kiss. Before their loved ones and beneath a pair of Golden Arches, husband-to-be Kelvin Kwong explained earnestly, "Ashley loves ketchup."
In January, McDonald's added wedding packages to its Hong Kong menu. This is the only city in the world where the American restaurant chain offers the service, prompted by frequent inquiries about fast-food weddings from customers in recent years. Now, three McDonald's locations are equipped to stage marital festivities in the style of any 6-year-old's model birthday. That the corporation should move to fill or perhaps create this niche is not so unusual. Despite being surpassed by Subway as the world's largest fast-food chain, McDonald's still serves 400,000 Hong Kongers every day. Countless couples will have met, or at least dated, there. Business executives take clients there for lunch; high school students gather there over homework.
The Golden Arches have in this region escaped the stigma of mass production and prevalent obesity that they carry in the U.S. and elsewhere. Denouncing Big Business is hardly a pastime in a city that, in its modern incarnation, emerged from international capitalism. "In Hong Kong, the transnational is the local," says James L. Watson, a Harvard professor of Chinese society and author of Golden Arches East. When in 1975 McDonald's first came to the former British colony, Hong Kong was diligently reinventing itself from an outpost of light industry to a regional finance center. "The company and the town, they more or less grew up together," Watson says. McDonald's catered to, and likely prodded along, a new culture of speed, convenience and consumerism.
The traditional Chinese wedding banquet is slow-cooked, not flash-fried. A string of familial rituals are outdone in number by a dozen or so courses shark-fin soup, sea cucumber, animals in their entirety meant to bring luck and completeness and a series of costume changes. A ceremonial dinner of 20 crimson-clothed tables begins at about $38,000, and the betrothed are unlikely to know personally a majority of the invitees. In a moment of economic recovery, this kind of decadence has, for some, simply lost allure. Coco Wong, Hong Kong's first wedding planner, still predominantly organizes conventional banquets. But, she says, the scale and gravity of these spreads is on the decline: "Couples are beginning to prefer smaller affairs with just the people they know, weddings that are more intimate and softer on the budget."
As Hong Kong leans increasingly toward a culture of informality and affordability, the fast-food chain is there once more to meet it. "I was a bride," says Shirley Chang, managing director of McDonald's Hong Kong. "I didn't enjoy my own party. I needed to dress up beautifully, that was all. For me, there was no laughing, there was no eating." By contrast, the McWedding is casual, stress-free and inexpensive: the basic Warm and Sweet Wedding Package for 50 guests goes for under $1,300. For another $165, the bride can rent a gown of pearly white balloons.
What a McDonald's wedding event lacks in liquor, it more than makes up for in helium. For Ashley Tse and Kwong's engagement party, in an area in one restaurant's rear cordoned off from the public, goody bags are stuffed with plush McDonaldland characters. A McDonald's M.C. coordinates games while waitresses deal out cheeseburgers. A cake is a pyramid of green apple-pie cartons. Dozens of heart-shaped balloons it is Valentine's Day, after all hover in the corners of the room in rosy clumps. The future bride, Tse, weeping from the excitement of it, wears a balloon ring and carries an inflated bouquet.
Nothing would seem less personal than a cookie-cutter McDonald's restaurant open to Hong Kong's every diner. But Kwong speaks of the spot with a wistfulness normally reserved for neighborhood institutions. "We both used to come here all the time as children," he said during a press conference at the engagement party. "I just wanted people to have a good time. It's hard to find somewhere that's fun for kids and adults, and where everyone will love the food." Even his mother, in all her fussiness, was able to find something she likes: the Filet-o-Fish.
For the affianced couple a model and a nurse, both striking and healthy this is a family place. And it is for the benefit of their families that Kwong lowers himself onto a single bent knee and, before them, the media and a pale pink banner, asks Tse a question she has already answered. They had been dating for nine years when they first decided to marry. The engagement party is over by 10 p.m., but the bride would likely tell you that not everything in this city moves so quickly.