Who: Laurel and Mike
Where: Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Hunan, China.
When: October 2019
If I had been told 5 years ago that I would be flown all the way to China to shoot a multi-day all-expenses paid black tie wedding, I would have called you BANANAS. As much as I love to travel, China was never really on my radar. I didn’t have friends traveling or living there and I had very little knowledge of any of its features or history other than the Great Wall and Mulan (I know, I know… typical Westerner). But of course, life has a funny way of pushing your boundaries and opening up doors you never knew existed.
I met Laurel about 5 years back while shooting a wedding for our mutual friends, Gia and Scott. She was a bridesmaid and as Gia’s day carried on with plenty of drinks and tons of laughter, Laurel and I chatted and realized we had a lot in common. After she freed me from a folding chair acting as a bear trap (that’s a whole other story) she hugged me, drunkenly proclaimed us BFFs, and told me she wasn’t engaged but was DEFINITELY going to hire me to shoot her wedding one day. As a wedding photographer, you hear this quite a bit at events, especially when people have been drinking, so I hugged her, we exchanged numbers, and said I would hold her to it, without giving it a second thought. I never thought that such an innocent exchange would lead to the most insane travel and photography experience of my life!
Fast forward a few years and Laurel and I had gotten closer while living near each other in the Bay Area. She invites me to come shoot headshots for the women of Docusign and eat ramen, I invite her to eat ramen and participate in some passion projects of mine. (You can see the overarching theme, no?) Eventually, I got to know her boyfriend-turned-fiance, Mike. A sweet and light-hearted friend to everyone, Mike is always good for a laugh, a drink, or some political banter. He also helps to order authentic and delicious Asian food for me when I’m struggling with a foreign menu! It was pretty much love at first dumpling for Mike and me.
When Laurel and Mike got engaged on a trip to New Zealand everyone was thrilled. It’s always so fun when your friends make bug moves in their lives, and I knew these two were about to truly become the power couple of the century. I was equally as excited when Laurel floated the idea of my shooting their engagement photos and wedding. (That long-held drunken promise wasn’t forgotten!) Working with friends is always so much fun and I knew their wedding would be a reunion of friends, a celebration of her heritage, and a truly epic party. I may have had an inkling it would be great, but I had no idea what Laurel had up her sleeve.
Two years of coordinating, engagement sessions, planning, and preparations later and I was off to China in October to capture their incredible multi-day wedding! My faaaaabulous associate shooter and travel companion for the trip was my best friend Da Karai. We were pretty much ready for adventure the moment we got to the airport at 6:00 am. Mimosas (lots of mimosas), movies, and munchies got us from SFO to Shanghai and, although I almost got stranded at the Shanghai airport, we eventually made it to Zhangjiajie.
The first of the many amazing wedding festivities was the welcome BBQ. Laurel and Mike are huge international travelers and have lived all over the world. You know a couple is well-loved when 200 of their closest friends and family members fly into China from abroad to celebrate their big day! Their guest list was an eclectic mix of friends from every corner of the globe. In order to welcome people and allow everyone to settle in properly the BBQ was full of insane food, bottomless Tsingtao, and some incredible Chinese traditions. The night began with a heart-pounding traditional Tang Gu (堂鼓) drum routine and an intricate lion dance (or Wu Shi 舞獅) filled with skillful acrobatics and stunts. It was shockingly beautiful and the perfect opener for many of the guests’ first time in China. After the performance, we were greeted by the MC, heard toasts from some of the important people in Laurel and Mike’s lives (including the couple themselves), and were encouraged to eat and drink while mingling with the array of other guests. It was one hell of a party, especially for a first day!
After the BBQ ended, Laurel and her bridesmaids headed back to her suite for a beautiful Shang Tou (上头) ceremony. Each bridesmaid brushed Laurel’s hair with a small wooden comb while the others recited a small blessing. Each brush stroke represented the falling away of Laurel’s old life and family, luck towards her future, and her reemergence the next day as a bride and wife in a new family (and don’t forget, lots of kids!). While much of the wedding was centered on the joy of joining families, the thought of giving her daughter away was an emotional moment for Laurel’s mom. By the end of the brushing, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Laurel’s hairs were then gently pulled from the brush and tucked inside an ornately embroidered pouch. The pouch was taken to Mike, where he slept with it under his pillow (aww, how romantic), to inspire lots of luck for a smooth and happy wedding day. 🙂
STAY TUNED FOR A CRAZY PART 2: DOOR GAMES!