The marriage lines
UNDER THE SHADOWS outside the Queensway Government Offices, the street sleepers are preparing for another night on the concrete.
Some men sit on the ground, couples bed down under sheets or in sleeping bags, and others spread themselves flat, wrapped up in old newspapers for warmth. Blue-and-white striped police tape is tied between pillars, keeping the campers from spilling into the passageway.
But this is no improvised base for the homeless or dispossessed. Among the huddled group are bank workers, MTR technicians, civil servants, stewardesses, teachers, clerks, insurance brokers, marketing managers and restaurant workers.
Any reasonable person might ask, why, since early this month, this unlikely band has forsaken the comforts of home and bed in favour of cramped, spartan nights outdoors. So, armed with newspapers and plastic bags for my bed sheet and a backpack for a pillow, I too have set up home for a stint with the podium crowd to find out what's going on.
The answer is simple, if still bewildering: everyone just wants to get married. In Hong Kong, people sleep on the streets to buy first-edition stamps and to register their wedding date.
In most places, people wanting to tie the knot simply make a booking at a marriage register office. But in Hong Kong, wives-to-be and their fiances have to endure one more rite of passage - the registration queue.
The reason is superstition. Many Chinese people insist on tying the knot on an auspicious day. This helps to ensure a good marriage and gives birth to the phenomenon of pai dui gi fun, queuing up to be certain of getting a desirable slot. But it's not just the date which is crucial, couples also battle for the most auspicious and most convenient time of day (the prettiest register office is also a factor - Cotton Tree Drive is the location of choice).
There is no doubt that queuing is necessary to get the best slots. With only 11 register offices open on weekdays and four at weekends, the Marriage Registration Depar-tment often can't handle the demand for ceremonies on auspicious days.
An arcane marriage registration system has also been to blame. Appointments for marriage ceremonies cannot be made until exactly three months prior to the event, and are strictly on a first-come-first-served basis. Thus, engaged couples have to line up days or even weeks before the three-month booking period - and 2001 is apparently a fine year for tying the knot.
Last month, hundreds of couples laid siege to the register offices to book a wedding for June 16, said to be the year's most well-omened day. The logjam forced the Marriage Registration Department to borrow the lecture theatre of the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre in Central to cope with the crush.
Other good days for nuptials are July 15, August 11, September 15 and November 3, according to fung shui master Choi Park-lai. An auspicious day, he advises, can herald a good and bright future for the couple. 'They will rarely argue, have good fertility, and will be together all their life,' he claims.
It does sound rather tempting. As I lay out my bedding beside the hopeful couples in Queensway, I start to wonder. Should I get married too? After all, that morning my boyfriend Sylvian had whispered to me: 'Let's queue for ourselves, too'. I demurred, but as the evening wears on, the prospect grows more appealing. We have registered a booking for a wedding twice before, but twice decided not to turn up. Maybe this time . . . So I call him up and ask him to join me. He doesn't need asking twice. By 10pm, it is getting chilly. Teachers Douglas Lai Tak-sing, 33, and his fiancee, Felice Wong Lee-ling, 25, huddle together under their sleeping bag, feeling both excited and nervous. It's their 11th night out on the cold, dusty concrete and it is a world away from where they first met a year ago on a first-aid training course. But this night is the culmination of all their dreams of what they call a 'fortunate marriage'.
For Chinese people, such a goal makes a marathon sleep-out worthwhile, and often means a concerted family effort. Lai and Wong spent the first two nights on the concrete, then his aunt held the fort for three day shifts. Then her brother took over waiting duty for the afternoon shift for two days. Now the couple are back for what they hope is the last 24-hour stint.
Luckily there is a public loo nearby and at night the Island Shangri-La's facilities come in handy. After midnight, food is more of a problem, but a 7-Eleven in Wan Chai comes to the rescue. Lai and Wong's story is a largely typical one. Late last year, when they decided to get married, they consulted their parents, who in turn consulted a fung shui master in their mainland home town. The oracle handed down his verdict: July 15, between 7am and 11am, sentencing the couple to their two-week street stint.
To make sure they got the day and the time, they were the first pair in line, arriving two weeks before they could actually make a booking.
Every morning at 6am as their alarm rings, the couple get up before passersby arrive. 'It's our first time sleeping on the street, it is fun and memorable,' Lai says sweetly, staring into the eyes of his fiancee. For the couple, camping on the podium is romantic and 'like dating'. Every day they chat and laugh together, seemingly without a care in the world.
Further down the queue, Alex Yick-pun, 28, and Maggie Wong Man-yee, 24, lie face to face under their cherry-coloured cotton blanket. They have been here for six days. 'We want to make sure we get the time we want and dare not go home,' Yick, a clerk, says. The couple met three years ago in a badminton club and it was, Yick says, love at first sight.
After deciding to wed, they agreed that they wanted a 'marriagewarranty' of an auspicious day, and realised they would have to queue up. 'At first I felt so bored, had nothing to do, knew nobody and the podium is cold and windy,' Wong, a teacher, says. Waiting is also stressful, and tempers often flare in the line-up. Fights are not rare. In order to minimise the risk, officials help the couples mark down their position in the line to prevent queue-jumping and clashes. The couples use white plastic boards, the type you would use for chopping vegetables, marked with names, numbers and their place in the queues. These are then fixed to the railings. Sara & Aaron, No 19, Cotton Tree Drive, Raymond & Rosita, No 30, Cotton Tree Drive (surrounded by red hearts).
Lovers are not the only players in the queuing game. Domestic helpers, aunts, uncles, siblings, students, parents and opportunists also get roped in to do their bit.
But it's not for the frail and faint-hearted. Yick's 80-year-old parents came to help out his son for the first day and had to see doctors the next.
There are diversions, such as the officer who parades along the queue four to five times a day, scanning the queuers and, like a stuck record, repeating the same lines: 'You don't need to queue up so many days in advance . . . don't tie your chopping boards with chains, use string . . . the second time I don't see you in my checks, I will cut your string, and you are out.' In order not to be 'out', Terrance, like many other queuers, turns up each day only at the officers' patrol times. To cope with the task, the civil servant, who works nearby, admits he has had to go to work late, skip lunch, and leave work early to queue, and lives in daily fear that his boss may find out.
Today is the eighth day of Terrance's vigil. He arrives in the afternoon, takes out a small stool, and settles down. But he has no faith in auspicious days. 'It is nonsense. I was forced to get married on that day,' he says.
His ordeal started when his future mother-in-law decided that July 15 was the luckiest day for her daughter to marry him. 'I don't believe in auspicious days - most people don't get married on such a day, so does that mean they all don't have a good marriage?' he says.
His girlfriend is busy at work and he is alone. To kill the time, he writes ancient Chinese poetry and tries to ignore passersby. Their looks and comments are an occupational hazard and a daily humiliation, he says. 'People stare and point at us like looking at animals, some even stop and look right at me, it is embarrassing.'
Not only Chinese men are affected. Expatriates who are marrying Chinese women get roped into the queuing ordeal too.
Alistair Renwick, 31, from Edinburgh, is one. He has been here for four days. Armed with a Mickey Mouse plastic sheet, Renwick, in jeans and polo shirt, arrives in the afternoon to join his fiancee, 28-year-old Janet Wong Man-kuen, a primary school teacher. 'I certainly wouldn't call it enjoyment,' Renwick says, looking embarrassed. To while away the hours, the pair take turns wandering around the nearby shops at Pacific Place. Last year, they decided it was time to get married and Wong's parents picked the day from Tung Sing, the Chinese almanac that lists auspicious days, sealing his queuing fate. 'My overseas friends said they had never heard of it before - they find it strange that people need to do this,' Renwick says.
Tonight is the last night before the July 15 booking date, and to thwart queue-jumping, love birds decide to spend their nights here.
But as the clock strikes 1am, the lure of a warm bed is too much for an exhausted Terrance. He will return early tomorrow to keep his place. It is another moonless night, domestic helpers roped in as proxy queuers have long left, lovers and single men roll up, relatives and friends come to keep the
Time ticks by, and soon it is 4am. A step away from me, Renwick's soft black shoes are beside him as he buries his head in his green jacket, dozing.
At the queue's end, marketing manager Ray Cheng Siu-leung, 34, and his stewardess fiancee take refuge under old newspapers. 'We are figuring out the best posture for sleep,' he says, poking out his head. I lay our newspapers on the ice-cold ground. My boyfriend, in shorts, curls up on the concrete and his body blocks the winds and keeps me warm. It's hard to sleep as the night gets cooler and cooler. At least I know the craziness of this queue will soon be over - for a month, anyway, until the booking date for the next auspicious day arrives.
I nod off, and am only woken abruptly when a chair crashes on the ground. I open my eyes, grey daylight filters in from the sky, birds are singing in the Queensway trees.
It is dawn, and as I get up, my stiff body starts to defrost in the morning sunshine. I turn and see a new man arrive, then a pair of lovers, then another. Eventually I count 44 couples waiting patiently. The office opens at 8.15am and they duck inside one after another. I am among them - alone at this point, as my boyfriend has left for work. I have to decide whether to tie the knot this time.
Moments later, I leave the register office, without making a booking. Outside, the crowds have disappeared - no chairs, no chains, no newspapers - as if the days-long vigil had never happened.
I have decided I won't join the marriage queue again. A good marriage, as fung shui master Ma Lai-wah puts it, lies in how well you treat each other and the trust, but not, I feel, in one single so-called fortunate day.
Those who do believe, meanwhile, will soon find the queues consigned to history. The Immigration Department plans to start a telephone and Internet registration system by the end of this year. Whoever rings or clicks first will get their desired date.
With such a move, the sight of couples camping out, enduring discomfort, arguments, mosquitoes, chilling weather, sleepless nights, the spectacle of the officer announcing the daily rules and passers-by standing and staring, will soon become a thing of the past.