A few months ago, I got married. The ceremony happened in a conference room, in front of about 30 people, and took exactly an hour. I wore jeans, a shirt and black trainers.

My wife, Clara, and I are both 25, and had been dating for seven years. Neither of us had wanted to organise a huge banquet, rent expensive clothes or go through the complex rituals that are often involved in a Hong Kong wedding.

A few months before our big day, Clara, who is studying in Britain and flew back for the ceremony, called me in tears. Her parents had demanded a "bride price" (like a dowry, except the groom pays, not the bride's family) of HK$18,000 and wouldn't budge.

In the end, I obliged and we got married in the simple manner we wanted. My wife is a Baha'i (a monotheistic religion from Persia that emphasises the spiritual unity of all mankind), so we had a small religious ceremony and all who attended went for dim sum afterwards. The whole wedding cost HK$25,000.

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While some of our friends were shocked by our low-key wedding, more and more people in Hong Kong are opting for smaller ceremonies.

Getting married here is expensive - the average wedding costs HK$300,000, according to Ageas Insurance, which surveyed 2,025 people planning to get hitched between 2013 and 2015 - and made complicated by the number of rituals involved.

The proportion of the population who are unmarried has been steadily increasing in Hong Kong. For men, it rose from 27.8 per cent in 1991 to 33.5 per cent in 2011; for women, it went from 20.1 per cent to 29.2 per cent during the same period, according to the Census and Statistics Department. People are either putting off marriage or forgoing it altogether.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the fertility rate has also plunged, from 65.2 per cent in 1981 to 35.9 per cent last year.

South Korea is going through something similar: it has a low birth rate, a rapidly ageing population and couples who increasingly want simple weddings. The government there has even started letting out simple public venues - a room in the basement of a city hall, for example - so couples can tie the knot without break-ing the bank. This is despite the fact that weddings in South Korea are typically a show of wealth: people even hire extras to bolster numbers.

Is it time for Hong Kong families to also readjust their great wedding expectations, so their offspring might actually get hitched?

SHARON AU WAI-FONG has been a wedding consultant for 22 years. Her job is to guide families through the nuptials, and she charges upwards of HK$10,000 a day.

"The consultant is like a movie director, because people don't know what to do," says Au.

Before the big day, she says, the groom-to-be usually pays his fiancée's family a bride price, which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, and presents them with gifts such as Chinese pastries and seafood.

The couple will buy a new bed, or just new sheets and a duvet if they have already been living together, which must be installed on a blessed day in the room the married couple will occupy, to increase their chances of falling pregnant. The main goals of a traditional wedding are to facilitate rapid procreation and a life of prosperity.

The night before the wedding, a person who has never been divorced, and who has a healthy partner and children, should brush the bride-to-be's hair, for good luck. During this process, candles should be lit and left to burn to their end, symbolising a lasting marriage.

On the wedding day itself, Au says, the groom will arrive at the bride's home early that morning. Here the bridesmaids will set a series of challenges for him and his groomsmen - the first of which is to bribe the bridesmaids into letting the men enter the house.

"It's all about getting the groom to go through obstacles, like in a video game"

Usually the games that follow involve questions to test the groom's memory of his relationship with the bride. If he answers incorrectly, he'll be punished by being made to do push-ups or eat disgusting food. (At least three of the people I interviewed for this article described this as torture, but "in a fun way".)

"It's all about getting the groom to go through obstacles, like in a video game, before he reaches the final level," says Watson Ho Kwok-wai, a 27-year-old teacher who got married last year.

The final level is being able to see the bride.

Then the bride's father will take his daughter by the hand and give her away to the groom, and there will be speeches. Usually the wedding consultant will have rehearsed this part with the bride and her family, says Au. "A lot of fathers get really emotional and cry. We just want them to get a taste of what it'll feel like so they can stay composed during the actual ceremony," Au says.

Next up is the tea ceremony. The couple has to kneel and present tea to parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles from both families, as a sign of respect.

Then the procession can leave for the groom's home, for another tea ceremony. As the bride travels from the house to the car, the wedding consultant will hold an umbrella over her head and throw rice in the air to deflect bad luck.

The couple will then be married, either at the wedding banquet venue (a lawyer must attend) or at a government registry office or religious venue.

A huge evening banquet follows, usually featuring a whole suckling pig, shark's fin soup, fancy wine and other expensive dishes.

Guests are expected to bring lai see (like the red packets exchanged during Lunar New Year) to help the couple recoup some of the cost of the banquet.

When Joyce Cheung Shuk-yan, a 25-year-old flight attendant who will be married in March, was a bridesmaid, she woke up at 4.30am to put on her make-up, helped the bride through four costume changes throughout the day and stayed until the end of the banquet, at around 9pm.

"It's exhausting for the couple and their friends if there's a banquet," says Cheung. "The bridesmaids have to follow the bride everywhere."

Elle Chui Yuet-yee, a planner at One Heart Wedding, shows me spreadsheets specifying exactly what the bride, groom, family members, bridesmaids, friends, photographers, caterers and other wedding guests and staff should be doing at any given time on the big day. The company has in-house designers to make decorations, invitations and other memorabilia, so the production process begins months in advance.

One Heart Wedding can charge upwards of HK$2 million for its services, and oversees about 20 weddings a year. But even without a planner, a Hong Kong wedding would normally involve buying expensive clothes for the bride and bridesmaids, booking a hotel for the banquet and hiring a make-up artist for the wedding and a photographer to take pictures both before the wedding and on the day.

"We never considered having a banquet; we thought it was silly and unnecessary"

The lavish wedding banquet and many of the wedding traditions, Au says, are increasingly being skipped.

Ho opted to celebrate with a dinner for close family members; he and his wife are Christians, so, he says, the ceremony mattered more than a banquet.

"We never considered having a banquet; we thought it was silly and unnecessary," Ho says.

Wong Tak-chun, Ho's 58-year-old mother, supported his decision: "[The generation after the second world war] wanted to make it clear that they weren't poor anymore, so you'd put on a big wedding even if you had to borrow money to do it," she says. "It was a matter of pride, of not being looked down upon.

"Now it depends on whether or not you think it's worth spending all that on a wedding … the younger generation has a different concept of marriage: they don't need to show off their wealth by the number of tables at their wedding banquets."

Friends of 27-year-old Anson Chow Siu-hang, who works in IT and got married in January, supported his decision to pass on the banquet.

"My parents had a huge reaction. They said that a wedding wasn't just about me and my boyfriend"

"They said it would be a waste of time, and now they don't have to worry about getting an invitation and a request for money," Chow says. Lai see packets can contain thousands of dollars for an upscale hotel wedding. "My friends were happier when it came to thinking of gifts, because they didn't have to pay for the banquet."

But traditions are sacred to some families, as Cheung found out when her parents insisted on a banquet.

"My parents had a huge reaction. They said that a wedding wasn't just about me and my boyfriend, it was about bringing together two families and two clans, not you and your friends getting together for dinner," says Cheung.

Au says that if a banquet doesn't include shark's fin soup, abalone and fine wine, people will consider the groom stingy. Of course, some guests will refuse to eat shark's fin for ethical reasons, but expensive seafood is still expected. Often the bride and groom's parents will invite business contacts that the couple have not even met.

Married couple Kris Lee Ka-yan and Henry Wang Hoe-shing, both wedding photographers, believe some of the traditional rituals do matter though, because they help Chinese people express their emotions.

Lee points to the tradition of the bride's mother helping her daughter put on the wedding dress, which the bride is not allowed to try on beforehand and can only wear once. Lee remembers this ritual from her own wedding.

"It felt like my mother dressing me when I was small, back when I didn't know anything, and now I'm an adult, so this is the last time she'll ever dress me. That moved me."

It's a moment she looks for when shooting weddings.

"We'll suggest that the mother give her daughter a hug, and 60 to 70 per cent of people will get emotional and cry. Probably it's because people rarely hug; even I haven't hugged my mother in years. People do feel something, but they're afraid to show it. These rituals are a roundabout way of helping people express themselves."

Lee says that while Hongkongers are now having less lavish weddings she's also seen many couples go through the rituals half-heartedly.

At the tea ceremony, for example, the couple is supposed to present tea to their elders, wait for a reply and a blessing, then accept a red packet. But half of the couples she's worked with turn away from the person after they've presented the tea; some walk away while the person is still holding the cup.

"When you get to aunts and uncles, the couple will take it a lot less seriously, they might not even stop to let their relatives say anything. Once the person has moved the cup to their mouth, they'll say, 'Alright, now give me a red packet.'

"They'll actually say this out loud."

In those circumstances, Lee says, she'll call them back to take a picture with the relative.

Then there are the wedding purists who can be dangerously traditional.

Lee remembers a bride who had a nut allergy and so couldn't eat the tang yuan - a sweet rice dumpling filled with sesame or peanut paste; the name of the dessert sounds like " tuan yuan", which means a "union" in Cantonese. One of the family elders refused to let her off the hook.

"The atmosphere was very tense because no one dared speak up. The groom and her parents just stood there. It was scary because we didn't know how allergic she was," Lee says. "All of us were silent … she very lightly bit into the skin, then everyone loudly declared that it was done and said they should go back to serving tea.

"I'm a stickler for tradition, but this cannot override health concerns."

Wang mentions a less common tradition whereby the bride has to step over a basin of burning coals or paper money before leaving her home. The fire is supposed to burn away bad luck. Wang says now people rarely own an entire house, so their door will open on to a corridor, making this ritual impractical. Only at one in 20 of the weddings they work at will the bride perform this tradition.

"We've heard of, and viewed footage of, weddings where the bride's dress has caught fire. It's scary to look at and, you know, people are in heels, too," he says.

Fortunately, flaming brides are few and far between, and wedding traditions generally are changing. Essentially, it comes down to evolving ideas about who the wedding is for: the couple or their families?

I am happily married, my wife is back at graduate school in Britain, and we did the bare minimum to satisfy her parents.

We still talk about our wedding, and my wife says it was fine. But there's still one tradition we don't agree on.

As she puts it, "If I ever see you wearing a suit at someone else's wedding, I'm going to kill you."

 

The best laid plans …

It's wedding consultant Sharon Au Wai-fong's job to ensure a couple's nuptials go without a hitch. But, when things do go wrong, she can spin a potential disaster into something good. "Where there's a crisis, there's an opportunity," Au says.

The bride who said red just wasn't her colour

It's not uncommon for the bride and mother-in-law to clash, says Au. She remembers one mother-in-law insisting that the bride wear a Chinese wedding dress (traditionally red) to enter her house for the tea ceremony. The bride wanted to wear her white, Western-style dress; she thought the traditional Chinese dress would make her look like a red packet.

"I told the bride, 'Wearing a wedding dress is a privilege. Some people aren't allowed to wear one.'"

Au explained that a bride who has been divorced cannot wear a Chinese wedding dress; and that there are gold and silver ones, too, not just red ones.

That did the trick.

The groom who had to walk through Disneyland with his bride on his back

Au says an increasing number of her Hong Kong clients are marrying a partner from the mainland. One Chinese tradition is that the groom has to carry the bride on his back from her home to the car that takes her to the banquet. He can't let her feet touch the ground.

This was challenging for a couple who had decided to get married in Disneyland: inside the hotel resort there were a lot of long corridors, and streets to walk through to get from the hotel room to the car.

Au got around the problem by walking alongside the couple with a small footstool, so they could stop for breaks without having the bride's feet touch the ground.

"Also, 'footstool' sounds like 'having a son' in Cantonese, so I told them it would bring them good luck. We were cheering the groom all along like he was running a marathon, and I was saying stuff like, 'This is your life ahead, you'll be supporting her for the rest of your life.'"

The time the lift broke

Au once got stuck in a lift with a couple on the way to their wedding.

"I told them not to worry, because being trapped together means nothing can drive them apart. I said, 'Now hold each other's hand, support each other, cherish the moment.'"

Fortunately, they were close to a fire station, so they were rescued after just a few minutes, and Au told the couple that was a sign of good luck, too.

"'Fire brings good luck,' I said. That meant the wedding would be full of energy. Even the fire crew was celebrating with them."