How Hong Kong is making it hard for young couples to make wedding plans ... and forces them to live apart after marriage
High property prices and marriage expenses may be snuffing out romance but some lovebirds are adopting alternative mindsets to cope
The love story between Aden Chung Hin-cheong, 28, and his wife began eight years ago in an accounting class at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Every week, their lecture hall on the Hung Hom campus was filled with more than 100 students, but Chung only had eyes for one girl, his future partner, Amy Cheung Yuen-han 29.
The love-struck student literally chased after his romantic interest, and Cheung recalls: “I was walking out of the hall by myself after one class, and he ran after me to ask if I would be able to submit his paper for him next week.”
So, she gave him her number. A few text exchanges and some dates later, they were a couple. Fast forward to March, 2018: they are now newlyweds.
But in terms of their living arrangements, not much has changed. The husband and wife pair still live separately, with Cheung sharing a house with her parents in Tseung Kwan O while Chung rents a home with a flatmate in Kam Tin, New Territories.
The young couple had a traditional wedding in the city – an expensive practice given Hong Kong’s high costs – but they cannot afford a flat because of soaring property prices.
While it may seem unconventional, living apart after marriage has increasingly become an option for young couples in Hong Kong who share the same constraints.
As many as 32 per cent of newlyweds last year – double the proportion from a decade ago – continued staying with their parents after marriage, according to a survey by ESDlife, a company specialising products and services to do with weddings, health and families.
Chung, who works as an optometrist, says: “We just feel it’s not the right time to buy a property, and the rent is high too. If we start renting a flat, our dreams to save up for real estate will forever remain just that.
“About twice to three times a week, I stay with my wife overnight at her [parents’] home.”
Alternatively, many lovebirds choose to delay getting hitched until they can afford a place to live.
In January this year, property specialist REA Group interviewed more than 1,000 people online and found that 95 per cent of respondents felt property prices were too high.
In the same survey, 55 per cent of unmarried interviewees said high home prices influenced their marriage plans, such as having to delay taking their vows until they can afford to purchase their own homes.
Tony Ma Chung-kit, CEO of ESDlife says: “One of the reasons for people putting their love on hold is that they’re unable to put a roof over their heads because of high rents or the unaffordable property market.”
Citing another finding from the poll conducted by his team, Ma points out that only 48 per cent of respondents could afford to rent their own place after marrying.
“Not everyone has the luxury of having a flat big enough for another person to move in after marriage. That’s why most would rather stay single and postpone any plans of starting a family.”
According to information from the Rating and Valuation Department, a flat smaller than 430 square feet on Hong Kong Island costs an average of HK$16,103 (US$2,051) per sq ft while the price tag for one in Kowloon is about HK$13,763 per sq ft.
Based on these figures, someone with a median monthly income of HK$16,800 would need about 32 years to pay off the mortgage for a 430 sq ft flat.
Amid such challenges, some couples simply opt out of tying the knot, with Hong Kong registering a steady drop in the number of registered marriages.
The issue of affordability is set to worsen as home prices in the city have been rising for 23 consecutive months with no sign of abating, according to global real estate company Colliers International Hong Kong.
The price of marriage in Hong Kong
While their living arrangement is not the most ideal, the Chungs can accept it.
“The beauty of marriage is that it’s between two people – a commitment of having each other forever, beyond just living together. I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of that,” Chung says.
Yet, not all couples share their views.
In 2016, the government recorded a total of 50,008 registered marriages, the lowest figure since 2008.
The Census and Statistics Department also highlighted a trend indicating more people were delaying the walk down the aisle, or shunning it completely. In 2016, 32.4 per cent of men aged 15 and above in the city were not married, up from 25.8 per cent in 1991. The figures for women were 28 per cent compared with 18.3 per cent respectively. The legal age for marriage in Hong Kong is 16.
Psychologist Unique Choi Wing-yin, who specialises in relationship counselling, says the low marriage statistics can also be attributed to the high costs of holding a wedding.
In the case of the Chungs, they spent a total of HK$350,000.
“We held a traditional wedding, mainly for our families because they believe that following the ritual will bring us blessings,” Amy Cheung says.
The cost for their string of tea ceremonies and a lavish wedding dinner, as well as a honeymoon, was slightly above the average amount for getting hitched in Hong Kong, according to an estimate by the Post based on data from the ESDlife survey.
The report collated answers from 1,401 people who were getting married between 2017 and 2019, and found that couples were spending an average of HK$331,249 on weddings – the highest figure ever recorded by ESDlife. The price tag is 10 per cent higher than last year’s findings.
“The decision to wed should be a mutual acknowledgement between two people, not based on how much a wedding costs,” Choi says. “However, the current situation may be that people aren’t getting married because they haven’t saved enough to pay for the wedding and such.”
She says the trend could also be related to changing family values and young people being more open-minded in love.
“The mindset of what it means to be family-oriented has been changing over the years. There’s an impulse to delay the decision to have children among many young couples, and in some cases, some may not even want offspring at all,” Choi adds, citing cases she has encountered in her practice.
“So they think if I am not going to have children, what’s the rush to get married? To them, a marriage is only a piece of legal paper.
“It is not hard to understand why people don’t want to be parents ... they’re thinking about the struggles of raising children in the city, amid the current conditions.”
Choi advises young couples to balance their expectations of marriage with the realities of life and to not be too controlled by financial issues.
“The beauty of a marriage is to build a foundation together, to support and comfort each other in times of despair, and nothing should get in the way of that.”
How not to break the bank on a wedding...
With all that goes into planning a traditional Chinese wedding in Hong Kong, it is easy to lose track of finances and go overboard. Karin Lam Ka-yin and her boyfriend from university got married earlier this year and while they wanted a wedding that would reflect their journey together, Lam made sure they stayed within their budget.
The savvy bride also managed to save up to HK$10,000 (US$1,274).
Based on Lam’s advice, here’s a list of things would-be brides and grooms can note to avoid having to dig deeper into their pockets.
● Purchasing wedding gowns online can cut costs by more than 60 per cent. Rather than renting dresses for over HK$10,000, Lam bought two wedding gowns from Taobao for HK$1,500.
● Hiring private professional photographers for pre-wedding shoots can save up to half the amount that big studios charge. With the right contact and homework, the cost for a solo photographer can be just HK$2,000 while big studios may charge more than HK$14,000 for a package.
● Reusing items for morning ceremonies such as red packets and tea sets passed down from friends, instead of buying brand new ones to be used only once. This can save up to a few hundred dollars.
● Not renting a fancy car. Lam and her husband travelled on a coach along with their wedding entourage instead of the usual practice of swanky wheels for the bride and groom.
● Tea ceremonies at home are a major part of a wedding where blessings are given by the couple’s elders. In recent years, young people are using hotel suites to hold the ritual because of space constraints in flats. Two separate rooms may be used to conduct the ceremony for either side, but Lam halved her costs by holding it all in one hotel room.