China Beat Archive



Jacob Dreyer

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February 8, 2010 in The China Beat


Copyright February 8, 2010 Jacob Deyer. Used by permission.


While living in Shanghai last year, Jacob Dreyer found himself working as a 证婚人 [zhenghunren] in one of the city’s many wedding facilities. Translated as “wedding officiant,” “priest for weddings,” or “wedding witness,” zhenghunrenhas no real equivalent in the West. The role involves leading the wedding ceremony, but there is no need for a zhenghunren to be certified or authorized to perform weddings — which is one reason Dreyer was able to slip into the position so easily.

Shanghai, September 2009. It was the time of year when it was just beginning to be crisp. At a party at night, you got your jacket off of the couch when you went outside to smoke. My friend M. and I stood on a balcony gazing into an endless sea of lights, building sites, and peasants maneuvering bicycles between it all. “I’m going back to Australia for a bit, to register my business … I was wondering if you could do me a favor,” he said, giving me a cigarette. It didn’t take much time for us to adjust to Chinese habits; while we were foreign, we were also two 20-year-olds come to the big city to make our fortunes, and naturally adapted to accepting the proffered cigarettes, and to doing strange favors for devious motives, so I naturally agreed without hearing what it was. “Meet me at People’s Square metro tomorrow at 2,” he said, and we went back inside.

The next day, both of our faces, slightly stubbled, had the strange dry feeling that a face does the day after drinking, a dehydration not yet compensated for. We exchanged a few words, but were mostly silent as we went deep into Pudong, a region I typically avoided; for me, Pudong is the most repulsive area of Shanghai. Lujiazui is one thing, but the endless, Houstonian landscapes make me fear that modern Chinese people are learning to fear each other as much as we have long done in the USA. At Deping Road, line 6, we got off, and walked onto a highway only sparsely populated with traffic. A typical Pudongnese vista; some tacky hotels and other glistening buildings here and there, hardware stores, various individuals selling fried bread, tangerine peels on the sidewalk — and, a château? A chintzy building, with a sign that declared (ungrammatically) it to be the Villa D’Roman — we pushed through gates and found ourselves in a reception room, featuring a table laid with cookies, lychees, and soft drinks; a hubbub of chatting middle-aged people dressed in clothing that was simultaneously formal yet vulgar. M. brusquely went into a room to the side and got a black folder, and explained, “I marry people here, each time for 500RMB. I give this speech,” indicating the characters with pinyin underneath in his book, “and then that’s it. It’s really easy, good money — watch me, so when I leave, you can do it.”