The British consulate was located in the Shanghai Centre, an impressive glass and steel retail and commercial development near the Jing An temple area of perhaps Shanghai’s most salubrious of thoroughfares, the Nanjing Rd.
Our oldest son Tommy’s passport was approaching expiry and I’d agreed to share the light bureaucratic burden of renewal with my wife Heather and, on the plus side, we’d decided to indulge in lunch at the nearby Element Fresh once the job was done.
A weekday morning in early September, it was already uncomfortably hot, the Summer humidity not yet having broken, so it was quite a relief to lounge on the comfy settees in the controlled climate of the British consulate.
Though it represented a serene contrast with the many Chinese Bureaux that I had endured, the seemingly endless wait and the boredom this induces was no different from any other government agency. As with dentist’s and doctor’s waiting rooms, the monotony finally gets the better of you and in some vain attempt to relieve the boredom, you inevitably grasp at 3 year old ‘House and Garden’ magazines or even study leaflets entitled something like ‘herpes and how to avoid it’.
There being no magazines to hand, I soon found myself studying the Consulate notice board. Within minutes I was captivated. I hurriedly called Heather over. “Look what I found !”
‘Roger Vaughan 57 years, Director, born Godalming, Surrey……… to marry Lin Chu Hua 22 years, receptionist, born Nanjing’
Anthony Giles 48 years, Manager, born Ashby De La Zouch, Leics,………..to marry Hu Xiao Xing 25 years, secretary, born Shanghai
John Frain 51 years, Quality Engineer, born Hexham, Northumberland,……… to marry Deng Fang Hua 24 years, translator, born Zhengzhou..’
The Consulate obviously had a legal obligation to publish the banns of all UK nationals intending to marry in the near future.
Deriving pleasure from digesting intimate details from other people’s lives, this felt more than a little voyeuristic. Did the feelings of guilt stop us ? Not at all. Captivated, we read on…..
“Alan Marsh 45 years, Export Manager, born Knutsford, Cheshire……… to marry Chen Bao Yu 24 years, secretary, born Shanghai…..”
I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed but even I was detecting a subtle pattern here. The now famous words of Caroline Aherne to Debbie Magee popped in to my head… “So Debbie, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels ?”.
I’ve always been a little on the impulsive side. As a child I was frequently told to think before I spoke. Old habits die hard however and at the age of 43, my brain was still a good 30 seconds behind my mouth.
“Why don’t we get married ?” …I blurted out.
“ Err, yes….ok……why not ?” stuttered Heather.
What a Hallmark moment ! You won’t get more romantic than that.
It was September 2008. We had three children and had been living over the brush, very happily, for 11 years. Were we really going to fix something that clearly wasn’t broke ?
I’d like to say that we’d remained unmarried for principled reasons. To claim, like some cool Guardian readers, that we’d rejected the institution of marriage because our relationship didn’t require validation by either Church or State…. That would be a lie however. We had planned to get married a couple of times previously but for some reason we had just never got round to it. In truth I think we were just a little too lazy to organise it all. Essentially, we were living in sin because we were just too apathetic to live otherwise…
In our 11 years together, our unmarried status had caused very few problems for us. One of these problems was visa related. On arrival in China in 2004 I had been granted residency with a work related visa. My wife and children were entitled to dependents visas. The problem being of course was that Heather was not my wife. This caused a minor panic until I was assured by immigration bureau staff that Heather would be able to get a dependent’s visa if we secured an affidavit from the British Consulate stating that we had a “marriage like relationship”.
I used to tell people that Heather and I then made an appointment to see the Consular General where we bickered endlessly over nothing in particular. The CG then declared “If that’s not a marriage like relationship then I don’t know what is..” and promptly sealed the affidavit. “Boom Boom” as basil brush used to say…..
Despite being officially atheistic, Chinese culture is essentially very conservative, possibly because until very recently it has been a pre-industrial, agricultural society. Like most wai guo ren (literally, outside country people or foreigners) we always, perhaps arrogantly, believed that the social mores of Chinese society just didn’t apply to us.
In any case, our unmarried status appeared to fly straight under the radar. We lived together, had children, so of course we must be married. No other scenario was possible ! My Chinese step mother’s sister, Ding-Yu, had asked me several times about what type of wedding Heather and I had had. On each occasion I had informed her that we had no wedding ceremony because we weren’t married. I later learned that she had approached my step mother and asked in a very perplexed tone……”Why does Richard always make that joke about he and Heather not being married ? It was funny first time but why does he keep repeating it ?”
So there you are. We were even taken as married by people who we had repeatedly told that we were not ! If we now went ahead and actually married then Ding Yu must surely accept that we had been unmarried before. Or would she maybe choose to believe that we were just renewing our vows ?
Anyway, on sorting out Tommy’s passport renewal we enquired with the Consulate staff as to how two British nationals would go about marrying in the PRC. It all seemed quite straight forward. Apparently the Shanghai marriage bureau would have no problem with marrying us, so long as we produced the correct documentation from the UK consulate along with our passports, birth certificates etc. We calculated that the necessary bureaucracy would cost around 25 quid all told. Sod it I thought. Why not ! Let’s push the boat out. We were going to be married.
The date was set for the 18/8/08. Heather had been reliably informed by a Chinese friend that as it contained a lot of ‘8’s, this date would be particularly auspicious. The character for 8 (ba) sounds similar to the character for success apparently so consequently, number plates, mobile phone numbers, property addresses etc containing an 8, are much sought after. Not being one to argue against such compelling logic, I readily agreed to October 18th.
I’d always, perhaps niavely, thought that the decision to get married was really just the business of the two people concerned and to put it bluntly, everyone else’s opinion was largely irrelevant. There were three other people in our family unit however and traditionally speaking at least, this was a big event for them. Surely our three little bastards had the right to be consulted before we unilaterally went ahead and legitimised them ?
Jack at 3 years and Tommy at 5 years were too young to appreciate the importance of it all however at almost 8 years old, the gravity of the situation would surely not be lost on Isabel ?
“Hey Bel. What do you think about Mum and Dad getting married ?”
A look of immense irritation crossed her face…”I know. Why does everyone keep talking about it ?”
“Because it’s a big event. Aren’t you excited about it ?”
“ No………….Anyway, what’s the hurry ?”
“There’s been no hurry Bel. In fact, most people get married before they have children.”
“ Do they ?” Isabel finally looked interested now. “Mum said it’s on the 18th. That’s the date of my school fate. We’re not going to miss the school fate are we ?”.
Despite the overwhelming apathy of our kids, we weren’t to be discouraged. The big day drew near and Heather’s parents flew in from the UK. Being of a religious bent they had always wanted us to marry so they were quite excited that our union would finally be sealed in the eyes of God. Christians maybe but they were undoubtedly of the pragmatic denomination as they were totally unbothered by the fact that we were being married in a civil ceremony in an officially Godless country.
Finally the day arrived and we all made our way to the Marriage Bureau. It was a clean and rather modern building and the staff seemed fairly polite. I couldn’t help noticing rooms entitled ‘AIDS Testing’ and another entitled ‘STD Testing’ as we made our way through to the relevant room. I queried this with my stepmother Fang who looked at me like I was stupid….”When you marry, everyone wants to make sure their partner doesn’t have disease before they sign the contract !”.
“But get tested in the room next door to where you sign the nuptials !”… I thought…. Unromantic maybe but you can’t dispute the logic…
Eventually Heather and I sat together at a counter where we answered various questions, handed over several documents on request and after about 5 minutes we were handed a pair of red matching certificate books and were informed that we were now married. What no handcuffs ? We looked at each other. It felt like an anti climax. Suddenly a lady emerged and said “We have a special room where you might like to take some photos….Do you want to follow me ? ”.
She led us in to a room lavishly decorated with Chinese flags, Communist badges and large golden plaques denoting the ‘Civil Affairs Bureau’. Before we could take any photos she asked “Who would like to know some things about marriage in China ?”.
Now I actually felt like nipping off somewhere to celebrate with a couple of vimtos but I’ve been brought up well and I felt that there was no way we could decline her kind offer so we accepted, and at least pretended to listen intently while a proud looking woman held forth on Chinese marriage.
To be fair it was quite an entertaining speech and a couple of minutes in she started aiming questions at Heather and I ….
“In China, family is very important…..” We nodded gravely. Who could argue with that….
“Do you promise to look after your parents in their old age…? “ Where this going ?, I thought. Anyway, we both mumbled “yes.”
“Do you promise to have children ? “ I looked at Heather, then I looked at my three, already bored, kids. “Well, not any more kids…” I mumbled.
The lady smiled at me and just steamed ahead with some more pearls of wisdom before she finally ground to a halt, at which point we got on with the taking of the photos. All in all it had been quite an enjoyable day though I noticed that the kids were looking increasingly agitated ;
“What do you think Bel ? What a day eh ?”
“ Are we going soon Dad ? We’re missing the school fate ! It’ll be over soon and I told all my friends I’d be going….”
I guess that’s the problem with parents. We can be so self-centred. Correcting my priorities, I reminded Heather that it wasn’t all about us and we set off post haste to the Yew Chung School Fate.
It was a beautifully sunny afternoon and as the kids played, Heather and I sat relaxed at the corner of the school playing field. As a feeling of utter contentment slowly came over me, I thought to myself “What could possibly be better than this ?”.
It was a rhetorical question but an answer was forthcoming nevertheless. I turned to find Heather pouring two glasses of champagne from a bottle she’d concealed in her ruck sack. Perfect ! A woman that smuggles alcohol into a school fete. Just the sort of thing you’d look for in a wife I thought.
Thank God she’s spoken for……
Easy Tiger ! What would Mao say ?