My Big Fat Taobao Wedding

Planning a wedding can be a stressful affair, fraught with emotional decisions and seemingly insignificant but ultimately crucial details. I know this because I recently got married in Spain--and I had to plan the entire wedding while working in Hong Kong at the same time my fiancée was living in Shanghai.

With no back-up, shopping locally for all the stuff one needs to get married—bridal gown, invitations, bridesmaids’ dresses, token gifts for the reception—was a non-starter. To preserve a shred of sanity, I needed an edge. Fortunately, I happen to work for e-commerce company Alibaba, and I am a veteran online shopper. To scout for nuptial essentials, I turned to Alibaba-owned Taobao Marketplace, a vast Chinese shopping website with millions product listings. Using my imperfect Chinese to navigate the site, I hoped I could save time and most especially money by finding and purchasing as much as possible online and still get the wedding I wanted.

Of course, there is an element of risk involved in ordering things like dresses online when you can’t physically see the merchandise or even try it on—not to mention the risk of blown deadlines due to unexpected shipping delays. Most of the time I had a nagging concern that I was one dropped order away from disaster. Was my experiment in Internet-based wedding planning a success? Here’s how it went:

Wedding Stationary

One of the first things I purchased from Taobao was paper for my wedding invitations. Whilst trawling through Taobao, I realized that buying paper is not for the fainthearted, especially if you want to be a Martha Stewart-type bride and make your own wedding invitations. The variety of paper stock, from the different sizes to myriad finishes, will give you a whole new stationary based vocabulary. After going through dozens of mind-boggling choices, I settled on cream-colored paper made from recycled silk material and an envelope in a similar shade. The slight variation in color tone and unevenness of the material gave the paper a bohemian feel, perfect for a destination wedding. I decided to seal my envelopes using a personalized wax seal–like how they did it back in the middle ages. So I ordered a gorgeous wood-handled seal engraved with my fiancé’s and my initials, complete with sealing wax, for under $10 on Taobao. That was a bargain. A similar wax seal cost $50 at a bookstore in Hong Kong.

Next up were my bridesmaids’ dresses 

Being a bridesmaid is a mixed blessing. I’ve heard horror stories from bridesmaids who had to buy multiple dresses because they were unable to find the exact shade of color the bride was envisioning. To avoid all this, I wanted my bridesmaid dresses to look understated and be versatile, so I ditched the Stepford Wives look and went for something simple. After sorting through literally hundreds of dresses, some of which looked more like confectionaries …

… I settled on a dark gray jersey dress that could be worn multiple ways. The Taobao Marketplace seller claimed to represent a factory that exports these dresses to Europe.

Hair clips and bow ties

China probably churns out more gauzy veils and bridal knick knacks than any other country. On Taobao, I found groomsmen accessories, bridal hair accessories, my nude-colored wedding shoes and table décor without leaving the site. Taking delivery in Hong Kong proved to be no problem; Chinese merchants on Taobao have access to a parcel-forwarding service that allows goods to be readily shipped across the SAR border.  All in all, I planned the wedding for about nine months and ordered all the items well in advance. I found that it took an average of a week for the items to reach me in Hong Kong.

The groom and his tie from Tmall.com

Groomsmen and their accessories

Bridal accessories, all purchased from Taobao

Finally what is a wedding without wedding favors for guests to bring home, chuck in a corner and forget about? To close out our Spanish wedding fiesta, we chose fruit jams as wedding favors and bought decorative cloths and cardboard tags from Taobao to give them that special handmade flavor.

So what went wrong? Well, for starters I had to buy some items in multiples. For example if I needed to buy one pink tie, I would end up buying four different ties in various shades of pink because I felt like I couldn’t  trust the rendering of the tie’s color on the computer. Still, at $2 a tie, I’m not exactly complaining.

Despite ending up with a lot extra ties after the wedding, I found the ability to search for and compare prices of hundreds of items on one website empowering for time-pressed and hassled brides. To be clear, shopping on Taobao won’t work for everyone. It won’t work for you if you can’t read Chinese and you’re not willing to put up with Google Translate. Because Taobao’s international parcel-forwarding service and Alipay, the e-payment service used to pay for Taobao purchases, only serve a few regions at the moment, brides from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Southeast Asia are probably the best candidates.

Our March wedding was held in a converted old fort overlooking the Mediterranean bay in the south of Spain. Guests flew in from different parts of the world to take part in the celebrations. They made merry, dined on Iberian ham and just like any good party, got suitably drunk without falling into the sea. With virtual weddings not quite a reality yet, planning a wedding using e-commerce platforms like Taobao does save time and hassle. It won’t solve all your wedding woes, but with a few shots of vodka, it does allow you to get through your big day with most of your sanity intact.