China welcomes the Olympics with fireworks – and wedding bells

Thousands of couples got married and gave birth on 8/8/08 because the number symbolizes prosperity. The Beijing Games, which open Friday, were also timed to the "lucky" date.

Laszio Balogh/Reuters
Newlyweds: A couple showed off their marriage certificate in Beijing Friday. At least 16,400 couples chose to marry today because eight is considered a lucky number in China.

On a normal day, some 50 Chinese couples walk up the concrete steps to Dongcheng District Civil Affairs Bureau, ready to tie the knot. If all their paperwork is in order, they are pronounced husband and wife, and a new life together begins.

That’s a normal day. For Beijing, the host of the Summer Olympics that opened Friday with a show-stopping ceremony, August 8 is anything but.

Across the city, the most auspicious date in living memory – 08-8-8, a triple dose of a number that symbolizes prosperity here – is sparking a rush of last-minute marriages and baby deliveries, straining public services and pumping up an excitement level that’s already fit to bursting. Even before the big day, pictures of newborn babies were splashed across front pages, their parents beaming with joy at children named, you guessed it, Olympics.

16,400 weddings
Down the concrete steps came Lydia Ge arm-in-arm with her new husband Feng Yaohui, one of 1,100 couples registered to marry Friday in Dongcheng district. The citywide figure is 16,400, according to state media, and that excludes walk-ins, who have until midnight to join the Olympics bridal craze. Authorities have said the registered number would easily beat a previous one-day record set on another lucky date in 2006.

“It’s time to get married. We love each other. It’s a good day for all Chinese people and all new couples, and it’s very memorable,” says Ms. Ge, an employee at a publishing company.

For Dong Fanghong, the director of marriage registrations in Dongcheng, Friday was a long and tiring day. The first couple showed up at 4:20 a.m. to beat the crowds. Ms. Dong, who had slept overnight at the office, says she was on hand to welcome them inside, where two reception offices are being used exclusively for marriages.

On the wall behind a row of desks hung a crimson velvet drape, the number 08-8-8 traced in pink ribbons. Adopting a popular refrain for newlyweds, a slogan read “100 years of prosperous wishes, 100 years of Olympics, 100 years of togetherness.”

Dong says she’ll still be at work when the Olympics fireworks burst over Beijing towards midnight, just in case anyone shows up, though the office closing time is 6 p.m. A separate municipal office was opened Friday to cope with overflow from her bureau.

Newborns named 'Olympics'
Across town at Haidian district maternity hospital, the pressure was also on. By 1 p.m., doctors had delivered 30 babies, around double the normal rate. The newborns’ tiny voices spilled into the corridors, mixing with the hubbub of a tour organized for Olympics media. All hospital staff were on call, even though Friday was supposed to be a holiday.

In order to deliver on the auspicious day, at least two sets of parents had demanded that doctors administer a caesarean birth, hospital director Zhang Yuanping told reporters. Of the 30 babies delivered so far, more than 20 were cesarean births, though the hospital’s normal ratio is 40 percent, he said. The World Health Organization estimates that the procedure is necessary in around 15 percent of births.

Upstairs in a private room where his wife lay resting, Wei Jixun cradled his daughter in his arms. Born shortly before 11 a.m., she will share her birthday with thousands of so-called Olympics babies. “I’m very excited to have a baby on the opening day of the Olympics,” he told a huddle of reporters, before a nurse shooed them outside.

For couples tying the knot, this year held another stroke of fortune: August 7 was the equivalent of Valentine’s Day in the popular lunar calendar. That evening, Edward Ding dropped to his knees in Beijing’s main train station to propose to his fiancée. The couple had already agreed to wed the following day, however, so his gesture was more symbol than substance, but Jessie Wu, his bride, says she loved it.

“It’s a special day for us. We have the Olympics games, so we will have double happiness,” she says, after descending the concrete steps in Dongcheng.

In a measure of China’s rapid Internet growth, many couples registered online to marry Friday, usually a month or more in advance. The cut-off date for applications was Tuesday, which allowed authorities to project the figure of 16,400 marriages. Some are predicting the final total will reach 20,000, once walk-ins are included.

Getting hitched on a lucky date, and basking in China’s patriotic pride of hosting the Olympics, has only one minor downside, says Ms. Ge. “It will be difficult in future to make reservations” for anniversary celebrations, she laughs.

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