Questioning a Korean Wedding Tradition

By Choe Sang-Hun in The New York Times:

When a daughter of Kim Jong-chang, South Korea’s top financial regulator, got married last June, Mr. Kim did something unusual: He eliminated the cashier and the cash-filled envelopes.

These are fixtures of a South Korean wedding, as much so as the wedding officiant. Before entering the wedding hall, guests line up in front of the cashier’s table to hand over an envelope stuffed with cash. The cashier opens the envelope and registers the guest’s name, and the amount given, in a velvet-covered ledger — often while the guest is still standing there.

“The problem with this tradition is that it can be abused for bribery,” said Mr. Kim, governor of the Financial Supervisory Service, which regulates the South Korean banking and securities industries. “In my case, many banking officials would have shown up with cash gifts. They would have wondered whether I was annoyed that they didn’t put enough in the envelope.”

Chipping in to help friends defray wedding or funeral expenses is an old custom here. But in recent months, it has been criticized as wasteful, and sometimes even as a conduit for vote-buying and bribery.

In May, after some critical news stories about extravagant weddings being held at five-star hotels during the economic downturn, President Lee Myung-bak exhorted South Korea’s rich and powerful to set an example in fighting the “vain and extravagant” wedding culture.

Mr. Kim is one of a small but growing number of people, from ordinary families to dignitaries, who are joining this campaign, refusing to accept cash gifts and keeping their guest lists relatively short. Ban Ki-moon, the South Korea-born secretary general of the United Nations, invited only a few close friends and relatives to the wedding of his son in May, as did Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan when his daughter married in April. In October, Chung Jung-kil, Mr. Lee’s chief of staff, followed suit.

Still, these low-key weddings were considered such oddities that they made the news.

In South Korea, where “face” is famously cherished, the measure of a family’s social standing is seen in the number of guests at weddings, as well as the amount of money given and the sumptuousness of the banquet. At funerals, the number of wreaths presented by friends, business associates and local politicians is a comparable social metric.

“Here, a wedding is less a celebration than an occasion for a family to show off,” said Lee Yoon-ji, who runs a wedding management agency and photo studio in Seoul’s upscale Kangnam district. “For instance, if the bride’s family finds its guests are much fewer than the groom’s, it’s humiliating.”

Some families send out thousands of wedding invitations. A bank account number is sometimes included so people who can’t attend can still send money.

Often, the decision of whether to attend is based on whether the couple, or their relatives, attended weddings or funerals in one’s own family — or might be expected to. Families keep records of how much they receive and from whom so that they can reciprocate. Failure to do so can ruin a friendship.

“Sometimes you even get invitations from people you don’t know very well,” Mr. Kim said. “They arrive like tax bills or I.O.U.’s.”

Every year, the roughly 330,000 South Korean couples who get married spend an average of 15 million to 20 million won, or $13,000 to $17,000, in wedding expenses, said Lee Woong-jin, head of Sunoo, a matchmaking company that conducts an annual survey on wedding expenses. The cost can exceed 50 million won for hotel weddings.

Much of that is covered by the cash gifts. Last year, South Koreans gave out 8 trillion won, or 524,500 won for each household, in cash gifts for weddings and funerals, according to the National Statistical Office.

“This is a ‘you-help-me, I-help-you’ tradition. I don’t see anything wrong with it. You chip in and you get help in return,” said Han Seung-ho, 33, a photographer whose wedding in October attracted 370 guests. “Without their cash gifts, my wedding would have been a serious financial burden for me.”

But these envelopes also reflect a culture in which giving cash is considered so natural that people sometimes call it a “greeting” — and, in some cases, use it as a cover for bribery. When South Korea’s election laws were revised in 2004, they banned politicians from giving cash envelopes, except at the weddings and funerals of close relatives.

Three candidates running for election at provincial farmers’ and fisheries’ cooperatives were indicted in September and October on charges of giving cash gifts at voters’ weddings. A provincial education chief was widely criticized in the media in April after he reportedly invited 2,000 people — including the principals of all 460 schools under his jurisdiction — to his son’s wedding.

Chung Woo-jin, 50, president of Q&Q Medi, a medical supplies company, said many wedding guests show up “reluctantly,” fearing they might lose out on business contracts or promotions if they don’t. “So they show up to prove that they were there, give the envelope and hurry off to have the meal, without even taking a look at the bride or groom,” he said.

Mr. Chung refused to accept cash envelopes at his mother’s funeral in June. But he said he still felt compelled to attend 40 to 50 weddings or funerals a year for friends, employees and business acquaintances, each time donating an average of 100,000 won.

Meanwhile, some younger couples are rebelling against what they call a “commercial” wedding culture controlled by parents. It is generally the parents who send out invitations, collect the cash and pay for the wedding, and by and large, more guests are there for the parents than for the couple getting married.

“Some of my friends feel frustrated, wondering if their wedding is for them or for their parents,” said Lee Eun-jeong, 35, who works at a publishing company in Seoul. She limited her wedding in June to 135 guests and did not accept envelopes. “We also hate it when a friend who hasn’t contacted us for years suddenly gets in touch with us before her wedding, obviously with our envelopes in mind,” she said.

South Korea has seen campaigns for wedding frugality before. In 1973, the late military strongman Park Chung-hee tried to ban written invitations, flowers and gifts from weddings and funerals, in the belief that such customs were wasteful and detracted from his campaign to build and modernize the economy.

But enforcement was sporadic at best, and experts say weddings grew more extravagant after 1999, when the restrictions were lifted and five-star hotels and wedding agencies entered the market.

Mr. Kim, the financial watchdog chief, predicted that it would be some time before the cash envelope tradition faded.

“Frankly, I found myself thinking, ‘I’ve given out all these envelopes over the years. Why shouldn’t I get them once for my daughter’s wedding?”’ he said. “It’s not always easy in our weddings to tell the difference between bribes and genuine gifts.”

*****
[http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/18/world/asia/18iht-gifts.html?]

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