Thanksgiving is a time when most Americans gather with families and friends to eat and celebrate. For new immigrants in Chinatown, the day's activities are strikingly similar, but for an entirely different reason.
With the recent influx of immigrants from China's southeastern province of Fujian, Thanksgiving has become Chinatown's unofficial wedding day. It is the one time of year when the immigrants, many of whom spend their lives toiling in restaurants up and down the East Coast, can all share a day off.
“There are thousands of Fujianese people eating at wedding ceremonies in Chinatown on Thanksgiving Day,” says Jimmy Lo, president of Fujianese of America Unity Association, who said he normally receives more than a dozen Thanksgiving wedding banquet invitations each year. “Thanksgiving is the only public holiday in the whole year that relatives and friends are able to gather together.”
As the new immigrant population has exploded in downtown Chinatown, so has the local wedding industry. Scores of wedding centers, offering everything from photography to dress rentals, videos and makeup, have opened in the past five years along East Broadway, known locally as Fujian Street.
“My photographers and cameramen always have sore arms on Thanksgiving Day,” says Meirong Song, owner of Wen Ring Bridal Center.
The restaurants are just as busy. “You have to book tables for Thanksgiving at least one year in advance,” says Shirley Luo, the manager of Golden Unicorn, a 40-table restaurant, which will host at least 10 wedding receptions squeezed into three sittings during the day.
Romance aside, it can be a grueling and expensive day. The average Fujian immigrant's wedding will cost more than $10,000. And sometimes grooms have to kick in a traditional dowry of $33,000 to help their new brides pay off smuggling fees, which can total close to $60,000 (the men have usually been in America longer, and have already paid off their own fees).
For many new couples, even a simple wedding brings debt that can take several years to clear. Gao, a chef in a New Jersey Chinese restaurant who provided only his last name, got married last Thanksgiving. After the one-day “honeymoon,” he and his wife, a waitress in a different restaurant, both went right back to work to start paying off the $20,000 they borrowed for the wedding. “We are only able to see each other once a week for only one day,” says Gao. “We just have to work hard.”