The Czech capital is mostly empty at dawn this time of year, except for the occasional street cleaner or bleary-eyed reveler heading home, unsteadily, after a long night out.
But at the city’s stunning photo hot spots at the Charles Bridge and Old Town Square, the aura of early-morning tranquility is replaced by lights, camera and action.
Suddenly, there are brides and grooms galore, nearly all of them from China, Hong Kong or Taiwan — posing and twisting themselves together in embraces that at times almost defy imagination. The couples seem ubiquitous, as they bend and smile while photographers softly bark clipped instructions and snap away seemingly nonstop.
It is a striking scene that plays out in the early-morning hours from about the time the sun rises well before 5 a.m. until the city inexorably springs to life an hour or two later. All spring and summer long, according to local photographers who earn a living off the boom.
“Prague is more beautiful than any city in the world and this is where I wanted us to take our wedding pictures,” said Tiffany Lau, a 30-year-old flight attendant from Hong Kong who was posing with her fiance, Wayne Leung. They’re planning to get married in Hong Kong next year.
“It’s the Chinese style,” she explained, “Before the big day you have your wonderful wedding pictures ready to show everyone.”
The photo phenomenon comes as Czech officials report a 26% surge in the number of visitors from China in 2018 to 619,000, including thousands of prenuptial couples. That represents a stronger increase in tourism than from any other nation, leapfrogging the United States and putting China in third place for visits to the Czech Republic alongside Poland, and behind only Germany and Slovakia.
The specialized photography business — and Chinese tourism — is proliferating not only in Prague but also at other splendidly old-world backdrops in European cities such as Paris and London. The photos are sometimes included in wedding invitations.
Pre-wedding photo shoots have long been popular in China, but overseas sessions have become possible only with rising affluence since around 2010, according to Han, a manager at Chinese wedding travel photography company Ibense.
Early on, couples booked more island photo sessions in places such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives than in Europe because Schengen visas, which cover most of the European Union countries, were difficult to get, said Han, who asked to withhold his full name for privacy. Europe became more popular in 2013 with the easing of visa restrictions.
Most customers who manage to travel for wedding photos are “white-collar, middle-class, young, educated couples who like chasing exotic things and fashions,” Han said.
Those who can’t afford it opt for photo shoots in European-style theme parks within China, or in island and mountain settings in provinces such as Hainan and Yunnan.
While no precise data on the number of pre-wedding pictures in Prague is available, a plethora of photographers have taken to offering their services on the internet, tailored specifically for Chinese couples.
“It’s very easy to take beautiful pictures in Prague. They’re pieces of art, really,” said one such photographer, Vladimir Novikov, who noted that South Korean couples increasingly are also coming to Prague. “There’s been a huge increase in the last five years. But unlike American or British couples who trust you to pick the best setting, Asian couples come with pictures in their minds of what they want.”
Photo shoots can last for several hours to the entire day, costing anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on whether a couple opts for the royal treatment, which includes two photographers, a hairstylist and a makeup artist.
But Novikov notes that as busy as he is, there has also been a growing number of Chinese-speaking photographers setting up operations in recent years, further crowding the local market. “It seems a lot want to work with photographers in their own language,” he said.
As the city sleeps, dozens of Chinese-speaking couples can be seen in their silky red or white wedding gowns or neatly pressed black tuxedos gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes or staring seductively up toward the sky.
Or hurriedly scampering to the next location.
Most of the couples standing in front of the cameras won’t actually be getting married in Prague or anytime soon for that matter, yet they have flown nearly 5,000 miles with their wedding garments in tow in search of the perfect backdrop. Few sites are more suited for fantasy fairy-tale wedding photos than Prague’s architectural attractions, especially the iconic bridge that spans the Vltava River.
“It was my idea,” said Lau, whose white running shoes — meant to help her move quickly from location to location — were incongruently peeking from beneath her stunning white dress and long train. Leung, also age 30, nodded in agreement. “Prague is very popular,” he offered quietly.
Leung was about to elaborate, but his fiancee cut him off: “Sorry, we’re in a hurry and have to go now.”
Several couples interviewed on a bright and sunny morning in June said they were drawn here by a Mandopop song recorded by Taiwanese singer-songwriters Jolin Tsai and Jay Chou, “Prague Square.”
“I am standing at Prague Square during dusk,” the lyrics go. “I cast my hopes to the wishing fountain. That flock of doves have their backs to the sunset. That scene is so beautiful that I don’t dare to look. In the deserted corridor of Prague Square.”
The meticulously staged sight of couples in wedding gowns posing on a medieval stone bridge might appear somewhat surreal to residents, joggers and early-rising tourists passing by. The images are nevertheless stunning, impressively blotting out the busy work-like atmosphere prevailing behind the scenes as harried photographers race to finish their work before the bridge and square fill with daytime crowds of tourists.
“It’s a special place and my wife loves it here,” said Teddy Zhang, 29, a hotel manager who flew 10 hours from Shenyang, China, for the couple’s first trip to Europe.
Zhang, who graduated from Washington State University in 2015, married Lin Feng in China last year. Lin loves the Prague song and insisted that their “post-wedding” pictures be taken in Prague.
“It’s very romantic here, but to be honest I would rather have done this in the United States,” he added with a shrug. “I’m an easygoing kind of guy and the U.S. just fits my style better. But she really wanted to do this here. She loves that song. She idolizes Jay Chou. She told me this is her dream — to take pictures in Prague — so I said, ‘All right, we’ll make it happen.’
“To be honest, I don’t really understand it all. But maybe we’ll do a road trip [in] the United States for a honeymoon next year.”
Nicholas Li and Nana Yeung, both 29 and human resources managers in Hong Kong, had awakened several hours before dawn on their first-ever morning in Europe so she could get her hair done to prepare for a grueling morning of picture-taking.
“I always wanted to come to Prague and really like the buildings — and the Jay Chou song of course,” said Li.
Yeung, wearing the red color, which symbolizes good fortune in China, said that she was also smitten by the still nearly empty city in the early morning sunshine. “It’s really, really nice here,” she said during a break for a brief interview. Her two photographers didn’t miss a beat and quickly picked their cameras up to document the conversation.
Posing for their own photographers nearby were Erica Leung, 26, and Sze Sze, 28. They said they were surprised to encounter so many other Chinese-speaking couples on the 1,692-foot-long bridge, which has stood for more than six centuries.
“It looks just like a postcard here,” said the bride-to-be, a flight attendant for Cathay Pacific who plans to marry Sze in November. “We take the pictures first and get married later. We saw other wedding pictures of Prague in Hong Kong and knew right away we wanted to come. It’s our first time in Europe. Everything looks so different than in Hong Kong.”
She said they had studied hundreds of photos of other couples. But when asked whether they had had the chance to compare notes or even exchange pleasantries with fellow Chinese-speaking couples on the bridge that morning, she replied: “Nooooo! We don’t talk to others. We don’t have any time.”
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent. Special correspondents Jeremy Chen and Gaochao Zhang contributed to this report.