Valentine’s Day in Asia Blends Western Marketing of Love and Love of Western Marketing
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, AAV Contributing Editor
St. Valentine’s Day started out as a third-century Roman pagan love and fertility festival that was coopted by early Christians, who took out the pagan symbolism and used it to commemorate the martyred St. Valentine instead. One story is that Valentine was a priest who married young couples in secret because Emperor Claudius had banned marriage because he was recruiting soldiers and believed that married men were more reluctant to leave home to fight. Another story says that while Valentine was in prison for helping Christians, his love and faith cured the jail keeper’s blind daughter, and as he was on his way to be executed on February 14, he sent her a note signed, “From your Valentine.” He is the patron saint of love and lovers.
Now, however, the huge Hallmark holiday bears little resemblance to its Christian or Roman precursors. According to the National Confectioners Association, St. Valentine’s Day sales should hit $1.053 billion this year, trailing only Halloween, Easter and Christmas sales. Like many other American holidays, it has become all about cards, candy, roses, dinners, and presents. (Not that I’ve ever gotten any…except from my mom. Do I sound bitter?)
And it is in this guise that it has been sweeping Asia by storm. Some say that the store-bought Valentine’s Day card is the perfect vehicle for shy Asian lovers unaccustomed to public declarations of affection. Some love it simply because it is a Western or American holiday. Others criticize its Westernness as a bad influence on traditional Asian society. Still others embrace it as yet another marketing and moneymaking opportunity, and what could be simultaneously more Western and Asian than that?
Here is a quick tour through some Valentine’s Day trends in Asia.
In Japan, Valentine’s Day is a day for women to give chocolate to men. A Japanese chocolate company, the Mary Chocolate Company, introduced it in Japan in 1958 as a marketing gimmick. Today, 50% of all chocolates sold in Japan are sold around Valentine’s Day. Women give chocolates to all the men that they know—including family, friends, and co-workers—not just their sweethearts. The obligatory chocolates that they must give to their bosses are called giri-choco (obligation chocolates). The homemade chocolates, honmei choco (prospective winner chocolates), are usually reserved for one’s special sweetheart.
Men are supposed to reciprocate one month later on “White Day,” March 14. This holiday was also introduced as a marketing ploy, this time by a marshmallow company (hence the “white”) in 1960. Men are supposed to give candy and marshmallows to women, but it is nowhere near as big as Valentine’s Day as men only have to reciprocate to women in which they are romantically interested—so no candy to family, friends, or co-workers—sorry mom. (Insert your favorite men-get-off-way-too-easily joke here.)
Korea also celebrates Valentine’s Day and White Day in the same way—on Valentine’s Day women give chocolate to men, and on White Day, men give candy to women. But they have also added a third holiday, “Black Day,” on April 14, a consolation day for those without a boyfriend or girlfriend. On that day, young people without partners dress all in black, eat black noodles called jia jiang myun, drink black coffee, and commiserate together. (A holiday after my own heart.)
China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore
Chinese culture already has its own Valentine’s Day, celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, to commemorate the story of the cowherd (the star Altair) and the seventh sister or weaving maiden (the star Vega) who fall in love but are separated by duty and the Milky Way. They can meet only once a year when all the world’s magpies form a bridge across the Milky Way for them.
However, the western Valentine’s Day is catching on fast as a Hallmark holiday for young lovers in China marked by flowers, candy, and illicit sexual encounters. Hotels offer Valentine’s Day discounts with promises not to check for marriage certificates, which are usually required for couples who want to rent a room together. The Western/Christian origin of the holiday makes the government nervous. Why do they need this western holiday, traditionalists argue, when China already has a perfectly good home-grown day of love? The blatant pre-marital sex disturbs many others who fear that this holiday will bring the downfall of marriage. Valentine’s Day is a holiday for young sweethearts, not for old married couples, who seem to think, “What’s the point?”
In India, Valentine’s Day is also catching favor with young sweethearts who buy each other cards and flowers, take out valentine’s ads in the newspaper, and go out for romantic dinners in western restaurants. However, Hindu nationalists from the Shiv Sena, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal parties oppose the western holiday, saying that it is an affront to traditional and conservative Indian culture. Last year, men from the Shiv Sena party smashed up a Wimpy’s fast food restaurant because young couples were having Valentine’s Day meals there; they ransacked gift shops and tore up cards in the Archies Gallery stores; they beat up some young couples, cutting their hair and blackening their faces; and more. Lucknow University had to close for the day to protect its students. This year, the same political groups are again warning stores and young people not to participate. Although some stores are asking for stepped up police protection, other stores prefer the controversy because it means more publicity and better sales.
Unlike these Hindu nationalists who see Valentine’s Day as chipping away at traditional culture, Thailand uses Valentine’s Day to promote traditional culture by sponsoring events such as the world’s largest mass-wedding, the world’s largest underwater wedding, and last year’s wedding between the world’s largest bride and groom (two elephants). They just say yes to the international tourism money that comes in because of this holiday, but then use it to showcase traditional Thai wedding ceremonies, dances, and food.
Speaking of Hallmark holidays, the Hallmark Company began production in Asia in 1994 and now has facilities in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai. Although cards are now printed in many Asian languages, those do not sell nearly as well as the English cards. Young people who want to impress their sweethearts with how hip they are buy cards printed in English, of course, not the boring in-language versions.