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'Micro-weddings' at Vancouver city hall reach almost 600 since 2020

James Watson: "We picked an iconic venue, which is quite a nice place to get married."
James Watson and Caroline Cheah exchanged vows April 5 in the council chamber at Vancouver city hall before marriage commissioner Diane Brown.

The happy couple that walked into the Vancouver council chamber at city hall last Friday afternoon wasn’t there to talk politics.

Their attire indicated otherwise.

James Watson was dressed in a sharp blue suit.

Caroline Cheah, clutching a bouquet of white flowers, was wearing an elegant white dress.

They were there to get married.

With Cheah’s parents and sister as a witness, the couple exchanged vows before marriage commissioner Diane Brown in what was a simple ceremony that was over well within the allotted half-hour time slot.

Some applause, some photographs — including one in Mayor Ken Sim’s chair — and a quick ring of the chamber’s ship bell, and they were done.

“We're reasonably new to Canada and the city, so we picked an iconic venue, which is quite a nice place to get married,” said Watson, standing in the lobby with his bride after the ceremony.

England, Malaysia

Watson, a family physician, is originally from England. Cheah, a business analyst, is from Malaysia. The couple met in Australia before moving to Vancouver a year ago, and are now in the process of applying for permanent residency status.

Cheah learned that getting married at city hall was an option after watching a video that a woman posted on YouTube. The couple is planning a big celebration in August in England, but wanted to get married in Vancouver.

“My family was visiting, too, so we thought this would be a good time,” she said.

The magic of technology allowed Watson’s family in England and a friend of Cheah’s in Mexico to watch the ceremony via Zoom — at least that was the idea, until the couple learned later the feed from Watson’s cellphone malfunctioned halfway through the ceremony.

Plenty of photographs were taken, though.

James Watson and Caroline Cheah took turns sitting in Mayor Ken Sim's chair in the council chamber. Photo Mike Howell

Pandemic initiative

The husband and wife were the fourth of six couples to get married in the chamber April 5, adding to what has been a steady parade of people choosing to get hitched at city hall since “micro-weddings” were offered in May 2020.

The program, which began as a trial, offered 30-minute wedding ceremonies between June 2020 and May 2021.

The initiative, which was pushed by former city councillor Melissa De Genova, filled what the city said was an immediate need for couples and marriage officiants wanting to continue with wedding plans during the pandemic.

Positive feedback on the weddings and the demand from couples has since made it a permanent program, with the city offering a total of 590 time-slots for weddings since 2020; the city says the number includes late cancellations and rescheduling, which are very rare.

'Sparked a few tears'

Hrissa Soumpassis, protocol officer with the city’s external relations and protocol department, said the six time-slots offered per day on the designated wedding days always sell out.

The slots sell out the fastest in spring and summer, said Soumpassis in an email exchange this week. She said each ceremony is unique and memorable, whether it’s the non-traditional outfits, music selection — everything from the Beatles to Bach — or personalized vows.

“Micro-weddings allow ease in wedding planning so couples can really relax and enjoy the moment for themselves,” said Soumpassis, who was present during the marriage of Watson and Cheah.

Staff are sometimes relied upon to assist brides.

“There were a few times where staff were asked to help the bride hide in the city hall building before the special moment,” she said. “Without fail, when the bride pops out, there are always tears, big smiles and that energy is really palpable — it’s even sparked a few tears within our own team.”

James Watson and Caroline Cheah outside Vancouver city hall April 5 after getting married in the council chamber. Photo Mike Howell

Hollywood movies

Staff has heard from couples that they assumed a city hall wedding would be the fastest, cheapest and easiest way to get married — an assumption driven by portrayals of weddings in Hollywood movies and television shows.

While it is a fast and simple way of getting hitched, Soumpassis said, couples need to fill out an application, choose a time-slot, hire a wedding commissioner or officiant, buy a marriage licence and bring two witnesses — “unlike American movies where city hall staff handle all paperwork for the couples.”

Couples can choose between ceremonies of up to 10 people on Mondays at $302.50 plus GST, or up to 20 people available on other days of the week at $605 plus GST. Additional guests can be included for an extra charge of $30.25 plus GST per person.

Receptions are not permitted.

While weddings in the council chamber are only a few years old, couples had previously been married on the grounds of city hall, especially during the early days of the pandemic.

Helena Gutteridge Plaza behind city hall served as the main venue.

Former councillor Tim Stevenson, a longtime United Church minister, told the Vancouver Courier in 2018 that he married a couple on the back steps of city hall as part of a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969.

"We had the steps all painted in a rainbow, and it was wonderful," Stevenson said at the time.

'Just wasn't in the cards'

Watson and Cheah said it was inevitable they would get married in a country where one of them didn’t grow up. And they said linking their birthplaces together, along with Australia — where they met — and getting married in Vancouver has been “quite fun.”

“If you told me five years ago that you would get married in Canada, it just wasn't in the cards — it would have been unexpected,” Watson said.

The couple shared that getting married in England would have also been more difficult than choosing a city hall wedding in Vancouver.

“You have to be a resident [in England] for a week to register your intention to get married, and that has to be within the year before your wedding date,” Cheah said.

The process to get married at city hall, they said, was fairly smooth — there were some hiccups in confirming a date and time-slot — and would recommend city hall for anyone planning a small wedding.

“It's a nice venue inside, and outside it’s a nice setting — and the weather's good today, as well,” said Watson, noting the city also provided information on best spots on the city hall campus for photographs.

“No complaints,” added Cheah.

The couple plans to honeymoon in Africa.

Caroline Cheah and James Watson on the back steps of Vancouver city hall April 5 after getting married in the council chamber. Photo Mike Howell