21 November 2019
Decades of China's one-child policy have produced a serious gender imbalance. Males significantly  outnumber females. Photo: Reuters
Decades of China's one-child policy have produced a serious gender imbalance. Males significantly outnumber females. Photo: Reuters

Chinese take Cambodian brides but some don’t live happily after

“My mother was very happy to sell me for US$400. Is marriage not for making money?”

Little Dove is one of more than 2,000 brides from Cambodia who have married rural men in Jiangxi province in the past three years. It has overtaken Vietnam to become the biggest source of foreign brides there, as well as in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces.

The business is booming because of a growing imbalance between men and women, especially in rural areas, where mothers often abort baby girls to ensure a son as their single child.

According to official figures, 118 baby boys are born for every 100 girls. By 2020, China will have 30 million bachelors, many of them poor or physically disabled.

For the brokers and middlemen who conduct this Sino-Cambodian trade, it has become a very lucrative business, with the prospective husbands paying tens of thousands of yuan to acquire a wife.

Little Dove is one of six children, five of them girls, born to a farm family in a village outside Phnom Penh. Her parents grow enough food for the family but have no cash income.

At age 13, she went to work in a textile factory in Phnom Penh, earning the equivalent of 500-600 yuan (US$96.80) a month. She was unable to find a suitable husband.

In the factory, aged 28, she heard of the possibility of a marriage in China and contacted a broker. “We heard China is much richer than Cambodia and that Chinese men do not beat their wives,” she said.

She flew with four other girls to Shanghai in 2011; the broker took her to Huanggang village in Jiangxi, where her husband provided a three-storey home.

She has fulfilled her most important task – given birth to a son, now one year old. Her husband works as a laborer in Zhejiang to earn the money to pay back the broker and returns to the village during Chinese New Year.

Until 2010, South Korea was the biggest foreign destination for Cambodian brides; more than 25,000 went in 2008. But in March 2010, Phnom Penh imposed a ban on marriages to South Korean men, saying it had become human trafficking and that the foreign groom must first talk to the parents of his future spouse. Since then, China has replaced South Korea as the premier destination.

Cambodia has overtaken Vietnam as the premier supplier of foreign brides to China because its exit procedures are simpler; Vietnam demands that the groom goes there and applies to marry.

Wang Wenliang, director of the center in Nanchang that registers marriages with foreigners, said that things did not always go smoothly. In some cases, the groom and broker argue over the price as they come to the center; in others, the brides hide in the center to prevent the marriage.

To ensure that both sides are willing, it has hired an interpreter to ask each bride if she is entering the marriage of her own free will. The most important thing is that the bride has a baby, preferably a son.

Liu Xiang, 37, another villager from Huanggang, was not so lucky. He is a shy man with limited education and a low income; he paid 74,000 yuan to a broker for a Cambodian; of this, 44,000 was his entire savings and 30,000 yuan he borrowed from friends and family.

His new wife Suping could speak almost no Chinese when she arrived. He bought her new clothes, a mobile phone and access to international dialing so that she could call home to her family. She could not cook the hot food that he and his family like to eat.

Liu did not go away to work, so he could have a child. But Suping did not become pregnant; he suspected she was using contraceptives. Then she took to leaving the house for the whole day, returning in the evening; he later discovered that she had become a broker for Cambodian brides, earning 30,000 yuan.

Then, after a visit last year to Cambodia, she returned and demanded a divorce. He refused; she moved to Jingdezhen where she has become a full-time marriage broker.

Liu has demanded to the broker that he pay back the 74,000 yuan fee but he refuses, saying that they had not been married the necessary two years to qualify for a rebate.

In other cases, Cambodian women have been tricked into coming to China with the offer of work and are forced to become the wives of rural men, often disabled in one way or another.

The Jiangxi government has asked the Cambodian consulate in Shanghai to assist in authenticating the documents of the women to reduce these cases of fraud and hostage-taking.

But with the imbalance between the sexes in China getting wider, finding a wife and continuing the family line will remain a major social issue for millions of men.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.