A Chinese Town’s Imported Cambodian Brides

It is a hot and sticky midsummer day in a small village along the Chang River in the eastern province of Jiangxi. The most popular spot is in front of the local grocery where a few women are playing mahjong as children chase each other around.

Sitting separately are two young women, whispering. With darker complexions, deeper eye sockets, and thicker lips, they look different from the locals. One of them wears a pair of high-heeled shoes, a short T-shirt and tight jeans, out of place with the more traditional local environment. The other woman is pregnant and is playing with her big-screen smartphone.

"They are our Cambodian brides," says one local woman. "Every village along the Chang River area has at least three or four of them."

About seven or eight years ago the first Cambodian bride appeared in Huanggang, a rural township with two dozen or so villages scattered along each side of the river. A villager went to work in Yunnana province bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmarand a client introduced him to a woman from his family. She was happy with her new life in China, and spread the word to other women that they should come to Jiangxi.

Eventually, this riverside township, which used to be famous only for annual floods, has turned into China's most well-known "collection and distribution center" for Cambodian wives.

Huanggang has more than a dozen brokers specialized in bringing together Cambodian women and Chinese men. In the past three years, thanks to new Cambodian regulations that make it easier to marry foreigners, Jiangxi's official marriage registration department has handled more than 2,000 cases involving women from the Southeast Asian country. Large numbers of Cambodian women are also flocking into the neighboring provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang.

But not all find a better life. Some women are tricked into getting married, thinking they are coming to China to work, and the Cambodian consulate in Shanghai has been kept busy dealing with unhappy women who want to return home. This has raised concerns about human trafficking, and prompted calls for the governments of both countries to better handle the phenomenon.

$400 USD Dowry

"I was willing to marry this far away from home," said Xiaoyan, a Cambodian woman who already has a strong local Jiangxi accent and a one-year-old son.

She got married to a man from Huanggang two years ago, and not long after their wedding her husband had to go to Zhejiang for work so he could repay the debt to the matchmaker and furnish their new three-story house. Xiaoyan, 30, sees him only once a year.

As one of the world's most underdeveloped nations, about one-fifth of Cambodia's population lives in poverty, recent figures show. That means some 8 million people live on less than $2.30 USD a day.

Xiaoyan said that in her home village the poorer you are, the earlier a woman gets married. She did not get married until she was 28, and chose a Chinese man because "the Cambodian men are too poor."

Before 2010, Chinese men were not the first choice of Cambodian women. Large numbers of Cambodian women were marrying South Koreans. In 2008, South Korea accounted for over 25,000 newly married Cambodian women.

Today, China is overtaking South Korea to become Cambodian women's main destination for marrying a foreign man. Xiaoyan said she had no idea what China was like except that "it's a lot richer and bigger." Whereas marital violence is commonplace in Cambodia, she heard that "Chinese men don't beat their wives.“

Through a referral from a coworker at her factory, she was introduced to a Chinese man with a promise of a dowry for her family of $400 USD. "So my mom happily sold me!" she said, half-jokingly.

A Deception

Cambodian women usually enter China in a group. Agents from Huanggang then hire a truck and pick them up from the Guangzhou or Shanghai airports and bring them to the township. Local people say that only men who have not been able to find a Chinese wife will consider marrying a foreign woman.

"There are too many single men in the countryside," complained a truck driver. "For years Huanggang's birth control was extremely stringent."

The driver explained that since government decree meant couples could only have one child and they preferred boys, sex-selective abortions have resulted in too many males, or as some put it, "leftover" men.

After decades of the family planning policy, China faces a serious gender imbalance. The sex ratio at birth is 100 girls to 118 boys. It's estimated that by 2020, the country will have about 30 million bachelors, the majority from poor rural areas.

In Huanggang two types of men have little chance of finding a wife: the handicapped and the destitute. According to the villagers, local people marrying their daughters still follow the custom of asking for a dowry of 200,000 yuan. Even though it is a relatively rich village, some men still cannot find wives.

Xu Gang is a 37-year-old man from Huanggang. He is healthy, not too poor, has four years of elementary education and describes himself as introverted. After two failed relationships, he was determined to get married, so he accepted a matchmaker's proposition of a Cambodian wife. He said he regrets the decision.

Xu paid a finder's fee of 74,000 yuan, which put him in debt. A blind date was arranged. Though the intermediary said that the matchmaking "goes two ways," the man usually gets to choose the woman he likes first. Afterward, the woman visits the man's home and decides if she wants to marry him. If not, she can try again.

"In general, as long as the man has a house, the woman doesn't turn down the proposition of marrying him," said one villager.

When Xu chose his bride, there was only one woman left from the latest batch of Cambodian women. The woman he and his family called Suping was 23 years old. When she was brought to Xu's home, she was very angry. She talked in an agitated manner, though Xu and his family did not understand a word. The intermediary then called her to one side to talk with someone in Cambodia on the phone. After a while, the intermediary came back to tell them that he had persuaded the woman to marry him.

It was not until a year later that Xu learned from another Cambodian bride in the same village that Suping had been cheated by an intermediary in Cambodia. She had been told that she was supposed to come to work in China, but she realized only after arriving at Xu's home that she was supposed to marry him.

Ticket Home

Over the past three years, the Jiangxi foreign adoptions and marriage registration center has become crowded. More than 2,000 Sino-Cambodian marriages have been registered since 2011. Whereas Vietnam demands Chinese men marrying Vietnamese women go to Vietnam to register in person, Cambodia asks only for proof that the woman is single.

Wang Wenliang, director of the registration office, said he has seen Cambodian women arrive at the office crying for help, but said he did not sense anything was wrong when Xu and Suping processed their marriage license.

Xu said he and his family treated Suping as a "distinguished guest" after their marriage. He bought her new clothes, a mobile phone, and even subscribed to an international call service so she could regularly talk with her family. Suping was not expected to work very much, inside or outside the home.

But Suping was unhappy. Because of the language barrier, there was almost no communication between her and Xu. There were fights over food because Suping was not used to the spicy fare of Xu's family.

Apart from eating and sleeping together, the couple could not find any common ground. Xu knew nothing about Suping's family.

Suping did not get pregnant. Xu had given up going to a city to work because he hoped he would have a child soon, yet he did not. Xu suspected that Suping was secretly using contraception.

After making friends with other Cambodians in the village, Suping started going out for entire days at a time. Xu said his home became like a free hotel for her. "We couldn't even argue," he said.

Later Xu found out that Suping was busy fixing up another Cambodian woman from her hometown to marry a Chinese man, taking a commission as a matchmaker. She used her earnings to return to Cambodia.

Money and Sex

There have been worse outcomes. Since the second half of last year, Cambodia's consulate in Shanghai has received numerous calls for help from women. Last month, it sent six women who had fled Huanggang home. Another 10 are hiding in a basement near the consulate waiting to return home.

Hong Thavery, 19, said she was abducted in the capital Phnom Penh by a Cambodian woman who told her she could earn good wages in China working in a factory. Hong agreed to go to China.

But she wound up with a Chinese man, who forced her to work at home and did not allow her to go out. The man frequently raped her. When she fled to the police, they sent her back again. Very often she was not even given food. "I was just like a slave," she said.

He Yunxiao, coordinator at the UN's anti-human-trafficking office in China, said that since last year the Jiangxi police have uncovered several cases involving the trafficking of Cambodian women. They mostly involved coercion, and included women forcibly married to physically or mentally handicapped men.

Wang, director of the registration office, says forced marriages involving violence or fraud are the exception. He did say there were many cases where women voluntarily married Chinese men, but could not get used to their new life. They got divorces or fled after conflicts with their spouses and families.

"In essence, even if these women came of their own will, it's still a mercenary marriage," Wang said. "Such abnormal wedlock is inhuman. To put it plainly, one does it for money while the other is in it for sex."

Zhang Zhiwei, a lawyer and activist involved in rescuing abducted and abandoned children, said that China's serious gender imbalance is to blame both for individual marriage problems and broader social instability.

He called on governments, including the Chinese authorities, to face up to this kind of cross-border migration and find fundamental solutions instead of simply fighting human trafficking.

Since January, Jiangxi officials have visited the Cambodian consulate in China to discuss policies related to cross-border marriages.

As for Xu, he continues to lament his loss, financial and otherwise. At the very least, he hopes Suping will come back to grant him a divorce. "I'll take whatever she can afford to compensate me and accept my fate," he said.