Wednesday, Apr 26, 2017, 5:59 PM CST – China

International

Vietnamese Brides

Closer than Heaven

NewsChina interviewed nearly 20 Vietnamese women who have entered cross-border marriages with Chinese men. Their stories provide a window into these unconventional couplings, and the pressures that created them

Guihou Village, Fujian Province, is home to more than 10 Vietnamese women married to locals

A 36-year-old Vietnamese woman with her husband and son beside their home’s pigpen

Vietnamese woman Xiu Lan with husband Ye Afa and son Ye Jinhong

A Vietnamese woman surnamed Ruan feeds her second child at their home in Changtai County, Fujian Province

Vietnamese woman Duong That Muoi and her family

Vietnamese woman Ruan Qunzhen, in traditional Vietnamese garb, Changtai County, Fujian Province

Zhou Jiazhen, or Chau Gia Tran, stands in her home in Yanxi County, Fujian Province Photo by cfp

Despite spending a small fortune on five previous marriages, 46-year-old ethnic Vietnamese Chinese national Ye Jincheng, who is also deaf-mute, hid his plans to attempt a sixth, concealing a fourth trip to Vietnam in search of a bride.

Ye went to a local Vietnamese food store to consult owner Zhou Jiazhen, or Chau Gia Tran, another ethnic Vietnamese. He asked her to draw him a map of Ho Chi Minh City, writing her a note stating confidently that: “It will be a success this time.”

Hong Lijuan, Zhou’s sister-in-law, told NewsChina that Ye had been flirting online with a woman in Ho Chi Minh City. Ye had previously married two Vietnamese women, his fourth and fifth wives, both of whom vanished shortly after their weddings. Arranging both marriages cost Ye’s family more than 70,000 yuan (US$11,200), and after his fifth wife left him, his parents forbade him from marrying another Vietnamese woman.

Like many Chinese men living in the country’s south, Ye is a willing contributor to a growing market in cross-border marriages. In February 2011, Ye and three fellow villagers, with an average age of 45, traveled to Ho Chi Minh City with the help of a match-making agency. Each returned home with a bride around 20 years younger than himself. Ye’s fourth wife (previous marriages to three Chinese women had ended in divorce) apparently absconded from their home two weeks after arriving in his village.

Undaunted, Ye returned to Vietnam to try his luck again. However, one month after their wedding, while on a return trip to Hanoi to visit his wife’s family, Ye’s new bride disappeared from an airport bathroom, along with 20,000 yuan (US$3,200) in cash.

History

In 1978, when political tensions between the Soviet-backed Vietnamese regime and China were at an all-time high, an estimated 263,000 ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam fled across the border into China in the wake of widespread anti-Chinese violence. These refugees were offered employment on 43 designated farms, 17 of which were located in Southeast China’s Fujian Province.

Ho Chi Minh City has a population of some 550,000 ethnic Chinese residents, and an estimated 80 percent of the country’s Chinese minority of 1.5 million live in the areas surrounding Vietnam’s commercial capital, according to Wu Yanhua from Xiamen University, who is conducting a long-term study into Sino-Vietnamese cross-border marriages in Fujian.

According to Wu, after China and Vietnam restored diplomatic relations after decades of conflict in November 1991, cross-border commerce boomed and many Vietnamese-born Chinese used their language skills and cultural knowledge to return to Vietnam and establish businesses.

To maintain a stable workforce, these entrepreneurs encouraged their Chinese employees to marry ethnically Chinese Vietnamese women, with the largest cohort of bachelors originating from Fujian, creating a contingent of Vietnamese-born wives in this prosperous coastal province.

From 2002, marriage agencies began to bring more Vietnamese brides into China. This network originated in Guangxi and Fujian provinces, home to the largest populations of Vietnamese-Chinese residents, before expanding as far as China’s remote northeast.

A paper by Professor Luo Wenqing of the Guangxi University for Nationalities said that the number of Vietnamese women legally married to Chinese men reached 47,000 in 2010. Most of these couples, according to Luo’s data, lived in impoverished conditions in the Chinese countryside, with most lacking any legal status or identification. Liu Jifeng of Xiamen University cited Guangxi police statistics estimating that the number of unregistered Vietnamese wives living in China in 2011 exceeded 65,000.

In Fujian, Vietnamese-born women married to Chinese men mainly live in the south of the province, with large populations in the town of Zhangzhou and the village of Longyan. Fujian has been the province with the highest number of legally registered Sino-Vietnamese marriages since 2005.

In Yanxi town, located in an area under the jurisdiction of Zhangzhou city, there are about 146 Vietnamese-born women married into local families, according to Fujian’s civil affairs department. Of the 20 Vietnamese women in the town interviewed by NewsChina, nine were ethnic Chinese from Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding areas.

Unlike other rural areas of Fujian, Yanxi is comparatively prosperous, with a climate similar to that of Vietnam. Yan Jinrong, an official with Changtai County’s publicity department, believes that this means that Vietnamese women who marry into the province are more likely to stay.

Yan told NewsChina that many local women have left their hometowns to find work in bigger cities like Xiamen, Quanzhou and Zhangzhou, leaving many single men behind. He remarked that many of these “left-behind” men are poor, older males who are often mentally or physically disabled, placing them at “the bottom” of a society already struggling with a skewed gender ratio.

Chinese data indicate that Chinese men born before 1978, when China began to implement the One Child Policy, constitute the bulk of single Chinese men looking for brides in Vietnam.

Motivation

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, Chinese men reaching the legal marriage age outnumber their female counterparts by about 1.2 million.

Chen Fenglan, a sociology professor at Fuzhou University, said that China’s gender gap has forced some single people to seek spouses abroad. According to Guangxi police estimates, over 12,000 Vietnamese women entered China illegally for the purposes of marriage in 1995, most of whom used a Chinese agency as a go-between.

Culturally, Vietnam has a long history of intercultural and cross-border marriages, and as China’s economic status in the world has risen, increasing numbers of eligible women are willing to consider a Chinese spouse.

In 2008, when the global financial crisis left many Vietnamese women out of work, the Beijing Olympics and China’s seeming immunity from insolvency and unemployment led to a spike in cross-border marriages. A popular saying in parts of Vietnam goes: “Heaven is too far, but China is close.”

However, securing legal status in China takes a lot more than a marriage certificate, as Zhou Jiazhen, the food store proprietor in Yanxi, Fujian, is learning first-hand. Foreign nationals wishing to apply for the Foreigner Permanent Residence Certificate, China’s green card, through marriage, must have been resident in China with their Chinese spouse for five years, and either own or rent their own marital home. While a green card will entitle Zhou to the right to both claim welfare and to work, as well as the right to leave and enter the country freely, neither she nor her husband, Shi Hongzhong, earn enough to meet the housing requirement.

Zhou was the first foreign bride to arrive in Huzhu village, Yanxi township. Her fluent Chinese and ethnic background makes her largely indistinguishable from the local women. Two days after her first blind date with Shi, they held a Chinese-style wedding ceremony at Zhou’s family coffee plantation.

However, Zhou told NewsChina that she sees herself as neither Chinese nor Vietnamese. “In Vietnam, Chinese only marry Chinese,” she said. When her neighbors teased her about which side she’d take in another Sino-Vietnamese war, she quipped: “I’d stand in the middle and watch them fight.”

When asked if she was worried about being tricked into marriage, Zhou said: “[Shi] told me he had no money, no house and no parents. Who would lie about that?”

In early 2014, Zhou and her husband’s younger sister Hong Lijuan jointly opened a store in Yanxi, selling specialties from Vietnam. The business initially thrived thanks to growing numbers of Vietnamese brides arriving in the town, but has dwindled as dozens have trickled back over the border. To make ends meet, Zhou now moonlights as a seamstress at a local factory that makes tents.

Many Chinese men in rural areas believe a marriage certificate automatically means their wives can legally live and work in China. Most are entirely ignorant of the complex and highly restrictive national immigration laws that prevent foreigners from marrying into China.

An official surnamed Lin working in Zhangzhou’s Entry-Exit Administration (immigration) Bureau told NewsChina that over 2,000 Vietnamese nationals were married to local residents.

“They often ask about permanent residence, but applications have to be approved by the Ministry of Public Security and the local government is not in the position to make a decision. We can do nothing to help them,” Lin said.

“Children born overseas to two Chinese citizens, and foreigners who invest tens of millions of dollars into Zhangzhou or have made outstanding contributions to the city can be granted permanent residence, but even so, they have to go through complicated procedures to get green cards,” he continued. “So far, fewer than 10 foreigners have succeeded in gaining permanent residence status in Zhangzhou. Most have almost no chance of getting a green card.”

Vietnam-born Mi Chau, or Mei Zhu, 28, has lived in Zhangzhou as a housewife for four years. Her husband Ye Xiaoqing, 51, was badly injured in a car crash in 2014 and narrowly escaped death as his wife, lacking any identification, was not recognized by the local hospital as Ye’s legal next of kin.

Ye spent all the couple’s savings paying his medical bills, and is now unable to do manual labor, placing the entire burden of supporting the family on his wife’s shoulders. Although Mei wants to return to Vietnam this year, the country of her birth has never seemed so distant. Her husband, meanwhile, is anxious that she might never come back.

Duong That Muoi, or Yang Qimei, a Vietnamese-born ethnic Chinese woman from Ho Chi Minh City, is married to Yanxi local Wu Ajian. Yang works at a local toy factory, and told NewsChina that she was satisfied with her monthly income of more than 2,000 yuan (US$322), which she claims is nearly twice what she could earn in Vietnam. However, her illegal status means she has no access to social security.

“Because [Vietnamese women] have no legal identity, we have no way to apply for social security,” said Zhang Jianhong, owner of the plant. “We could face fines or other legal trouble if we are found out. Our [Vietnamese employees] have no bank cards, so we pay them in cash, which creates other financial problems. We didn’t know the relevant rules before we hired three Vietnamese workers. We have no plans to hire more.”

Despite being barred from claiming welfare or seeking legal employment, however, China’s Vietnamese-born brides are still subject to other social obligations. When Liu Ruiming’s Vietnamese wife gave birth to their second son, their local family planning affairs authority in Xihu village immediately sent a bill for more than 70,000 yuan (US$11,280) in “social maintenance fees,” a standard punishment in China for violating family planning rules.

Indeed, ongoing issues with immigration and the expense of raising undocumented families have led to a drop-off in the numbers of new cross-border marriages. In 2014, China hiked visa extension fees for foreign passport holders to 800 yuan (US$129) a year, a considerable sum for a rural farming family. Some have claimed that this hike, coming after years of struggle with the problem of stateless spouses in Yanxi, explains why no cross-border marriages between local men and Vietnamese women were recorded that year, according to the local civil affairs bureau.

According to the Fujian civil affairs department, 126 Vietnamese women married Yanxi locals between 2010 and 2014, with cross-border marriages peaking in 2011. Meanwhile, the number of Vietnamese brides who went missing soon after marriage was estimated at 30 to 40 or more.

Escape

Some media reports have exposed human trafficking rings which may have contributed to these “disappearances,” according to Wu Yanhua of Xiamen University.

“According to my research, there were a handful of cases in which Chinese men lied to their prospective Vietnamese wives,” Wu told NewsChina. “Owing to [the] distance and limited personal contact, Vietnamese women easily fall victim to fraud.”

Wu also claims that multiple factors, including limited loyalty to their Chinese spouse, a language barrier, unfamiliar food, family conflict and general disillusionment with Chinese village life, can all push new brides to abscond and return to Vietnam. Some agencies even offer to escort women back to Vietnam if they are unsatisfied with their husbands, while others, it is claimed, conspire with the future brides to secure a hefty commission before arranging a “disappearance” shortly after marriage.

Of the nearly 20 Vietnamese women interviewed by NewsChina, most stated that they felt regretful, frightened and unsatisfied on arriving in their new homes. All described quarreling with their husbands.

Li Guangyu, also known as Li Quang Ngoc, 23, was already a divorcee when she married 49-year-old Chinese national Wu Baolin, a fact she kept secret until after their wedding. She also concealed her 7-year-old daughter, who later came to China with her and took her husband’s surname. Since then, Li and Wu have quarreled over her perceived failure to provide him with his own child, with each side claiming that the other is infertile. While Li claimed that the couple “had no plans to have another child” during our interview, her husband, who was interviewed at the same time, asked our reporter to read the Chinese characters on the packaging of a folk remedy for infertility he had brought with him.

Li now works at a plastics plant in Yanxi and seldom asks her husband for money. She supports herself, her daughter and her brother in Vietnam, who is currently going through college. She has, however, ruled out the prospect of her daughter marrying a Chinese man. “I want her to get married in the United States,” she told NewsChina.

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