Sunday, Janauary 3,1999
Sunday Plus: Page 4

Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

Playing a China bride in Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys is Quan Yifeng.
In real life, more Singapore men are marrying women from China.

China Girls

The influx of single Chinese women into Singapore is not a new phenomenon.
There were precedents early this century

ZHONG GUO MEI. Literally, little sisters from China, or as we English-educated have labelled them, China Girls.

They have been causing unhappiness among some of our womenfolk, these young single Chinese women who have been coming to Singapore in not insignificant numbers to study or work since the mid-'80s.

They are seen as a threat, taking away jobs and Singapore men. And they have an unfair advantage, since unlike Singapore women who have come to see themselves as the equal of men, they still stoop down to pamper the men.

They are ruthless gold-diggers who marry the guileless Singapore men for their money and a permanent residency status. Haven't you read the horror stories in the papers of these women divorcing their newly-wed husbands and demanding a sky-high alimony?

Worse, some of them are also wreckers of homes, like the Beijing mei who snared a middle-aged married Singapore man, and had the audacity to confront and beat up his poor Singapore wife, as was reported in the Chinese evening papers last weekend.

But the bad press is not fair to the China Girls, says Mr Y.J. Cheng, the 34-year-old manager of a dating agency, who himself took a Beijing bride and claims he has brought together many happy marriages between Singapore men and Chinese women.

"It's a Man Bites Dog syndrome. All the happy cross-border marriages are too uneventful to be reported. And most cross-border marriages are happy. I should know," he says of the bad press of zhong guo mei. (See cover story.)

It is a fact, though, that more Singapore men are marrying Chinese women. In 1996, about a fifth of the men who tied the knot took China brides.

I met one of the China brides at the recent Karen Mok concert in Canto disco. She is 24, from the central Chinese city of Chongqing. She was with a group of girlfriends, her husband was out of town on business.

Xiao Yun (not her real name) was so at ease in the disco and dancing so wildly that it was not easy to connect her with a previously closed country which has opened up to the rest of the world in only the last 20 years.

But then, unlike her parents who were born in the midst of a civil war and who lived through a chaotic Cultural Revolution that lasted 10 long years, Xiao Yun grew up in relative stability, in a China that saw its GDP soar from US$43.6 billion in 1979 to US$904 billion in 1997.

Still, Chongqing is a crowded city of six million people, and for Xiao Yun, life in Singapore is definitely better. She lives in a condominium, carries a cellular phone, wears second and third-line designer clothes, and has sent back enough money for her parents and a brother to set up a small transport business.

But, she laments, she has not been able to get PR status, despite her marrying a Singapore man. It will give her a stronger sense of security and allow her to travel in and out of China with greater ease, she tells me.

For now, she stays in touch with her mother through regular long distance phone calls.

Xiao Yun first ventured abroad when she was 19, as part of a cultural dance troupe which went on a year-long tour of various Japanese cities. To win a place in the troupe, she had to compete against more than 1,000 other applicants.

After a year's tour in Japan, she returned to Chongqing to work briefly as an announcer in a nightclub. She met a Chinese-Indonesian businessman from Medan, who set her up in Jakarta.

In 1996, she met and married a Singapore businessman in his 30s, and has lived here since.

Xiao Yun is typical of the zhong guo mei, a hardy breed of young women who have had to compete against many others to find their way out here. For example, she tells me, most of the service staff who work on board the cruise ships here are Chinese, but they have won their jobs the hard way, after having fought for them with thousands of other applicants. Of course, looks help.

My friend, the painter Ong Kim Seng, taught me over lunch the other day this Chinese phrase, bu shi meng long bu guo jiang. You do not venture across the river unless you are a bold dragon.

China Girls are also referred to as Little Dragon Girls, from the character in the popular Jin Yong (Louis Cha) swordfighting novel, Return Of The Condor Heroes, which TCS adapted recently as a serial starring Fann Wong.

Think of her highly-publicised problems when she made her first foray into Taiwan two years ago, and you realise how protected Singapore women -- and men -- have been generally, compared to the Chinese. But we are learning, and fortunately or unfortunately, the regional crisis is speeding up the learning process. THE influx of single Chinese women into Singapore and South-east Asia is not a new phenomenon. In fact, there were two such waves earlier this century.

The first were the mui-tsai, or little sisters in Cantonese. They were mainly adolescent girls from Guangdong who were sold and brought here as bond maidservants or prostitutes. The more fortunate ones found husbands and settled here. Others returned eventually or died desolate in the death houses in Sago Lane.

The second wave were also from Guangdong, the saw hei (combed), who were members of a sisterhood sworn to celibacy. They were silk workers from the counties of Shuntak, Namhoi and Punyu (the Three Districts) in the silk-producing area of the Guangdong delta who came by the shiploads in the '30s, driven out by the threat of war and the Japanese occupation of the province.

In fact, an estimated 19,000 female deck passengers between 18 and 40 years old landed in colonial Malaya in the five years between 1933 and 1938.

The saw hei sisters came to work as amahs for the British families, and like the Filipino and Indonesian maids of today, they could be seen pushing baby prams in the parks on Sundays.

When they came to Singapore and Malaya, where there were more men than women, a fair number of them broke their vows of celibacy (thankfully?). They are the grandmothers of some of today's generation of Singaporeans.

What distinguishes today's influx of single Chinese women from the mui-tsai and saw hei is the fact that they are not from Guangdong, but from northern and western China, from provinces like Heilongjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan and Shaanxi.

The Chinese diaspora around the world has until recent years been largely descended from emigrants who came from the two southern coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong. For the most comprehensive and accessible account of why this is so, check out Lynn Pan's Sons Of The Yellow Emperor, The Story Of The Overseas Chinese (1990), if you have not.

Suffice it for me to say here that today's movement of relatively large numbers of Chinese from the northern and the western provinces to other parts of the world, including Singapore, may be the first in this century, if not in China's history. The southward movement of the Han Chinese from the Yangtze delta to the borderlands, which now make up Fujian and Guangdong, in the seventh and 10th centuries, was not quite the same.

In any case, fewer people from Fujian and Guangdong need to leave their homes for a better life today, since theirs have been the fastest-growing parts of China since the country opened up in December 1978.

Back to the zhong guo mei in Singapore. Some among them would marry Singapore men, as has been the case in recent years. What this means, as an anthropologist would see it, is a small infusion of the northern stock into its ethnic Chinese population of largely the southern stock.

Whether this is a good or bad thing, I leave it to the experts to pronounce. I just want to point out that if this is a window of opportunity, then it is a limited one.

In less than 20 years, the Chinese economy may be the largest in the world, and its women -- and men -- may not need to seek a better life outside of the country.


Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia