"I cried so many times, it was selling human meat!" says Autumn Fan of her experience of being vended by a marriage broker. Fan had been one of about one hundred young women offered to a group of Taiwanese bachelors during a matchmaking trip to Vietnam. Twelve at a time, the girls were seated on a sofa for the men to eyeball.
"I wasn't particularly happy or sad about being chosen," says Fan, who was 19 at the time. "My mind was just blank. I had no idea who this person was, what my future would be." They had dinner, a silent date for lack of a common language, and then she married the foreigner so her parents could earn $1,000. Her three sisters later made the same choice.
As less desirable men find themselves snubbed by Taiwan's sophisticated women, one in four grooms in Taiwan now marries a bride from Southeast Asia or mainland China. "There's a strong urban bias in Taiwan," says Professor Hsia Hsiao-chuan of Shih Hsin University's Graduate Institute of Social Transformation Studies. "That means farmers and blue-collar workers have a hard time finding wives." But the rejected and dejected are treated like kings by professional matchmakers, who take them on trips to browse for brides in poorer parts of Asia.
Like any other, the resulting marriages can be heaven or hell. "The husbands fall into two extremes," says Keh Yu-ling, director of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation which serves the new immigrants, "simple shy guys who dote on their wives, or men with no respect for women." Fan had a taste of both. Her husband was sweet, she said, until he lost his job and began abusing her. When he broke her rib, she divorced him. Fan is grateful, however, for her freedom and the custody of her daughter. Of her ex-husband, she says, "We do our part as wives and mothers, but when they're unhappy, they say things like 'I bought you.' Why couldn't he say he married me?"
Hsia blames the ruthless dealers: "They push men to buy a product and even teach them how to control their wives". Ads with lines like "Vietnamese Wife for $6,000," "Guaranteed Virgin" and "Refund for Runaways" were rampant before the government regulated content. Even then, more recent ads promised: "Vietnamese make ideal wives: pretty, tidy housekeepers, obedient."
For railway worker Lee Shuang-chuan, they were also disposable. He derailed the train that carried his second Vietnamese wife. As she was recovering from the "accident" in the hospital, he injected her with deadly snake venom it turned out he had taken out a $2 million accidental death insurance policy on her. As police began zeroing in on him as a murder suspect, Lee hanged himself from a tree. His first Vietnamese wife died of "a snakebite" four years earlier.
Lee's case, as well as public outrage over reported instances of virtual slavery, have drawn attention to the vulnerability of foreign wives here. To prevent the women from being purchased like commodities, Taiwan enacted a law last month cracking down on the foreign-bride industry and its advertisements. The law requires Taiwan's roughly 500 matchmaking agencies to become non-profit organizations and adhere to stricter regulation, or face recurring fines of up to $15,000.
Despite the new law, many Taiwanese have yet to embrace the roughly 366,000 Asian women who moved here to marry. Vietnamese wife Sho-chen complains that people on the street say to her, "You Vietnamese wives only cost $8,000, do you know how expensive a Taiwanese woman is?!"
Still, Taiwan does offer Southeast Asian wives free language classes and the opportunity to work or study upon arrival. Some have adjusted well: Mae-kwang, for example, whose delectably addictive Vietnamese restaurant near my home has three busy branches all within a minute's walk.
But many of the wives who came to Taiwan in search of a better life end up incurably homesick. Fan and her three sisters all regret their decisions to marry Taiwanese men. One of the sisters also got a divorce after her husband had an affair. Autumn Fan sighs, "If our family had more money, we wouldn't have done this. We always get together and talk about how much we miss home."