CHINA’S singles have it tough, battling a deep wealth divide and gender imbalance that makes it harder than ever to find true love.
With desperate young men advertising themselves on billboards and hiring professional matchmakers to find the right person, one tactic has proved unsurprisingly popular: mail-order brides.
But the dream weddings have turned into nightmares, with beautiful overseas spouses disappearing in hordes.
Vietnamese brides have been pouring into rural villages with a surplus of men over the past decade, and bachelors will pay as much as $25,000 to secure a match. Last November, the unthinkable happened: up to 100 wives from Hebei province vanished all at once.
With them went the matchmaker who had collected the cash, and provided a money-back guarantee. Bloomberg called it a “peculiarly Chinese instance of fraud”.
A year on, the jilted husbands are shaking their heads in confusion and despair. Li Guichen, a forty-something from the deprived village of Feixiang, cannot remember what his wife was called. She was gone after six days.
“I’m not sure what her name was, I didn’t even get to know her before she left,” he told the Financial Times. He didn’t seem to know much about her at all. “She was like a normal woman,” he offered, explaining that he had married her because she was more affordable than a local girl.
Chinese women now typically work in cities and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle with daily baths and all the amenities of urban areas — something men who live in rural areas simply can’t offer. These young women are unlikely to leave urban areas for a lower quality of life, even if that means staying single.
Li Yongshuai, also from Feixiang, kept the hair tie and cosmetics his wife Afang left behind, in what seems like the romantic gesture of a rejected lover. He keeps a photo of her, after scraping off the nail varnish she painted over her face before she left.
But he can’t give her last name, saying he never saw an ID card or passport.
His father Xinjiang is even more clueless about Afang’s identity. “We called her ‘Hey, come eat,’” he said.
Li met Afang at matchmaker Wu Meiyu’s beauty salon. Wu had reportedly arrived 20 years earlier from Vietnam as a mail-order bride, and specialised in finding affordable women for men, who could meet them at her “palace of romance”.
The wives came with no papers and often no Chinese.
Afang did not take well to life with Li’s family in rural China. She was expected to reproduce, and in return, was looked after. The first words she learnt were, “Mama, Papa, I’m out of money,” according to her ex-husband.
She made the family buy rice, which no one in northern China eats. She argued with Li, and he claims she appeared “happy” when he hurt his leg because she “thought she would get away for a few days.”
Many brides report not being allowed to visit their families in Vietnam, because their Chinese in-laws believe they would never come back.
After Afang vanished, the family found a Vietnamese-Chinese phrase book that gave some clues to what she was thinking. She had written out on a blank page: “That’s because you don’t allow me to go out”, “You smell!” and “You need a bath.”
Still, these Chinese husbands were determined to make their relationships work. But it was about to fall apart. Wu began going for long journeys with groups of girls, saying she was collecting ID cards to register them. She had promised that if they left their husbands before five years, the men would get new brides for free.
On November 21, 2014, the Vietnamese wives of Feixiang village said they were going to a party and disappeared en masse.
The grooms began calling each other trying to find the missing women, but their phones had gone dead. Some had left children behind, some had been with their husbands for years. The men had been victims of a massive con.
Police launched a special taskforce to investigate 28 reports of bride fraud in Hebei province (locals say the number was closer to 100, but many husbands didn’t want to make statements). In December 2014, detectives said they had made three arrests, although none was Wu. The case is said to be ongoing.
It isn’t unique. In March, police in Suiyuan discovered a Vietnamese bride fraud gang and arrested 11 people. In 2013, eight Vietnamese brides disappeared in Shandong province, and in 2012, eight vanished in Jiangxi.
This is unlikely to be the end of this kind of unhappiness and heartache. Men are expected to outnumber women by more than 33 million in China over the next five years, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. These surplus bachelors are known as guanggun, or “bare branches”. Women who fail to marry before 30, meanwhile, are known as “leftover women”.
In rural China, where sons were so important for farming while the one-child policy was in effect, the problem is now especially pronounced. The booming country has gone from exporting Chinese brides to Taiwan and Japan to importing them from poorer Asian nations.
But it doesn’t seem like there are many winners in this game of love.
This article original appeared on News.com.au