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

In the corner, sitting separately, are two young women, whispering. With darker complexions, deeper eye sockets and thicker lips, they look distinctly 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."

It was about seven or eight years ago that the first Cambodian bride appeared in Huanggang, a rural township with two dozen or so local villages scattered along each side of the river. Some villager had gone to work in Yunnan — a province bordering Vietnam, Laos and Burma — and his client introduced him to a girl from his family. Thanks to her satisfaction with her new life in China, she spread the word to other women that they should come to Jiangxi.

Finally this riverside township, which used to be famous only for having floods every year, has turned into China's most famous "collection and distribution center" for Cambodian wives.

Huanggang now features more than a dozen "brokers" specialized in bringing together Cambodian women and Chinese men. In the past three years, thanks to Cambodia's convenient new regulations for marrying foreigners, Jiangxi's official marriage registration department has counted more than 2,000 cases involving Cambodian women; this far exceeds the number of Vietnamese brides. Massive numbers of Cambodian women are also flocking into other coastal provinces such as Fujian and Zhejiang.

Marrying far from home

"I was willing to marry this far away," said Xiaoyan, 30, who already has a strong local Jiangxi accent and has a one-year-old Jiangxi son. She got married two years ago, and not long after their wedding her husband was obliged to go to the coastal region of Zhejiang to work so as to repay the debt to the matchmaker and furnish their brand new three-storey house. Xiaoyan sees him only once a year.

As one of the world's most under-developed nations, 20.5% of Cambodia's population live in poverty, according to the most recent figures in 2011. That means some 8 million people live on less than $2.30 a day.

As Xiaoyan pointed out, in her village the poorer you are, the earlier a girl gets married. She didn't get married until she was 28-years-old. She married a Chinese man because "the Cambodian men are too poor."

20.5% of Cambodia's population live in poverty — Photo: shankar s.

Before 2010, Chinese men were not Cambodian girls' first choice. Massive numbers of Cambodian women married via intermediaries with South Koreans. In 2008 South Korea accounted for over 25,000 newly wedded Cambodian brides.

Today, China is overtaking South Korea to become Cambodian women's main destination for marrying a foreign man. Xiaoyan said she had not a clue what it was like in China except that "it's a lot richer and bigger."

Meanwhile, whereas marital violence is commonplace in Cambodia, she heard that "Chinese men don't beat their wives."

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

Left-over men

Cambodian women usually enter China in a group. Agents from Huanggang then hire a truck and pick them up from Guangzhou or Shanghai airport and bring them back to the township. Local people reckon it's only men who haven't been able to find a Chinese wife who would consider marrying a foreign one.

"There are too many single men in the countryside. For years Huanggang's birth control was extremely stringent," complained an unlicensed truck driver. In his view, since every couple could only have one child and prefer that the child is a boy, the sex-selective abortions have caused this all too common "left-over" men state of affairs.

And Huanggang is not an isolated case. After decades of harsh family planning policy China is now facing the critical negative effect of a serious gender imbalance. In China, the sex ratio at birth of girls and boys is 100 to 118. It's estimated that by 2020 China will have about 30 million "bachelor" men of whom the majority are from poor rural areas.

Take Huanggang as an example. Two types of men have meager chances of finding a wife: the handicapped and the destitute. As the villagers pointed out, local people marrying their daughters still follow the custom of asking for 200,000 RMB ($32,400) of dowry. Even though it is a relatively rich village in China there are nonetheless men who can't find wives.

Xu Gang is a 37-year-old man. Though healthy and not too poor, he only has four years of elementary education and has an "introverted character," in his own words. After two failed relationships, he was determined to get married so he finally accepted a matchmaker's proposition of a Cambodian wife. He still regrets this decision bitterly.

Xu Gang paid a "finder's fee" worth several thousand dollars, which put him in debt. A blind date was arranged. Though the intermediary emphasizes that the match-making “goes two ways,” the man usually gets to choose the girl he likes first. Afterwards the girl would visit the boy’s home and decide if she wants to marry him. If not, she can make another choice.

“In general as long as the man has a house the girl doesn’t turn down the proposition of marrying him,” said one villager.

When Xu Gang “chose” his bride, there was only one girl left from that batch of Cambodian women. This girl whom he and his family called Suping was 23-years-old. When she was brought to Xu Gang’s home, she was clearly 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 telephone. After a while the intermediary came back to tell them that he had managed to persuade the girl to marry him.

It was not until a year later that Xu learned from another Cambodian bride living in the same village that Suping had been cheated by the 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.

The formalities

Over the past three years, the Jiangxi foreign adoptions and foreign marriage registration center has become a crowded place. 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 to-be-married is a single woman.

Though Wang Wenliang, director of the registration office, confirmed that he had seen Cambodian girls arrive at the office crying for help, he said he didn't sense any abnormality when Xu and Suping processed their marriage license at the center.

In Xu's words, 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 calls service so she could regularly talk with her family. Suping wasn't expected to work very much, in or outside the home.

However, Suping remained obviously unhappy. Because of the language barrier there existed almost no communication between her and Xu. There were also fights over food, with Suping not used to the spicy fare of Xu's family.

Apart from eating and sleeping together the couple couldn’t find any common ground between them. Xu knew absolutely nothing about Suping's family either.

Suping didn't get pregnant either. Xu Gang had given up going to the city as a migrant worker in the hope that he'd have a child soon, and yet nothing happened. Xu even suspected that Suping had secretly been using contraception.

by 2020 China will have about 30 million "bachelor" men — Photo: torbakhopper

After making the acquaintance with other compatriots in the village, Suping started going out for entire days at a time. Xu's home just became like a free hotel for her. Lacking the possibility of communication, "we couldn't even argue," Xu recalled.

It was later that Xu found out that Suping was busy fixing up another Cambodian girl from her hometown to marry a Chinese guy, taking a commission as a matchmaker. Using that money, she went back to Cambodia.

Horror stories

There are of course far worse outcomes. Since the second half of last year, Cambodia's consulate in Shanghai has received numerous Cambodian women's calls for help. Last month, they sent six women back home who had fled from this region, while another ten are hiding in a basement near the consulate waiting for formalities to return home.

Hong Thavery, 19, told us her story. She was abducted by a Cambodian woman in Phnom Penh who told her she could earn good monthly wages in China working in the factory. She agreed. Then a Chinese man came to pick her up, along with four other girls, to take them to an undisclosed airport to catch a plane to an undisclosed location.

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

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

China's control

Still, Wang Wenliang says forced marriages involving violence or fraud remain the exception. He did acknowledge that there were numerous cases of women who had "voluntarily" married their Chinese husbands, but did not feel accustomed to the local life and got divorced or fled after constant conflicts with their Chinese spouses and families.

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

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

He reckoned that in the global context of uneven economic development there would always be women willing to exchange for a better material life at the expense of their freedom and happiness. It's a question of demand and market. 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.

Meanwhile, since last January, Jiangxi's relevant departments have paid visits to the Cambodian consulate in China to reconsider policy 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 an official divorce. "I'll take whatever she can afford to compensate me and accept my fate," he said.