Decoder: Asia’s Bride Market
How the demand for wives in South Korea, Singapore, and China is fueling a regional matchmaking trade.
On its website, J&N Viet-Bride Match-making Agencies promises “single, divorced or widow[ed]” men that it will help them “find their right/suitable lifetime wife” with “the shortest time & hassle.” Alongside pictures of smiling couples, the Singapore-based business pitches itself as a one-stop shop for prospective grooms looking for love outside the small island nation—specifically, a few hundred miles away in Vietnam.
J&N, which, among other services, arranges travel itineraries, first dates, and language classes so that new couples can communicate, is part of a growing trend: Across East Asia, a booming demand for brides is pushing (and sometimes forcing) women from poor countries—many of them in Southeast Asia—to wealthier ones. Altogether, more than half a million women have migrated to East Asia to wed since the early 2000s. In South Korea, as just one example, the percentage of men marrying noncitizens jumped from 1.6 percent in 1993 to 8 percent in 2013.
While international marriages have become a thriving industry in Asia, a dark underbelly also exists: Human trafficking plays a role in this migration, which has led some countries to enact restrictions on marriage brokering. Yet some women travel on their own terms, choosing to wed across borders for a more stable life, for long-term citizenship, or, yes, for love.
All the Single Ladies
The demand for foreign brides is particularly prevalent across affluent parts of East Asia: South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan, for instance. As economists Daiji Kawaguchi and Soohyung Lee outlined in their 2012 paper, “Brides for Sale: Cross-Border Marriages and Female Immigration,” men look abroad because a growing number of women in their home countries are delaying marriage or even opting out altogether. As women become more educated and financially independent, many are electing to forgo what remain highly patriarchal partnerships. According to Kawaguchi and Lee, a college-educated woman in developed East Asia is 50 to 200 percent more likely to remain single than a less-educated counterpart.
No Country for Eligible Men
China is one of the nerve centers of the foreign-bride market because of its distended gender gap. The country reported that 116 boys were born for every 100 girls in 2014. This disparity is largely a consequence of a decades-old fertility policy: Most Chinese families are restricted to having only one child, and in a culture where men are prized, the availability of sex-selecting technologies—namely abortion—has fueled one of the world’s most unbalanced birth ratios. In 2020, there will be an estimated 30 million more Chinese men of marrying age than women in the same group.
A network of professional marriage brokers keeps the bride market buzzing. In some cases, these intermediaries organize male and female recruits—often attracted through “mail-order” websites—to meet collectively in prospective brides’ home countries. The young singles go on a series of group dates, eventually pair off, and, within a few days, apply for marriage licenses. In other cases, the process is less structured, with family, friends, or informal matchmakers coordinating connections abroad.
Love Does Cost a Thing
The costs of a foreign match, which can include broker payments, a dowry, and legal fees, typically run in the tens of thousands of dollars. J&N’s cheapest package, for example, runs a prospective groom around $4,500.
Bought and Sold
The marriage trade isn’t always transparent. Some women are entrapped under false pretenses, coerced, or even sold into marriage against their will by family members, according to human rights groups. In January, Cambodian authorities arrested three suspects for allegedly trafficking women into China to wed. The arrests came months after the two countries announced plans to draft a memorandum of understanding to curb the cross-border trafficking of brides.
Often the circumstances of foreign brides don’t fit neatly into either legitimate matchmaking or forced marriage. For example, many women agree to marry voluntarily in the hopes of achieving upward socioeconomic mobility, but they may be given false information about the locations or incomes of their future spouses. Concerned about these more implicit forms of exploitation, a number of countries have tried to regulate bride migration. In South Korea, international-marriage brokers must register with the state; in Vietnam, commercial marriage agencies are outlawed altogether. (Weak rule of law, however, has allowed the practice to continue, and businesses like J&N regularly seek Vietnamese brides.)
Marriage Is Hard Work
The divorce rate among couples that meet through the bride market is high. In South Korea, four in 10 mixed-race marriages break down in the first five years, according to a survey by the Seoul-based Korean Women’s Development Institute. In response, last year the country placed new restrictions on such marriages: A prospective foreign bride must be fluent in at least one language her groom speaks, and Koreans are now limited to a single marriage-visa request every five years. In fact, South Korea has budgeted more than $100 million annually to fund counseling, interpreting services, and language classes for marriage migrants, among other foreigners, and their families. Other wealthy countries are also investing public resources in helping women adjust to their new communities. Local governments in Taiwan, for example, have organized cultural training programs for foreign brides.
Illustration by Jameson Simpson