Fri, 29 Sep 2000

Contract marriages a ticket out of a small town

SINGKAWANG, West Kalimantan (JP): With too much makeup for her tender years, Su Khim is about to embark on a momentous journey.

As a car pulled up in front of a three-star hotel in the center of Singkawang, she was one of the four people who alighted.

The others were two middle-aged men and a doltish looking young man.

They sat in the lobby, and the two older men began making a series of calls on their cellular phones. One of them came over to the young woman and told her: "If the phone rings, you must answer yes."

The man continued by telling her how she should answer the call in the Chinese dialect of Taiwan. Su Khim appeared timid, which irritated the man.

"How will you be able to go to Taiwan to see your mother-in- law if you can't even do such a simple thing?" he barked.

Su Khim is only one of thousands of ethnic Chinese young women from Singkawang who choose to marry men from Taiwan in contract marriages.

Economic woes are the greatest push for the amoy, as Singkawang's ethnic Chinese women were once known, to seek a foreign bridegroom. Unlike many other Chinese-Indonesian communities, Singkawang is relatively poor. Most of the people are vegetable farmers or fishermen.

Unmarried men from Taiwan have realized it is easy to find a wife in the small town, which has led to brokers setting up business to help them in their search.

Language is no handicap. Though Singkawang residents speak Hakka as their vernacular dialect, they quickly become fluent in the dialect of Taiwan.

From hunger

Su Khim, who is from Karimunting village, Sungai Raya subdistrict, said she only finished the sixth grade of elementary school two years ago, which would make her about 15 years old.

She helped her parents in farming but they lived in poor conditions. One day a distant male relative came to her family and asked Su Khim if she would be interested in going to Taiwan.

It was not for a job offer, but to become the wife of a young man.

Su Khim did not find the offer strange because several girls from her neighboring village had married men from Taiwan. She did not think long and hard about the matter, but decided it was a way to help her family.

She was told to have her photograph taken to be sent to Taiwan. She did not have to wait long because a month later there was a reply from her prospective husband.

He was the younger man in the lobby. Although the man suffers from polio and is not particularly attractive, Su Khim said she was still willing to go through with the plan "because he's still young".

She will try out the marriage arrangement by staying in Taiwan for a year.

Kenny Kumala of Singkawang's Ethnic Chinese Communication Forum (Foket) said the large number of Singkawang Chinese girls marrying men from Taiwan began to emerge in the 1970s.

He said it was better today because the man was required to meet his prospective wife before the marriage day. "In the past they didn't know who their husbands before they went to Taiwan," she said.

Kenny did not deny the arrangement held risks for the women. "I've received information from a non-governmental organization in Taiwan that there are 10,000 girls from Singkawang whose status is unclear."

He also did not dispute that many girls also married good spouses.

"It is they who send money to their families in Singkawang each month," Kenny added.

Tjang Fo Hon, the head of a monastery in Singkawang, said men from Taiwan chose women from Singkawang as their wives because they were considered patient and not materialistic.

He said most of the men found it difficult to find partners in their own country, sometimes because of their looks but mostly because they were "not established".

Marriage to Singkawang women is a bargain for them. They only pay for their flights to Singkawang and a small dowry to their new in-laws. It's relatively inexpensive due to the strength of the Taiwan dollar to the rupiah.

The marriages are most often carried out at the public records' office. However, the men cannot bring their new wives to Taiwan until the women have changed their citizenship, which involves submitting applications to the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Jakarta.

"The process can take three months," Tjang Fo Hon added. If the applications are approved, the wives can follow their husbands.

In addition to send money back to their parents every month, the women usually return home for Chinese New Year.

Aloysius Kilim, regional legislature for Bengkawang regency, said there was no administrative way to prevent the marriages, despite protests that some of the women are underage.

"Anyhow their families become prosperous because their children have married in Taiwan," he said.

For some women and their families, it's the only way for them to create a better life. (Erma S. Ranik)