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  • China's Left-Behind Wives: Families of Migrants from Fujian to Southeast Asia, 1930s–1950s by Huifen Shen
  • Agnes Khoo
China's Left-Behind Wives: Families of Migrants from Fujian to Southeast Asia, 1930s–1950s, by Huifen Shen. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, and Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012, 259 pp. ISBN: 978-9971-69-561-3 / 978-988-8139-78-1

This book consists of two parts with four chapters in Part I and three chapters in Part II, interspersed with several interesting life narratives of women in China whose husbands had migrated to Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines), as well as Hong Kong between the 1930s and 1950s. With the introductory and concluding chapters framing the author's analytical perspective, the book presents an exhaustive list of archival material, as well as photographs that provide a rich, visual sense of the lives of families relying on migrant remittances in the Fujian Province. Besides conducting personal interviews with several 'left-behind wives', which allow the readers an intimate view of these women's experiences, the author made use of a wide variety of secondary sources—newspapers, government reports, policy documents, personal letters of migrants and their families—as well as scholarly research to lend credibility and authenticity to the oral narratives.

Migration from southern China to the Nanyang (Southeast Asia) began, according to the author, from as early as the 14th century and surged from the mid-19th century because of the region's colonial export economies (p. 1). And migration between China and Southeast Asia continues right up to this day, even though the trajectories have taken many twists and turns due to regime changes, and changes in foreign and economic policies, as well as policies towards migrants, both in China and Southeast Asia. Known as fankeshen in Mandarin and hwan ke jim in Hokkien, the 'left-behind wives' were a product of male migration from China to Southeast Asia from the 1930s to the early 1960s. Growing up in Singapore, for instance, I recall hearing stories of my classmates about their fathers' 'other wives in China'. One of them was so shocked when her father's 'first wife' and children suddenly turned up at their doorstep in the 1970s!

These 'left-behind wives' in China were obliged, by tradition, to live with, and take care of their in-laws while their husbands left for Southeast Asia for jobs or businesses even when these men hardly returned, or not at all. Thus, fankeshen had to live out their lives like 'widows', under the watchful eyes of their in-laws even when their husbands established another family outside their marriage, usually with local women in places where these men had settled down. Some of the 'left-behind wives' had refused to accept such polygamous relations and fought for divorce, especially when the laws were changed in their favour during the 1950s, after the establishment of the People's Republic of China. However, the more traditional among them tended to, albeit reluctantly, accept their husbands' infidelity and even abandonment as their 'fate'. Some even visited their husbands and their second families in Southeast Asia, so long as their husbands continued to send remittances to support them in China. Still there were others who managed to gain personal autonomy from their in-laws and absentee husbands by migrating to Hong Kong, particularly in the 1970s, where they found work in factories to support themselves and their families financially. While most of the fankeshens' [End Page 182] marriages existed only in name, and some of these marriages eventually broke down, these women nonetheless tended to embrace traditional values of chastity, loyalty and self-sacrifice that obliged them to remain in their marriage and care for their husbands' families and children.

Three dimensions of migration highlighted by the book's portrayal of fankeshen resonate with migration of our time. Firstly, the family's long-term reliance on migrants' remittances especially during hard times, such as natural calamities, civil unrest and wars. Lives of fankeshen varied widely depending on their husbands' circumstances abroad. They ranged from the very poor to the very rich, and...


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