In the early-1990s, a new area of Shenzhen sprung up almost overnight: er nai cun, or second wives’ village. At that time, businessmen from Hong Kong began to work over the border as the manufacturing industry moved from industrial areas of Kowloon to the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. Not only were low wage jobs disappearing in Hong Kong, but Deng Xiaoping promoted capitalism in his 1992 tour of southern China, including a stop in Shenzhen.
In the 1990s, Hong Kong businessmen would spend the week working in southern China, returning to their families on the weekend. For the factory workers—most of whom are young women—they often toiled 15 hours a day for six days a week. Noxious fumes combined with the sub-tropical climate of Pearl River Delta contribute to the difficult working conditions. With an increase of Hong Kong businessmen over the border and hundreds of thousands of women in search of better living conditions, second wives’ village boomed in the early 1990s. Concubinage was outlawed by the British in Hong Kong in 1971, but old traditions die hard.
Second wives were mainly relegated to this enclave until 1995 when Hong Kong introduced a one-way family reunification scheme. More than 1.32 million people—many of them young women “married” to older Hong Kong men—migrated from China to Hong Kong in the twenty years between 1995 and 2015. As travel to the United States from China has relaxed over the last two decades, especially for young women with means, many women, including mistresses and second wives, have opportunities to deliver their children in the US to obtain something that’s still coveted in China: a US passport.
Vanessa Hua’s debut novel, A River of Stars, tells the courageous story of a 36-year-old woman, Scarlett Chen, from Anhui province, one of the poorest in China. Scarlett moves to southern China for better earning opportunities and proves to be a diligent and intelligent worker at a factory managed by Boss Yeung, a married Hong Kong man almost twice her age. He’s also the father of three grown daughters. When Yeung overhears Scarlett speak about enrolling in a driving school, he preys on her and shows up for her first lesson. The two start driving around southern China so Scarlett can practice, all while Yeung appears to fall in love with her. Scarlett becomes pregnant and Yeung—elated he has finally sired a son and heir—sends his mistress off to Perfume Bay, a Los Angeles “hotel” for pregnant Chinese women. An old friend of Yeung’s fronted the money for Perfume Bay and Yeung wanted more than anything for his heir to be born in the United States and automatically obtain a US passport.
Scarlett is one of the few unmarried women at Perfume Bay. Her mother back in Anhui manages the village’s family-planning department, so Scarlett is all too aware of the difficulties she would face if she were to return to China to have her baby. As a single mother with a child born out of wedlock, she and her baby would receive no services and would be shunned by their community. Boss Yeung won’t have Scarlett move to Hong Kong, even though he could legally do that under the 1995 family reunification scheme. His wife and three daughters know nothing of Scarlett and her pregnancy. Yeung wants to keep it that way.
The birth tourism aspect of the book is minor, compared with how it’s billed on the dust jacket, yet it’s one of the strongest parts of the story. Women, mostly all married, from China and Taiwan flock to this complex run by Mama Fang, a mainland woman who moves to the US via Hong Kong and Panama. The women at Perfume Bay receive pre-natal care and post-partum pampering during zuo yuezi, or sitting out the month. These new mothers receive special foods to revitalize their energy and keep them warm when all sorts of outside elements like ice and cold foods threaten the health of their newborns. Scarlett settles into Perfume Bay and longs for Boss Yeung until Mama Fang tries to convince her to sign over rights to her unborn baby to Yeung.
At Perfume Bay, Scarlett meets Daisy Yuan, a surly Taiwanese teenager in search of her baby’s father, an American-born Chinese college student at Berkeley. When both Scarlett and Daisy have an opportunity to leave Perfume Bay, they head up north to San Francisco. The escape takes place in the early part of the story and the birth tourism part is over almost as quickly as it begins. The bulk of the story details the struggles Scarlett and Daisy face in a new country away from their families back in China and Taiwan, respectively. The new immigrant story is compelling and nail-biting at times, as Scarlett’s travel visa nears its expiration date. Vanessa Hua shows how new immigrants face difficulties in paying rent, finding jobs, changing their visa status, finding medical care, and making friends.
It’s sometimes difficult to tell whether Boss Yeung is a heartless predator or devoted partner. As the story progresses, Yeung’s motivations for finding his son seem less about locating his heir and more about reuniting with his true love, Scarlett. Likewise for Daisy’s long-lost boyfriend, William: while most of the story reads like a realistic portrait of life for new immigrants in the US, the prince charming aspect seems a little far-fetched.
That said, Hua also sheds light into the plight of Chinese factory workers and how they struggle, far from home, to make ends meet. They usually send most of their paychecks back to their families in poor parts of China. When a charming and wealthy man pays them attention, it’s not difficult to dream of storybook endings. But that’s usually the last thing that happens, as Hua shows throughout most of her book.
Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.