Struggles of a Hongkonger’s Chinese ‘second wife’ in US realistically portrayed in debut novel
Story of Shenzhen factory worker made pregnant by a Hong Kong businessman, her time as a birth tourist in the US and her attempt to make a life there is compelling and believable
A River of Stars
by Vanessa Hua
In the early 1990s, a new area of Shenzhen, the city in China that borders Hong Kong, sprang up almost overnight and soon was known as the “second wives’ village”. At that time, businessmen from Hong Kong had started to work over the border as manufacturing moved from industrial areas of Kowloon to the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.
They would spend the week working in southern China, returning to their families at the weekend. Factory workers – mostly young women – often toiled 15 hours a day there for six days a week; noxious fumes combined with the subtropical climate made working conditions difficult.
With this influx of Hong Kong businessmen on the one hand and hundreds of thousands of women in search of better living conditions on the other, this enclave for second wives boomed in the early 1990s. The British had outlawed the practice of men taking concubines 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 mainland China to Hong Kong in the 20 years between 1995 and 2015.
As travel to the United States from China has become easier during the past two decades, many women, including lovers and second wives, have been able to deliver their children in the US to obtain something that is still coveted in China: a US passport.
This is the background for Vanessa Hua’s debut novel, A River of Stars, which tells the story of a 36-year-old woman, Scarlett Chen, from Anhui province, one of the poorest in China. Scarlett moves to southern China for a better life 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 is 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, 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 lover 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 will not have Scarlett move to Hong Kong, even though he could legally do that under the 1995 family reunification scheme, while is wife and three daughters know nothing of Scarlett and her pregnancy, and Yeung wants to keep it that way.
The birth tourism aspect of the book is minor, yet it’s one of the strongest parts of the story. Women, mostly married, from mainland China and Taiwan flock to Perfume Bay, which is run by Mama Fang, a woman from China who moves to the US via Hong Kong and Panama. The women there receive prenatal care and postnatal pampering, and Scarlett settles there and longs for Yeung, until Mama Fang tries to convince her to sign over the 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 Scarlett and Daisy have an opportunity to leave Perfume Bay, they head 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 is about the struggles Scarlett and Daisy face in a new country away from their families. The new- immigrant story is compelling and at times nailbiting, such as when Scarlett’s travel visa nears its expiration date. Hua shows the difficulties new immigrants face paying rent, finding jobs, changing their visa status, getting medical care, and making friends.
It is sometimes difficult to tell whether Boss Yeung is a heartless predator or devoted partner. As the story progresses, his motivation for finding his son seems 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 sheds light on the plight of Chinese factory workers and how they struggle, far from home, to make ends meet. They usually send most of their pay 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 is usually the last thing that happens, as Hua shows throughout most of her book.