Taking Stock of Love and Losses in the ‘World’s Supermarket’
Six years into their marriage, Shi’s husband vanished.
The pair had met in the mid-2000s in Yiwu, a trading hub in eastern China sometimes referred to as “the world’s supermarket.” An Egyptian, Shi’s husband was one of thousands of businesspeople from the Middle East and Africa who had come to the city in search of wealth, opportunity, and cheap goods. After a chance encounter at the Middle Eastern restaurant where Shi worked as a waitress, they fell in love, got married, and started a successful wholesale business together — all in a matter of months.
At work, they quickly fell into a pattern: Shi was responsible for sourcing products from Chinese factories while her husband found buyers abroad and grew their client base. So, she thought nothing of it when he told her in the winter of 2013 that he would return to Egypt for Chinese New Year. Rather than go with him, she decided to stay in Yiwu to look after the couple’s business interests and young son. It wasn’t until he was gone that Shi realized he had left behind nearly one million yuan ($137,400) in debts. Her attempts to contact him went nowhere. Running out of options, Shi quietly abandoned their rented office and home and retreated to her hometown in the neighboring Jiangxi province with their four-year-old child.
It didn’t take long for her suppliers to find her. Four of them showed up at her door one day, barricading her inside in an attempt to force her to pay. Relenting only after she threatened suicide, they agreed to a gradual repayment plan. Leaving her child with her parents, Shi returned to Yiwu, still alone, to work off what she owed.
Although not commonly ranked among China’s international hubs like Beijing, Shenzhen, or Shanghai, Yiwu welcomes nearly half a million foreign buyers each year. According to state media reports, roughly 15,000 — most of them men from the Middle East or North Africa — live in the city long-term, setting up businesses, hiring staff, and in some cases, marrying locals and starting families.
Not all these unions end like Shi’s. Between 2015 and 2016, I spent 12 months in Yiwu and interviewed over 100 people involved in transnational marriages. At their best, the pairings offer mutual support in life as well as business. But the complex entanglement of love and commerce that characterizes many of these relationships is fraught with uncertainty — especially for Chinese women, whose credit within the local community is perhaps the couples’ greatest asset, even as it exposes the wives to additional risk should their marriages one day fall apart.
Most of the transnational marriages I observed in Yiwu began as office romances. Foreign businessmen who come to the city to trade typically start small, setting up an office and hiring a handful of staff. The employees, many of them migrant women from poorer provinces across China, are tasked with a wide range of responsibilities extending far beyond the workplace, from managing accounts to running errands — even doing their bosses’ grocery shopping. Not infrequently, these blurred boundaries lead to close personal relationships that can blossom into love and marriage.
Locally, the women who enter into relationships with non-Chinese businessmen are often dismissed as socially ambitious gold diggers. Typically poorly educated, prior to their marriages they either worked in their husband’s companies or else in the service industry. If not for their husbands, they might have married migrant workers of similar backgrounds and continued as wage earners. Their choice to marry a non-Chinese and go into business fits neatly into Chinese cultural stereotypes about migrant girls who leverage their looks to become “boss wives.”
The reality is often quite different. Far from unequal unions, I came to see these partnerships as a kind of “joint-venture marriage” — an academic term coined by anthropologist James Farrer to describe a relationship that mixes business with love, and which is characterized by a clear division of labor between the spouses.
In the case of transnational marriages in Yiwu, the Chinese wives typically handle the company’s supply chain in China while their husbands concentrate on growing sales overseas. Having a Chinese business partner, spouse or otherwise, is a significant asset in Yiwu, which essentially runs on credit, and local suppliers tend to trust the local wives of international businessmen more than their husbands, both due to their identity and their ability to speak Chinese. Their social networks are also located domestically, a reassurance in the face of the unpredictability and risks of foreign trade.
This division of labor doesn’t mean couples don’t work closely with each other. When I met Li, a Chinese woman married to Mohammad, a Palestinian trader, she was in the middle of a dispute with a supplier who had delivered a batch of hardware goods worth more than 200,000 yuan in the wrong color. Her staff failed to catch the mistake before mailing it off to a Saudi buyer, sending both Li and her husband scrambling. Eventually, they persuaded the buyer to agree to a 50% discount and the supplier to shoulder 60% of the loss.
Multinational, family-run companies like theirs are numerous in Yiwu. Their overhead is low, and couples frequently try to cut expenses by handling everything themselves. Women in these relationships quite literally must be able to do it all: accounting, errands, translation, and anything else that’s needed, all while simultaneously caring for their families.
When Li’s husband first came to China more than two decades ago, his venture was nothing more than a tiny office; thanks to their joint efforts, it has since expanded into a medium-sized foreign trading company with more than 30 employees and clients across the Middle East, Africa, and Russia. But in many ways, it still resembles a small family business. Li manages both the firm’s finances and its Chinese staff, who prefer communicating with her. And just as her husband might take a visiting client out to smoke shisha, she’ll go out for beauty treatments and shopping trips with the wives of key suppliers in an effort to build closer ties.
All this has come at a cost. Li likened her daily life to a “spinning top”: She has almost no time to slow down. “From the minute I wake up, I have to take care of my three children, send them to school, and then go to work immediately,” she said, before rattling off a list of questions that define her day. “Which pre-orders are arriving today? Have the cabinets been ordered? What’s the payment status?”
Family ties and gone guys
Transnational and transcultural relationships can be difficult enough on their own terms, but in China, where foreigners comprise a tiny fraction of the overall population, the challenges can be even greater.
Bin was the first woman from her small village in the remote northwestern province of Gansu to marry a non-Chinese. Prior to meeting her Iraqi boyfriend, her parents knew almost nothing about his country or background, and they didn’t take his appearance in stride. He looked nothing like how they imagined their future son-in-law, and they struggled even to communicate with him, relying on hand gestures or Bin’s interpreting.
After the meeting, Bin’s parents made their objections to the marriage clear. Some of their concerns were practical: In China, the high cost of childcare means it’s common for both sets of grandparents to take turns looking after young children. But it was unlikely that Bin’s boyfriend’s parents would ever come to China. Even more worrying was the thought that her husband might move away for good, leaving Bin in an unstable situation, or worse, that the pair might relocate together to Iraq.
Such concerns were shared by almost all the parents of my interviewees. They often translated into a desire for security — specifically in the form of a bride price. This became another barrier for many couples. For example, Li’s parents insisted on a bride price of 50,000 yuan ahead of their marriage in 2000, while her husband’s family argued that their hometown customs dictated that the amount be decided by the man and that the bride bring it with her to the groom’s house. Finally, after much back-and-forth, the families reached a compromise: The bride price would still belong to Li and be accessible to her at any time, but it would temporarily be held in her father’s keeping.
Most couples aren’t able to work out a solution as easily as Li did, leaving them to quietly take out loans in order to afford the asked-for bride price. The wives then work alongside their husbands to repay this and the couple’s other business loans. If the partnership one day sours, the “security” promised by their bride price can easily become a burden.
Another factor in the instability of some of these relationships is also their greatest strength: their clearly defined social networks. Foreign trade in Yiwu runs on credit, and within the “joint-venture marriages” I observed, Chinese wives are often seen as ideal guarantors due to their closer relationships with suppliers and because their social networks are located domestically. Shi, for instance, managed the supply chain for her and her husband’s company and served as the direct contact for their suppliers. They neither knew nor particularly cared about her husband’s stake in the business. While it may be possible for men like her husband to escape their debts by fleeing, for the wives, doing so would mean sacrificing their homes and families. Many feel they have no choice but to stay.
Compounding the problem, many of the Chinese wives I interviewed said they had never visited their husbands’ hometowns, even after marriage, and they rarely had a relationship with their in-laws. Some attributed this to the fact that war and volatile political and economic environments are a staple of life in the Middle East and North Africa. But if something goes wrong for a man back home, their wives may find themselves left out of the loop.
One of my interviewees, Hua, told me her Iraqi husband disappeared after traveling home over the 2014 Chinese New Year. He reappeared just as suddenly three years later, telling her he had spent that time in prison on assault charges.
A “brides’ family”
Given the uncertainties in their marital lives, the women I interviewed were always on the lookout for sources of security. Some purchased property, whether in Yiwu or back in their hometowns. Others entered into or created “brides’ families”: support groups for women in transnational marriages.
Li was one of the first in Yiwu to realize that women like her needed to organize and look after each other. She told me that the wives’ situations differed from those of ordinary women in China: Their concerns were unique, and they needed a place to share them with people who could relate. To that end, in 2008, she started inviting eight women in transnational marriages for regular chats on holidays or whenever else they were free.
Over time, more and more women started to join. Nicknamed the “brides’ family” by its members, it became a sisterhood where wives could find social support or just a sympathetic ear.
As the unofficial head of this “family,” Li began organizing larger gatherings to discuss marital issues, especially everyday disagreements the women were having with their husbands. These meet-ups were meant to help members find solutions, but also to provide attendees a chance to share their thoughts and hear from others experiencing the same challenges.
Other forms of support are more concrete: Women in the group often help each other with child-sitting and other responsibilities. They also alternate hosting responsibilities whenever a member has family visiting from out of town, and they bring their parents along to show them that they’re not alone in a place like Yiwu.
For Bin’s parents, their exposure to the brides’ family — and seeing that their daughter was well supported — was an important part in their eventual acceptance of her relationship. “They all took me by the hand individually and told me not to worry, that Bin would be safe here with them,” Bin’s mother later told me. “If anything came up at home, they were all just a phone call away. If her kid needed to be picked up, one of them would help. They’re closer than sisters.”
“Even if she (Bin) had married a Chinese person, she might not necessarily be happy,” Bin’s mother added. “We’re all from the countryside, so she would’ve married a villager, which would’ve been hard too. That’s why we agreed (to her marriage).”
The bride’s family even provides a commercial edge, as the wives offer financial support and share market information with each other. In Yiwu, market resources are as essential as they are closely guarded, but that wasn’t true among members of the sisterhood, who willingly shared tips and other information within the group.
This support extends to members in financial straits. For Shi, the woman abandoned by her spouse, members raised 300,000 yuan to help repay her biggest suppliers. She raised more from family and friends and took two jobs and began selling jewelry at night markets to help pay off the rest.
Seeing how hard she was working, her creditors eventually eased up on their demands. More than a year later, she received a call from her husband. He told her that one of their buyers had gone bankrupt and couldn’t pay for the goods. He couldn’t either, so he’d returned to Egypt to slowly collect the money owed to him while looking for a new buyer. When Shi asked him why he had never reached out to her or their son, he said only that he was afraid to face them.
Shi paid off the couple’s debts without his help. She later heard that her husband had returned to Yiwu, but they never reunited.
Chinese women in transnational marriages are often depicted in shades of black and white: either as grasping social climbers or the vulnerable victims of unscrupulous foreign men. Their capabilities and contributions after marriage go overlooked, in spite of the pivotal role they play in transnational trade and capital flows. Instead, their work is subsumed into derogatory labels like “boss’ wife” or “mistress.”
But structural gender inequalities shouldn’t obscure the fact that these women are driving cross-border trade just as much as their male partners. Far from being pure status-seekers, they take on remarkable risks for the sake of love and a better future. Not all succeed, but the women I met in Yiwu showed a remarkable capacity for adaptation and versatility. They’ve also created a new, entirely women-run organization that challenges the traditional patriarchal family unit. It may not always be the perfect life, but it’s indisputably one they built for themselves.
To protect the identities of her research participants, the author has given them pseudonyms.
Editor: Cai Yiwen; visuals: Wang Zhenhao and Ding Yining.