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Women Migrant Workers' Loveless Youth on Production Lines

Ah Fang has reached the ripe age for dating and marriage, but she is not in the right place.

Working long hours in an electronics plant in the booming city of Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, she hardly has any time, nor money, for going out with boys.

Ah Fang is one of 30-40 million female-migrant workers who toil in China's coastal boomtowns. Although experts have estimated there are more men in the country's "moving population" than women, in many plants where the work requires dexterity rather than lifting heavy stuff, women outnumber men by as much as nine to one.

In Ah Fang's plant there are 20 men out of a total pool of 100. She is separated from them in both work and living quarters. She rarely ventures out of the compound of the factory. The outside world is so chaotic, she said, that she feels safe staying in her dormitory reading romance novels after work.

When her coworkers get into steady relationships, they would give out candies to acknowledge it. And they would often move out to tiny apartments rented nearby.

A sense of unease lingered when Ah Fang first learned of such acts of premarital sex, but now she doesn't raise an eyebrow any more. It's all so natural.

When they want to get married legally, they would go back to their hometowns for the ceremony. But they would take off again for the big city. "The countryside is so boring. All my ex-schoolmates talk about is trivial things in their daily lives," said a newly-wed couple from Ah Fang's village in Neijiang, southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Few country girls would date or marry local men. Some complained they found Cantonese men to be male chauvinists. The problem is, no matter how long they work in the cities, it would be hard for them to get the urban-residency permit.

For those who are desperate to stay, some would become virtual concubines of city slickers, usually people with small businesses.

Research shows that after a migrant worker has been in a city for a while, he or she would have hopes of marriage. Gender difference plays a big role in adapting to the local environment.

Male migrants usually do not harbor the notion of marrying into the city but females want to take a step up via marriage. Girls would hesitate to hook up with guys who have never left their villages.

Dating among themselves is not easy. Besides the lopsided ratio in gender distribution, there is the lack of understanding of each other's background. Some of Ah Fang's friends would live with their companions for years without even knowing whether the guys already have wives at home.

Living together is also costly. Some female migrants spend a quarter of their meagre salaries of about 300-600 yuan (US$36-72) on contraception, said an official at Shenzhen Family Planning Association. The women wouldn't see these relationships as emotionally reliable. It's more often for keeping each other company.

At the age of 25 Ah Fang still has no opportunity of finding Mr Right. She is stuck in the physical and emotional limbo where her youth is given completely to the assembly line.

(China Daily HK Edition October 21, 2003)

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