The bad reputation of mainland Chinese women (in my part of the world)

Chinese New Year is a time for family gossip. Two days ago, over sweet tangerines and chicken jerky in my family home in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, my Auntie Chan (who is related to me in some convoluted way) said she prayed that the Year of the Rabbit would bring luck and fortune to her family… such as her son ending his relationship with “a China girl.”

China girl? I asked. What China girl?

“He’s been seeing this girl from who-knows-what province in China,” she scowled. “A ‘student’ here, so he thinks. She’s very pretty. Sexy. No wonder he’s so ga-ga over her.”

What’s wrong with this Chinese girl? I wondered.

“Oh. She’s been very sweet. But… she’s a China girl. And whatever their good intentions, these women from China eventually get up to no good here.”

The sort of photo that usually accompanies local news reports on Chinese nationals caught working illegally in Malaysia.

Her comment bothered me, even though it definitely wasn’t the first time in my Southeast Asian life I’d heard such comments by local Chinese regarding mainland Chinese women. In the past, I’d usually be bored by those sentiments and brush them aside, but there were times, I’ll admit, that I agreed with them, nodding my head and giving my own examples of “China girls” I’d read about who’d “gotten up to no good.”

But living in China and the meaningful friendships I’ve developed with some mainland Chinese women have affected my ability to appreciate flippant remarks about “China girls.” Out of respect for my auntie, I swallowed my discomfort and let her rant against her son and his no-good China girlfriend who she was sure was nothing but a gold-digging opportunist who would dump him after she’d gotten all she wanted.

Yesterday night, my mother and I were sitting on the couch reading newspapers when she laughed and thrust her paper into my face. “Remember what Auntie Chan was saying about those China girls?” she asked. “Here’s another example.”

My mother had been reading the “Dear Thelma” section in The Star‘s Sunday Starmag pullout, and yesterday’s sad soul needing advice was a Malaysian man in his early fifties who was in a bad relationship with a China woman. You can read his letter here.

A summary of this man’s problems: He is in love with a Chinese national he met eight years ago. She was in Malaysia on a student visa but worked as a prostitute; her only reason for being here was to make as much money as she could. He paid RM20,000 to her pimps to bail her out, and gave her another RM10,000 because he was smitten with her. She ran off and married someone else in Taiwan, but he still sent her money. She later wanted to divorce her husband, with whom she had a kid, and contacted this sad Malaysian guy again, rekindling their romance. Against his better judgement, he agreed to bring her back to Malaysia for a visit, and for the first time saw her as selfish and cunning, but is still in love with her. He suspects she uses sex for power, but loves her and believes she loves him. Now he doesn’t know what to do.

My mother’s summary of this man’s problems: Dirty old uncle blinded by a pretty, willing China girl who uses him when it suits her. A woman who, no surprise, was in Malaysia on a fake student visa for the purpose of “getting up to no good” in the first place.

The discomfort I’d felt earlier on with my auntie swelled up again. “Not all China girls are bad, Ma,” I said, thinking about my friends back in Shanghai. “Anyway, it’s this old uncle’s own fault that he’s so in love with her he can’t turn her away. He’s the one asking for trouble.”

“Not all China girls are bad,” my mother agreed, surprising me. “But the ones flooding into Malaysia have a bad reputation. Week after week you read about police raids on bars where they find China girls working here illegally. Many of them are mistresses. Why do you think Malaysia won’t allow China girls to come in as maids? Their whole purpose in coming here is to start affairs, catch a rich man as soon as possible. These old apeks; their wives are old, and now they have beautiful young China girls throwing themselves at them. What apek is going to say no? And then they cry when the girls run away with their money. The whole situation is stupid.”

I thought back to Auntie Chan and her concern over her son, who was a young man starting his first job, not a rich old Malaysian Chinese apek. “What about him?” I asked. “Why would auntie be concerned that his girlfriend is an opportunist when he doesn’t have much to his name?”

My mother mulled over it. “Remember your Singapore uncle who married that woman from Tianjin?” she asked. “They met in China, and she married him within a month. A month! Do you think she would have married some Chinese guy from her own city that quickly? She saw it as an opportunity to get out of China.”

“But what’s wrong with that? They are still married, they have a kid. It’s not like she’s run off with someone else. And I like Auntie Li An. I don’t think she’s planning to take money and run off with anybody.”

“I know,” said my mother. “I’m just trying to explain what Auntie Chan finds distasteful. That her son’s girlfriend is possibly using him for his passport. Who knows the truth? She could be a genuinely nice girl lah. But sadly, the actions of many girls have caused this bad reputation, and everyone is suspicious of any relationship with a China girl. Up to no good until proven otherwise.”

That remark hit me, and I remembered a personal incident that happened about five years ago. There was another exchange student at my university, a guy with an intelligent smile, glasses, and huge biceps. The nerdy hunk of my dreams. He was no player and was looking for a serious relationship; I felt too young to make promises, and stalled. And then someone else came into the equation.

A China girl.

The way my mind has probably exaggerated it, she swooped into his life and snatched him up when he was still technically single. I remember evilly thinking that it wouldn’t have stopped her if he had been attached. She was small and cute and giggly, with large breasts for an Asian girl. I was jealous of them. She also dreamed of going to America for grad school, and wanted to improve her English. He gladly helped her. Those factors combined to turn her into an “opportunistic snake” in my head. I was hurt that he’d fallen for her so quickly, and swore that in my future I would never be with anybody who’d been involved with a wily mainland Chinese woman.

Those feelings have dissipated, since my ex-crush and his Chinese girlfriend are still together. She is now in the States with him, still in love and also busy with doctoral research. I now respect her as someone who took a leap of faith I couldn’t, and the better part of me is happy they’re happy. But my mother was right; that relationship, to me, was automatically “no good until proven otherwise.”


Before anyone accuses me of being/having been a biased biatch, I want to emphasize that I — and many other Malaysian women who have made remarks about “China girls” — have deep friendships with women from mainland China, as well as relatives in the PRC. I know it might sound a bit like people proving they are not homophobic by insisting “I have many gay friends! I have a gay cousin!” but it’s true — I love and am indebted to many Chinese women in Shanghai and elsewhere who I see only as wonderful human beings. That’s why the “China girl” bashing bothers me nowadays… though what bothers me more is that part of me still feels that prejudice.

Maybe what we Malaysians/Southeast Asians should do is stop generalizing these women as “China girls” and rename them “Shanghai girls,” though that would probably cause problems and outrage Shanghainese women everywhere. I take the term “Shanghai girl” from a book by Shanghai-based writer Mina Hanbury-Tenison, who published a rather no-holds-barred book called Shanghai Girls: Uncensored & Unsentimental.

The book is pretty much a how-to guide for “marrying up,” a.k.a. using your wiles to jump from (rich) man to (richer) man until you end up with your ideal successful lover, who you will quickly marry and then produce children for. The material is supposedly based on Mina’s conversations with “Lan Lan,” a Chinese woman who has been married (and divorced) three times, each to a man richer than the last. Shanghai girls are not dumb bimbos though, living on jewels and fine wine. No, they also ask their lovers to pay their university tuition fees, so that they have an asset — education — that can never be taken away from them. Shanghai girls dazzle their men with their youthful charms, but also their brains, learning enough to be able to talk about serious issues and help their rich husbands with their businesses. (Example of a smart Shanghai girl: Wendi Deng Murdoch.)

The candid book explains that wannabe Shanghai girls must, amongst other things, not be sentimental; be able to use sex to get what they want (“remember, men are stupid”); remember that youth + beauty = money; and “jump ship” to find men with more to offer. Thus, the women the book describes sound like the “China girls” we Malaysian Chinese women rag on, the ones who give women from China a bad name.

To be clear, the book and the author use the term “Shanghai girl” to describe the sort of sophisticated, wealthy, cosmopolitan women these girls strive to become. They are not necessarily Shanghainese. They can come from anywhere in China, do their “Shanghai girl-ing” anywhere in the world.

My mother thinks the book embarrasses Chinese women everywhere. My boyfriend was offended. Two mainland Chinese women I’ve showed the book to hate it “because it gives Chinese women a bad name overseas”… and also love it “because it’s truthful — many women who leave China looking for a better life do this. They are often the smartest but poorest ones. Seeing what their lives would be otherwise, who can blame them?”

A mainland Chinese male friend just rolled his eyes at all this, and said “who cares” what goes on between Shanghai girls and these men, as long as both parties are aware of what they’re doing and no families are being pulled apart. “She gets education and money, he gets a pretty woman who helps him while she’s with him — win-win.”

So would you be okay dating a Shanghai girl? I asked.

“Hell no,” he growled. “I want someone who really loves me.”

I guess that’s what all of us are looking for. And why we are so damn boggled and offended when Shanghai girls — or any women, any men — look for something else.

Update 8/2/11: Reader Yang has commented below on how “China girl” is a term created by Malaysians and Singaporeans (of Chinese descent) to distinguish themselves from newcomers from China. “That’s why they don’t use ‘Chinese girl’ — language is the battlefield for power-relations,” he writes. Very true. I have always been fascinated by that internal conflict — the obvious pride we have in our Chinese ancestry, yet the derision, instead of empathy, of the new migrants who come here looking for a better life; it’s like they are a “lesser Chinese” than us.

“China girl” and “China woman” are derogatory terms I’ve heard in Malaysia to draw a line between “them” and “us.” Out of curiosity, I Googled “mainland China woman” and the first result is this complaint to the Penang local government, reproduced below:

Please get those Mainland China Women especially those who work as GRO and Mistress to Married Men out of Penang!!! Most them here at least 5 to 6 years under social permit and a lot of them arrange fake married with local men so that they can stay here longer. They are problem to our society which many broken marriages are because of those women. They use thier body to steal men heart and get support from men. Caught them all and send them back to their country. Our country don’t need these women. Noted from these women, Malaysia is the easliest country to get in as compared to others such as Singapore. So our Authority should think twice before letting these women to enter our country.

As for Singapore, since it’s mentioned in the complaint above… when I lived there, I remember hearing the term “PRC” used to describe newcomers from China; the term always had negative connotations. My housemate back then was from Fuzhou, and she told me how insulted and embarrassed she felt every time someone said “oh, you are a PRC” when she revealed she was China-Chinese.

In another incident that still makes me angry today, I went with another housemate, originally from Tianjin, to a store in Clementi to complain about the terrible customer service she’d gotten the day before. Instead of an apology of any sort, the salesperson said, to her face, “I hate having to deal with PRC girls like you, you are a menace.” When my friend protested that she was well within her rights to complain, the salesperson said, in Mandarin, “leave this store before you make me so mad I hit you,” and made a move as if to punch her. Shocked, I helped my friend lodge a police report about having received threats of physical violence. I saw the police officer’s face when he saw her People’s Republic of China passport. It was a look of great reluctance. My friend struggled to recount what happened in English (as the officer didn’t speak much Mandarin); after listening for a few minutes, he told her, “Do you even know what you are complaining about? Your English is quite bad.” Furious, she burst into tears and started speaking in rapid Japanese. Funnily, when he realized that my friend had grown up in Tokyo and was culturally Japanese despite her PRC passport, he was overly polite and quickly processed the complaint.


Second update, 9/2/11: There was a photo accompanying this post, which the owner has asked me to take down out of respect for his wife and daughter. Original photo here: The photo was originally used by Superior Chinese Girlfriend with permission of a Creative Commons license, which the owner has decided to revoke only today. I respect the reason behind his sudden realization that posting family photos under a Creative Commons license is not a good idea. I have removed the photo at his request.