Mainland China-Hong Kong Cross-border Marriages: Gender, Family, and the State


Tuen Yi CHIU

PhD defended at: 

Department of Sociology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong



Drawing on multi-sited ethnographic data collected from participant observations and 65 in-depth interviews with men and women in Mainland China-Hong Kong cross-border marriages, this research examines the gender dynamics, family functioning and the role of the state in cross-border marriages. While much of previous research assumes the simultaneous legal migration and spatial migration of the female marriage migrants in one episode of marriage migration, I demonstrated that one’s legal migration and spatial migration could be decoupled, when the marriage migrant remains in her original residing place despite the change of her legal status after marriage, leading to a unique way of transborder living.
Through the comparison of three groups of cross-border couples that followed (1) husband-centred residence, (2) wife-centred residence, and (3) split-household residence in Hong Kong and South China, I proposed a framework that recognizes the possible decoupling of legal migration and spatial migration. Under this framework, we could re-conceptualize commonly confounded concepts of migration and mobilities in their legal and spatial terms, disentangle the distinctive effects of legal migration from spatial migration, clarify the relationships between migration and mobility, and delineate various types of migration including complete migration, temporary migration, decoupled migration, and non-migration.
Situating these concepts at the nexus of gender, family and the state, I deliberately use the postmarital residence decision-making of cross-border couples as a strategic point of departure to contest common notions of cross-border marriages. First, while previous studies tended to attribute gender inequality to the underpinnings of immigration and commercial matchmaking in long-distance commercially arranged cross-border marriages, this research contributes to the literature by revealing the fundamental gender inequalities in non-commercially arranged cross-border marriages. I concluded that, despite the seeming transgression of the patrilocal norms and the heterogeneous circumstances of female marriage migrants in diverse residence contexts, due to the status inequalities between the spouses and the universal discrimination against female marriage migrants, gender inequalities inherent in the marriage were not totally deconstructed.
Second, I elucidated how state power permeated the family through restricting the legal mobility and spatial mobility of the non-citizen marriage migrant, subsequently affecting the functioning and wellbeing of the whole family. In response, I illuminated the family’s transformability and agency in mobilizing its members to use tactics of family transborderism—a collective strategy involving frequent border crossings of citizen and non-citizen family members—to maintain familyhood across territorial and jurisdictional borders.
Third, I explicated how diverse transborder migration contexts presented dissimilar challenges to the mothering of the marriage migrants. Findings manifested the salient role of acculturation across contexts. Contrary to received wisdom, acculturation could occur prior to actual spatial immigration due to the transborder living of the family. Mothering stress heightened when both the migrant mother and the children experienced acculturation difficulties, indicating the interactive association between child wellbeing and parental wellbeing.
Altogether, this research contributes to the literature by providing a nuanced analysis of the phenomenon of cross-border marriage migration through systematic examinations of the inter-dynamics between gender, marriage, family, migration, mobility and the state.