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Vietnam's factory of virgin brides

March 22, 2005

In an industrial suburb in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a single-storey zinc-roofed factory staffed by 3,500 young women churns out items like sports shoes and polo T-shirts for foreign brands.

It is not unlike hundreds of other factories, except this one has something else: virgin brides for foreign men.

The Mr Cupid International Matchmakers service was the brainchild of the factory's owner, a reclusive semi-retired Vietnamese man in his 4Os.

Girls at a factory in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, working long hours while they wait to be match-made with foreign spouses.

While businesses offering brides are hardly rare, the idea of using eligible young virgins as workers while they wait for husbands is almost certainly unique.

At first, the factory hired scouts to scour the countryside for suitable virgin village girls they could advertise to foreign bachelors through their agencies in countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Malaysia.

Now they don't have to go looking. Parents bring their daughters to them.

Girls like willowy 20-year-old Huynh Thi Phuong Thuy put up with long shifts sewing shirts and glueing shoes hoping it is a first step to marriage.

"I went to work in the factory because I wanted to marry a foreign man," she said in a phone interview.

Phuong Thuy got what she wanted.

She married a 40-year-old Singaporean storeman last July and now lives in Jurong.

"Life in Singapore is much better than back in Vietnam," she said.

But the factory won't take just anyone. In fact, there are strict quality controls.

New arrivals are given the once-over by matronly female supervisors who look out for tell-tale signs of previous pregnancies, such as stretch marks or caesarean scars.

Those who fail are sent back.

Those chosen are given a medical examination to check that their hymen is still intact. If it isn't, they are rejected.

Vietnames brides taking a break from handing fliers at a Singapore shopping centre recently. After being hired, the women are expected to work hard and behave well.

Female supervisors at the factory penalise lazy, talkative or rebellious girls by barring them from matchmaking sessions. No work, no husband.

Said Martin Wong, managing director of Mr Cupid's Singapore office: "These girls are marrying abroad. They have to be obedient to their husbands.

"We're preparing them for their new lives."

Before she got married, Phuong Thuy used to work 12-hour shifts seated on bare floors, earning less than RM11 a day.

But despite the long hours, most village girls find life at the factory easier than working the padi fields, plantations or shrimp farms back home, where many of them had no electricity or running water, ate one meal a day and bathed in river or rainwater.

So far, Mr Cupid has found brides for around 1,800 men in the region, 300 of them in Singapore.

The girls are given photographs of the men and they choose whether they want to go for the matchmaking session. After that, the decisions are down to the men.

The process can be brutal. In one case, 2,200 girls wanted to be set up with a Taiwanese businessman.

"Can you imagine, they're so hopeful. They stay back in the dormitories, dress up and they only have two seconds to impress before they're turned away," said Wong, in an interview at Mr Cupid's second-floor office at Pearl's Centre in Eu Tong Sen Street, Singapore.

If the groom makes his choice, the rest of those in the queue are sent back.

It sounds degrading, but Wong insists the young women are willing.

"They're born in a poor country. For many of them, this is their only chance to break out of poverty," he said.

For many, it is a long wait. Out of the 3,500 girls working at the factory, only about 300 get hitched each year.

The prettier ones usually get chosen within six months, while some have gone for more than 200 matchmaking sessions without success.

Most quit after two or three years and go back home if they haven't been chosen, said Wong.

Some cling on.

The oldest worker there is a 35-year-old seamstress, who faithfully works her shifts and lives in hope of being picked one day.

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