In years past, as Chinese industry boomed, thousands of men from Taiwan left behind wives and children to head to the Chinese mainland, eager for work.
Many found success — and many found new wives and second families on the mainland.
But now that the economic crisis has deepened, writes Michael Turton, men are headed back empty-handed to Taiwan. Since the men spent money on second families, their Taiwanese wives and children face a stiff financial burden. Turton is an English instructor in Taiwan writing at “The View from Taiwan.”
The Human Cost of China Investment
The damage by the growing Great Depression — is recovery even possible? — is masking another crisis already long concealed by the China boom: the human cost of Taiwan’s massive investment in China.
This week my wife called one of relatives who lives across town. This woman, in her early fifties, had been taken to the hospital last week and my wife wanted to know why.
Turns out she had been spitting up blood, on account of the fact that her stomach, completely lacking in food, had developed a mass of ulcers and was more or less digesting itself. She worked as a cook in a kindergarten making $8000 a month for four hours a day cooking for 30 or so children and adults. It was their only income. She has two daughters, the one in a good high school across the city needing $2000 a month for food and travel costs, while the family had to shell out $10,000 a month for rent. To save money she had decided to do without food. They were living — if you could call it that — on the charity of neighbors. There’s plenty of charity in Taiwanese culture, but it is not the obvious kind of people making ostentatious donations of time and cash to big institutions (we do have that), but rather, charity in Taiwan begins in and around the home….
The reason they were in this state of abject poverty is simple: her husband had gone off to China to work early in the boom and had never returned. Raising a second family there, he had never sent even a single dollar home for his wife and kids in Taiwan. Now the crisis had sent him back home to Taiwan to live with his wife. He brought no money and doesn’t work. But he still has to be fed.
This is not an isolated case; it is a common pattern. Among our friends and family I can easily think of a half-dozen similar cases. Several students at my former university came to me for tearful discussions of how they had discovered that their father had a second family across the Strait, complete with half-siblings. And they themselves had no money, because Dad had “invested” it in his second wife. The next time someone tells me what great businessmen Taiwanese are, I’m going to ask him why so many of these “great businessmen” blew so much money on mistresses and other meaningless displays of wealth, instead of reinvesting the cash in their businesses, or in the future of their children.
The “investment” in China has not only pillaged capital that could have gone to develop the island and continue to raise its living standards, but has also imposed enormous costs on a generation of women and children in Taiwan — its effects are gendered — patriarchy mediates the linkage between Taiwan and the global economy — and working mothers, as so often in society, bear the heaviest personal and social costs.
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