The way Huang Xiahong had it figured, she said, life in prosperous Taiwan was bound to be better than her prospects in the teeming Chinese city of Guangzhou.
So three years ago, she hooked up with a Taiwanese bachelor with the help of a friend, got married on the mainland and traveled with her groom across the Taiwan Strait to start a new life. Huang is now the mother of a 4-month-old boy and, on the strength of her marriage certificate, a legal resident of Taiwan.
Huang, 28, has joined a fast-growing flow of Chinese women who hope for an easier life and marry Taiwanese men -- sometimes for real, sometimes in sham unions. They legally move from the mainland to a place that, viewed from China's towns and villages, often looks like a 13,800-square-mile Shangri-La.
The Taiwan Interior Ministry, after a recent survey, estimated that 200,000 Chinese women have married Taiwanese men since cross-strait unions became possible under Taiwanese rules in 1992. Such marriages started out slowly because of restrictions. But with the rules recently relaxed, the number has shot up, the ministry said, reaching almost 40,000 last year and more than 3,000 a month so far this year.
The marriages, many based more on economics than love, have become a poignant illustration of the enduring lure of emigration in China. Although China's economy has boomed in recent years, the mainland has remained a difficult place for many of its 1.3 billion inhabitants, many of whom still seek to leave for the United States, Australia or Europe every year.
Since many of Taiwan's 23 million people have mainland roots, some separated from their Chinese origins by only 50 years, adventurous Chinese women find Taiwan an attractive place to go. Taiwan has a per capita income more than 10 times China's $1,000, but the island still shares many linguistic, cultural and ethnic traits with China.
More than half the marriages resulted from introductions by family and friends, the survey showed. Another third or more grew from acquaintanceships struck up by Taiwanese men who traveled to the mainland for business or to visit relatives. But about 10 percent were arranged by marriage bureaus whose representatives scout poor Chinese towns in search of prospective brides. For a broker's fee, usually amounting to about $1,200, Chinese women are introduced to Taiwanese men looking for wives.
In an effort to rein in abuses, the Taiwanese government last month banned television advertising by marriage brokers who specialize in mainland brides. Their advertisements featured videos of young Chinese women parading in front of a camera as if at a horse show while an announcer described their charms against a background of alluring music.
"It was demeaning," said Joseph Wu, who heads the Taiwan government's Mainland Affairs Council.
The government has loosened restrictions on mainland marriages in the name of freedom for Taiwanese citizens. But Nancy Chen, a sociology professor at National Chengchi University, said officials have expressed fear that too many Chinese wives could, over the years, affect the balance between Taiwanese who favor independence and those who favor reunion with the mainland.
Chen, who has researched the mainland brides issue, said some officials also feared that the arrival of such brides, many of them poor and uneducated, would raise the number of people competing for subsidized health care, education and jobs. "This is a small place," she said. "We can't allow everybody to come in or we will sink."
Some of the mainland brides, such as Huang, have ended up as mothers and housewives, participants in durable marriages. But others have disappeared into factories or brothels after only a short time with their legal husbands, who are often poor matches for the women.
"A lot of the brides are brides in name only," Chen said. She cited government figures showing that about half left their marriages quickly and melted into the underground labor population. "They can't be tracked down," Chen said. "Nobody knows where they are."
Chen Shaoying, 26, came to Taiwan from Guangdong province with a new Taiwanese husband four years ago. Since then, she said, she has separated from her husband, struck out on her own and gone to work as an agent for apartment-seekers in Taipei, Taiwan's capital.
"I'm the one who didn't want him," she said, smiling. Asked whether she planned to find another husband, she added: "Well, it's Taiwan. There are not many good men. They are all womanizers and they drink too much. It's just like the mainland."
Chen, Huang and several hundred other mainland Chinese brides gathered Saturday at a park in Taipei to discuss their problems and hear a succession of five Taiwanese legislative candidates promise to look after them. Their top priority is the right to work, the women said, because current rules ban them from most jobs and they can get citizenship only after eight years of residency.
But besides the desire to find work and acquire the independence that salaries would bring, the Chinese brides seemed to share a sense of disappointment. For many, the promised land they envisaged when getting married seems to have turned out to be a place like any other.
"I miss my family," said Wu Quanyi, 38, a Wuhan native who has been here for 12 years. "Every day, I miss my family."
A friend of Huang's who wanted to be identified only as Miss Xie said that although she had remained in her marriage, she had not found the golden life she had dreamed of before leaving China. "It's not as good as I thought it would be," she said.
Chen, the research sociologist, said the mainland women sometimes have good reasons for the letdown.
Mainland women, she said, often marry elderly Taiwanese who turn to China because they cannot find a wife at home. Typically, she explained, the grooms are poor farmers or workers who have little to offer younger Chinese women looking for riches. In some cases, she added, parents of handicapped Taiwanese have arranged marriages for their sons with Chinese women so the Taiwanese will have caretakers after the parents die.