Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 16, March 2008

Jiemin Bao

Marital Acts:
Gender, Sexuality, and Identity among the Chinese Thai Diaspora
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004
252 pp., pbk, ISBN 0824828798

Reviewed by Megan Sinnott

  1. Framed as a study of Chinese diaspora, Jiemin Bao studies the movement of ethnic Chinese between China, Thailand and the United States. However, the real crux of the book is the experience of Chinese migrants to Thailand. Bao identifies marriage—its meanings, rituals, and institutional arrangements—as a key yet under-theorised element in the processes of migration and the production and reproduction of ethnic identity. Through rich ethnographic detail of the lives, marriages and families of chinkao (immigrants from China who settled in Thailand) and lukchin (the Thai-born children of the Chinese immigrants), Bao provides an essential contribution to the field of Thai studies, as well as anthropological studies of migration, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. In particular, the historical depth of her ethnography challenges any singular description of the Chinese experience of diaspora, both within Thailand and the United States; she charts and contrasts the experiences of kinship, marriage and sexuality between migrants of the first half of the twentieth century with their descendents and later generations.
  2. Bao's theoretical framework largely pulls from Aihwa Ong's notion of 'flexible citizenship' (1999)[1]. Bao argues that the inherent elasticity of the cultural identity process within migration is inextricably linked to sexuality and gender that is always manifested within and through dimensions of class. Pulling on Paul Gilroy's (1992) argument that cultural or national identities do not form in the narrow confines of a singular nation or 'culture,'[2] Bao argues that the analytical space for the construction of cultural/ethnic identity is in movement, building on previous layers of social relationships and patterns of earlier waves of migration. The many fascinating and nuanced ethnographic examples of Bao's work illustrate this process of negotiation and strategic movement as Chinese and Sino–Thai men and women move within and between cultural locations and across generations. The book is dedicated to the examination of these 'in between spaces' that resist dichotomies of Thai/Chinese, old home/new home, etc.
  3. Regarding the literature on the migration of Chinese in Southeast Asia, Bao urges analysis that moves beyond the assimilationist model of William Skinner (1957)[3] or the model of dual identities of Richard Coughlin (1960).[4] Critiquing these approaches, Bao says, '[T]he Chinese are either unchangeable or assimilated; they have either a single or a double identity' (20). In contrast, a key theme in this work is to bring the study of Chinese in Thailand, which has a venerated history inspired by the classic work of Skinner, into conversation with contemporary migration studies that focus on the notions of flexibility and hybrid spaces.
  4. The importance of kinship and family in the migration process and experience of Chinese in Thailand has been a focus of other work, such as the important work done by Ann Maxwell Hill (1998)[5] who studied a different group of Chinese migrants—the Yunnanese in northern Thailand. Bao adds to this scholarship with focus on the Chinese populations from the coastal areas of Southeast China who settled in Bangkok and other largely urban areas in Thailand. This population of immigrants has become a centrally important social class in modern Thailand.
  5. Bao focuses clearly and insistently on the specific experiences of sexual relationships of Chinese migrants, largely the betrayal of Chinese women by the Chinese husbands who have either left them in China or marginalised them in Thailand by engaging in sexual practices consistent with Thai sexual norms, specifically taking 'minor wives' or engaging in relatively open extramarital affairs. Polygyny is perhaps the most central element of these women's experiences, yet its meanings shift as Chinese immigrants and their descendents seek to rearticulate ethnic identity through changing narratives of gender and sexuality.
  6. Transnational polygyny was a common practice in which male migrants would be both linked economically and socially to their natal family in China, including at times a wife and children, to whom they would send remittances, and to their Thai or lukchin wife. Marrying a woman with Thai citizenship would allow the Thai-born children benefits of Thai citizenship. Also, marrying a Thai woman would provide the male migrant important local social and economic relationships. All the parties involved, the family in China and the Chinese-based wife, the Thai or Thai–Chinese women to whom the migrant marries, and the male Chinese migrant would strategise within these complex cultural and economic systems of obligation, privilege and dependence. Chinese wives challenged the male migrants' Thai marriages and/or sexual relationships with local Thai women as an improper class relationship.
  7. One of Bao's goals is to expose and deconstruct the naturalising assumptions about proper marriage and gender relationships within the Thai/Chinese context. For example, Bao traces the shifting narratives of normative Chinkao/lukchin male sexuality which seeks to assert that Chinese males are financially responsible in contrast to Thai men. This effort to 'ethnicize' chinkao/lukchin masculinity is complex in that Chinese men have also adopted narratives of normative Thai masculinity that invert traditional Chinese sexual meanings. Sexual prerogatives of Chinese males had traditionally been understood to be in the service of procreation (for maintenance of the lineage—a structural feature absent in traditional Thai kinship and at times destabilised through the migration process), and sexual excess was seen as inappropriate or a waste of qi or life force (77). ao continues, 'However, pursuing sex for pleasure has become a familiar practice among chinkao men, in part because of the widely held Thai folk belief that it is "healthy" for a man to indulge in sex rather than restrain himself, and in part because of the pervasiveness of Thailand's sex industry' (77).
  8. Bao contributes to the literature on transnational sexuality, which has focused primarily on 'issues such as trafficking in women, mail-order brides, gay and lesbian sexuality, AIDS, and sex tourism' (22) by focusing specifically on sexuality between ethnic/cultural groups within the same society. She carefully focuses on the ways in which marriage and normative heterosexuality are enacted in the transnational and multi-ethnic context of the Chinese diaspora in Thailand. Bao notes, 'in contrast to the extensive sociological accounts of male premarital and extramarital sex, there has been near-total scholarly silence about conjugal sex, female extramarital sex, and the connections between class and sexuality' (22, italics in original). Bao's focus on the construction of heteronormativity within these shifting cultural and ethnic contexts is an important addition to gender and sexuality studies.
  9. Regarding its classroom application, this is a highly accessible book, useful for student readings in courses on Thailand/Southeast Asia/Asia, migration, globalising gender and sexuality processes, and anthropology of sexuality and gender.


    [1] Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999.

    [2] Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    [3] William Skinner, Chinese Society in Thailand, London: Oxford University Press, 1957.

    [4] Richard Coughlin, Double Identity: Chinese in Modern Thailand, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1960.

    [5] Ann Maxwell Hill, Merchants and Migrants: Ethnicity and Trade among Yunnanese Chinese in Southeast Asia, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.


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