Lonely American Males Looking to the Orient for Mail-Order Brides
In 1984, Richard Wesley dated several Los Angeles women, had 35 female pen pals throughout the world and did not lack for attention. Yet he was unhappy.
The UCLA dental school clerk had turned 40 without marrying and didn’t think the women he was dating were suitable. They were divorced, he said, and seemed anti-men or set in their ways.
So he began thinking more about Elsie Jamora, one of his pen pals from the Philippines. A university student, she seemed flexible, loving, caring, interested and had a sense of humor.
Meeting in Manila
A few months later, Richard, now 42, met Elsie in Manila, took an eight-hour bus ride over dirt roads to her family’s coconut farm and met her parents and 13 brothers and sisters. A few days later he married her in a local church.
Elsie Jamora, 24, is among several thousand “mail-order brides” in the United States, so called because she met her husband through a business that charges American men fees for lists of potential female pen pals. Many of the writers become romantically involved or marry.
Advocates of the system, including Tessie Florence, who runs American Asian Worldwide Services from her home near Santa Maria, Calif., say the arrangement allows couples to meet but forces no one to marry.
Florence says her business, which grosses more than $250,000 per year, offers women, most of whom come from the Philippines or elsewhere in Asia, a chance to leave poverty for a better life in the United States.
She said that among the 3,500 couples who met and married through her business since it started seven years ago, she knows of only seven divorces, although she suspects the true number is about 10%.
Sometimes, however, the women do run into trouble. In March, Honolulu police found the body of Filipino mail-order bride Helen Mendoza Krug, 28, in the garbage dumpster of the high-rise apartment where she lived. Her husband, Robert, 27, an American from Florida, awaits trial in the slaying.
Groups such as the Japanese American Citizens League of San Francisco argue that catalogues that present numbered pictures of the women dehumanize the women “as if they are inanimate items for display and purchase.”
At a Disadvantage
The mail-order opportunity exploits “the desperation of foreign Asian women to enter the United States, and the loneliness and alienation of their male clients,” a 1985 league report said.
“These foreign women are at a great disadvantage because of their unfamiliarity and ignorance of the American legal system, and the rules and regulations of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. . . .”
The report, signed by Irene Hirano of Los Angeles, national chairwoman of the league’s Women’s Concerns Committee, said that as a result of their lack of knowledge the women “may miss an opportunity to become a naturalized citizen, forfeit rights as a legal spouse, or live under an unwarranted fear of deportation, which may be fostered by their spouse as a means of control.”
Hirano said the number of the unregulated pen-pal businesses throughout the nation is impossible to count, and she expressed concern about some fly-by-night operations that offer pictures of naked women in their mailings--a practice shunned by the established pen-pal services.
A growing number of lawmakers also worry that some foreigners, including mail-order brides, are using marriages to gain quick U.S. citizenship.
An INS spokesman said that while 270,000 people are allowed into the United States annually and 2 million are awaiting immigrant visas, 124,093 people gained immediate visas through marriage in 1985. That is an increase of 38% since 1980, when 90,887 people attained marriage visas.
To combat unlawful use of marriage visas, Sen. Paul Simon (D--Ill.) and Rep. Bill McCollum (R--Fla.) have introduced bills that would require Americans to meet aliens before they marry and would provide stiff penalties for immigration-related marriage fraud. Simon’s bill calls for five years’ imprisonment and/or fines of as much as $250,000.
Experts say that hard evidence on the status of mail-order brides does not exist because no studies have been done. To fill the void, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded the National Network of Asian and Pacific Women $147,000 to assess the status of mail-order brides and Asian military wives.
sh Surveyed 265 Men
In what is generally regarded as the only substantial research on the subject, sociologist Davor Jedlicka of the University of Texas at Tyler surveyed 265 men seeking partners in Southeast Asia. He did not survey women.
“American men in search of Oriental brides are above average in education, income, occupation and certainly in their communication skills,” Jedlicka wrote. Among men who responded, 63% earned more than $20,000 annually, more than half completed two or more years of college and 42% worked as managers or professionals. Their median age was 37.
Critics of System
Feminists such as Feelie Lee, a Chinese-American and director of International Projects at UCLA’s office of International Students and Scholars, argue that the mail-order bride system represents a backlash against women’s liberation.
Lee says that in letters to pen-pal businesses the men complain “very bitterly about the fact that the women (in the United States) no longer look or act like women. They take over men’s jobs and prerogatives.
“The men want a more gentle, traditional woman, who knows her place,” said Lee, who received her Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA.
Jedlicka disagrees. Men who seek mail-order brides, he said, “are unusual in the sense that they were disappointed in a much more severe way than most of us would be . . . like being robbed of one’s fortune . . . (or) having caught his wife with someone else . . . “ in their previous marriages.
“Their adaptation is very healthy,” he said. “The tendency in (a second) marriage is to repeat the same thing. In this situation they are going out as far as possible from the original ethnic group . . . because it minimizes the reminders of the negative experience.”
The largest number of men who seek mail-order brides come from California and Texas, Jedlicka said.
They continue a Western and frontier tradition of arranged marriages common among 19th-Century European- and Asian-Americans, said Yuji Ichioka, a research associate at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
“The whole idea of a love marriage between two individuals separate and apart from their family is really a 20th-Century phenomena,” he said.
In the 1860s, in the Seattle area along Puget Sound, for example, nine of 10 adults were men. The need for companionship was so pronounced that even newspapers editorialized on the subject, according to Murray Morgan’s history of Seattle called “Skid Road.”
One of the companionless males, Asa Mercer, 22, solicited contributions from local men and sailed to Lowell, Mass., where the Civil War had stopped the supply of cotton to the textile mills, creating an economic depression. Mercer persuaded 11 young women to sail with him to Seattle, where they landed about midnight on May 16, 1864. One of the women became ill and died, but the other 10 quickly found husbands. A grateful populace elected Mercer to the Legislature.
Far more common were so-called picture-bride marriages in which single Japanese men in the United States had brides chosen for them in Japan. Because the men could not afford a trip home, they sent pictures and information about their lives in the United States to a parent or relative who negotiated the arrangement.
Weddings were conducted in Japan--in the groom’s absence--so the men married without seeing their brides. But many of the women were also surprised. “Men often forwarded photographs taken in their youth or touched-up ones that concealed their real age,” Ichioka wrote in the Pacific Historical Review in 1980. “No wonder some picture-brides, upon sighting their spouses, lamented dejectedly that they had married an old man.”
“Besides sending touched-up photographs, Japanese immigrant men were sometimes disingenuous in other ways. To enable parents or relatives to find brides easily, they often exaggerated their own attractiveness as future husbands,” Ichioka continued. “Sharecroppers passed themselves off as land-owning farmers, small shopkeepers as big merchants, hotel bellboys as elevator engineers, railroad section foremen as labor contractors.”
Thousands of picture brides reached the United States before 1920, when the Japanese Foreign Ministry stopped issuing them passports as a result of U.S. protests against the marriages.
If caring relatives arranged picture-bride marriages of the past, critics contend it is profit-oriented businesses that are orchestrating modern-day mail-order unions.
But that criticism has not stopped a torrent of foreign women, including 21,000 in the last three years, from writing to Tessie Florence in hopes of corresponding with American men.
Florence, 42, who runs American Asian Worldwide Services from a loft in her home, joined the business shortly after her husband, now deceased, started it in 1979. She, in fact, met him through a letter-writing service.
Tessie Lim, a former college science teacher, was a 35-year-old divorced office manager living what she calls “an unexciting life” in the Philippines when she answered an advertisement that said Louis Florence, a retired American aerospace engineer, was seeking pen pals. Their relationship blossomed and when she came to the United States in 1979, Florence decided to set up a pen-pal service in his Thousand Oaks home.
Tessie Lim married Florence in 1980, joining him in the business as well. The couple took the business with them when they moved to a housing development in Orcutt, south of Santa Maria, in 1982. When Lou Florence died of a heart attack in 1985, Tessie Florence continued the work.
Fees ranging from $35 to $430 pour into the office, a loft above a French Provincial living room and a dining room filled with hand-carved Philippine hardwood furniture.
For $35, Florence provides a booklet containing 320 numbered photos of women and data which includes their ages, occupation, height, weight and interests.
In a recent booklet a typical woman described herself as “Divorced, secretary, 5’0”, 110 lbs. Marriage-minded, enjoys traveling, music and cooking.”
For $430, Florence’s services include unlimited issues of the monthly booklet until the man gets engaged, two advertisements in English-language newspapers abroad, a book about visas and travel and pointers on corresponding with the women.
Florence asks the woman to fill out an eight-page “personality evaluation” that asks whether she has physical defects or has flat, medium or full breasts. It also asks whether she would marry a black man, whether she believes in women’s liberation, whether she can accept premarital sex, and “What kind of a lover are you? Affectionate, shy and submissive, passionate, inhibited, uninhibited.”
Florence evaluates the test and sends the answers and evaluation to interested men. She has never tested men and evaluated the results for women, but said she plans to begin that service this fall.
She also arranges for personal advertisements in leading English-language newspapers in the Philippines, Malaysia or Thailand, or in such American newspapers as the Los Angeles Times.
Once the couple begins writing, she can arrange for flowers to reach Filipino women the day they are ordered or she can make travel arrangements for a man who wants to go to Asia or the Pacific Rim.
Should a couple decide to marry, Florence can provide a Las Vegas wedding including a limousine to take them from the airport to their hotel, accommodations for two days, limousine service from the hotel to the church, minister, bouquet, photo album, video recording of the ceremony and dinner for two plus champagne. The price: $698 on weekdays or $896 on a weekend.
Florence grosses $250,000 a year, but that pales when compared to the success of Harvard graduate John Broussard, who says his Rainbow Ridge correspondence service in Hawaii grosses at least $450,000 annually.
In a large house surrounded by cane fields on the north coast of the Island of Hawaii, Broussard’s 12-person staff assembles pictures and short biographies of women from the Philippines, Asia and the rest of the world. The pamphlets are called Island Blossoms, Cherry Blossoms and Femina.
A subscriber pays $275 for one publication, $375 for two or $450 for all three. Included in the price is a 127-page booklet titled “How to Write to Oriental Ladies.” It advises men to “present your occupation in the best light you can. If you’re an independent trucker, for example, it would be better to say that you own a trucking company than to say you’re a truck driver.”
Broussard, who has a doctorate in sociology from the University of Washington, and his wife, Kelly, started their business in a remote area of central Washington. They moved to Hawaii in 1979 and think they understand the motives of Filipino women who want to marry Americans.
“I think the really important point is economic,” said Broussard, a former college professor. “It’s a relatively poor country and we do find that the poorer the country is, the more likely it is that they’re looking for a husband who is financially secure. The women tend to be middle class and well educated but are obviously being very poorly paid for the type of jobs they hold.”
One of the women who wrote to Broussard’s pen-pal service was Elsie Jamora. Her picture was among the first Richard Wesley saw after paying $60 for six brochures in 1982. But Wesley, who majored in anthropology at the University of Arizona, liked other pictures as well, and two years later he was writing a letter a night to keep up with 35 steady pen pals.
In 1985, Wesley decided to get married and flew to the Philippines to wed Elsie. He spent $4,000 on the two-month trip, including five weeks after the wedding waiting for immigration papers in Manila.
Like Richard, Elsie said that when she began writing she had no interest in marriage and was corresponding with men around the world. But Richard began writing three times a week and when he asked for her hand, she said yes--providing she could finish her college education.
Watching a game show in the living room of their new Palms apartment with their 5-month-old son, Eric, bouncing on her knee, Elsie said she changed her mind about marriage because she knew from his letters that Richard was a good and interesting man.
Four months after she arrived in Los Angeles, Elsie found an office job at a money-order company where she enjoys the company of other Filipino-Americans. After her son was born, she hired a baby sitter so she could continue working.
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