Ethnographies of Social Reproduction: Labor, Precarity, and Affect
4: “Temporary Couples” among Chinese Migrant Workers in Singapore
Saturday, March 26, 2022
4:00pm – 5:30pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
Nanyang Technological University, United States
This paper examines the temporary extramarital cohabitation arrangements between Chinese female migrant workers and their male counterparts in Singapore, a phenomenon widely referred to by the migrants as “temporary couples”. In the simulated households, the men usually shoulder most of the daily expenses for both members, while the women are expected to take care of the men’s intimate needs and most of the housework. The arrangement is based on a mutual understanding that their relationship will not last beyond their stint in Singapore. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2016 and 2019 in Singapore, this paper examines the intertwining relations between oppression and exploitation. It deepens our understanding of migrant women’s agency and sexuality by moving beyond the framework of resistance and highlighting the contradictory effects of gendered agency. Specifically, it demonstrates that the women are agentic subjects who actively negotiate the restrictive migrant labor regime and advance their own interests, but their entrepreneurial practices are often instrumentalized by themselves as a means to achieve life goals that are deeply rooted in traditional gender norms. For example, they manage the intimate relationship as a “deal” to maximise savings to fulfil their family obligations and mark it out as an exception that will be discarded once they return. They voluntarily conform to the hegemonic heteronormative notion of family and gender division of labor when they perform their extramarital intimacies. Thus, such practices not only exacerbate existing inequalities for women but also reinforce the migrant labor system in which they are exploited.