Sun, Jul 21, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: Mother to the alienated

Former foster daughter Lu Chin-hua avoided the common fate of abuse or forced prostitution, dedicating her life to saving these less fortunate women

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

This document shows the objectives of the Taiwan Provincial Association for the Movement to Protect Foster Daughters, established in 1951.

Photo courtesy of Taiwan Historica

July 22 to July 28

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, it was not uncommon for lovers who could not be together to drown themselves in the Tainan Canal. While the practice was eventually curbed, the love story of one of these couples — between a married man and a prostitute — lived on through Taiwanese operas and novels, spawning at least two feature films in the 1950s.

The version presented in the popular 1956 film The Canal Suicides (運河殉情記) told of the stark reality for many unfortunate women in Taiwan during those times. The protagonist, Chen Chin-kuai (陳金筷), was sold at a young age to another family as a foster daughter. The foster mother eventually sold her to a brothel, where she worked until she met a married man surnamed Wu (吳). Unable to change their circumstances, the lovers decided to end their lives in the canal.

The foster daughter system was a mainstay of Taiwanese society, dating back to the time when Han Chinese first arrived. Farming households would often sell their daughters if they had too many children, keeping the boys for labor and to pass on the family name.

“With the rise of industrialization and urbanization, the weakening of traditional morals and problems within the [foster daughter] system itself, people started committing heinous acts under the guise of fostering a daughter,” Lee Chang-kuei (李長貴) writes in A Study of the Institution and Problems of Foster Daughters in Taiwan (台灣養女制度與養女問題之研究).

“Not all foster daughters are abused. Of course there are foster parents who dote on them as their biological daughters, but unfortunately that situation is rare. Most parents treat the foster daughters as commodities and hardly see them as human beings,” Lee continues.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that former Taiwan Provincial Assembly member Lu Chin-hua (呂錦花), a former foster daughter herself, started a movement to help these women that the problem started to abate.


Government statistics show that in 1958, close to when The Canal Suicides came out, there were 189,841 foster daughters in Taiwan. Lee writes that the system made sense in an agricultural society.

“It took about the same resources to raise a girl, but her ‘usefulness’ was far inferior to a boy. It was a ‘losing business,’ so they might as well ‘give’ the daughter at a high price to another family. That way, they not only received immediate profit, but also avoided having to pay her dowry in the future,” Lee writes.

The richer family who bought the girl could marry her to their son, take in a son-in-law or have her help with household chores. For them, it was a small price to pay, and the arrangements made both families happy.

While there were laws to protect the foster daughters, Lee writes that they were not enforced, nor did they have any restrictions on the type of person who could adopt them except that they had to be at least older by 20 years. The poor treatment entailed physical abuse including rape, forced prostitution, forced marriages, as well as confiscating their documents, restricting their movements and denying them formal education.

The issue got to the point where “between the 1950s and 1970s, the foster daughter system was seen as a vital cog to the sex industry,” Yu Chien-hui (游千蕙) writes in The Movement to Protect Foster Daughters in 1950s Taiwan (1950年代台灣的保護養女運動). Lee writes that the general impression in those days was: “There is nothing more poisonous than a foster mother” (無毒不養母).

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