PERSPECTIVE: In April 2018, Eric Koh founded B&G Vietnamese Bride Marriage Agency. It was a decision that was largely influenced by his own experience of marrying a Vietnamese woman through a marriage agent in 2014, in a process that he found to be less-than-ideal.
Opening up about his experience, Koh shared how he had to navigate twists and turns before finally marrying his current wife, who is from Vietnam.
He subsequently established an agency hoping to bring together Singaporean men and Vietnamese women who are serious about marriage. He hopes to do so in a way that is fair to potential Vietnamese brides.
It was on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, that his late wife, Laura Lau, suffered a fatal fall while inspecting the renovations of their house in Pasir Ris.
In recounting the incident to me, 62-year-old Eric Koh, the founder of B&G Vietnamese Bride Marriage Agency (B&G), said that it was likely she had lost her balance, falling onto the second floor of their house in Pasir Ris, from a ladder on the third floor.
"There was a very loud thud. When I rushed up, I saw her trying to struggle to get up. I asked her, 'What happened to you?' She told me that there was 'pain at the back, pain at the back.' Then after that, she lapsed into unconsciousness."
Lau was conveyed to Changi General Hospital, where she stayed in ICU for about two weeks and eventually passed away.
Fell into depression
In the wake of his wife's passing, Koh fell into depression, becoming a "totally different person" from his usual chatty, people-oriented self.
Then-HOD of Student Development at Peirce Secondary School, he said:
"I used to look at students. Now, I kept myself in the cubicle. I did not dare to see anyone.
I was also shocked. How come I'm like that? Why have I completely lost confidence?"
He eventually sought treatment from two psychiatrists and a psychologist, and received a long leave of medical absence. But he was still unable to leave the house.
"Even when I stayed at home, I did not dare to step out of my house because I was reminded of my late wife."
Whenever he wanted to go for his morning walk, he added, he would break down and cry, unable to control himself.
Eventually, Koh's two children, his daughter, 23, and son, 27, at that time, were worried about him being alone at home, given that they were not with him, and he only had their helper and his mother (their grandmother) with severe dementia for company.
The family came to a collective decision to find him a new partner.
Why go for a Vietnamese bride?
Koh told us that it was highly unlikely someone of his age to be able to find a partner in Singapore.
"I couldn't tell anyone I was already 56. Nobody will want to marry me. I mean I did not try, but rather, the assumption is that at this age, how to go and find another person?"
This led to Koh's own decision to find a bride from Vietnam, a decision that his children also supported.
When I asked why Vietnam in particular, Koh said:
"I went to Cambodia every year, bringing students for service learning. And I saw many Vietnamese there. The way they present themselves, their behaviour, left an impression on me.
Also, I recalled many years ago, I read somewhere in the newspapers, that Singaporeans are marrying Vietnamese wives. So I said, why don't I try that?"
Koh reached out to the agent after finding their website through Google.
Koh: The first time I met the agent, he brought three girls along
His first meeting with the agent started off on an unexpected note, however.
The girls had apparently just arrived in Singapore, with Koh guessing that the agent had only just picked them up at the airport.
"This agent met me for the first time and brought three girls along! I said, these are not the ones that I want, I'm not looking for all these," he said with a chuckle.
"How about these three? Any one?" The agent had asked.
"This is not the way I'm choosing a life partner," Koh said to him.
"I need to know more about them, the background all that. I think age is also important — I asked for someone who's above 40. But he told me don't have, the oldest is probably 30 years old. Vietnamese marry very young. If they are 40, they will not consider getting married already."
Ended up going to Vietnam over the weekend with the agent
Koh decided to choose a woman from one of the website's photographs, and go to Vietnam. But there was very little information accompanying the photo however, as only a fake name and the woman's age was provided.
Why a fake name?
"[They] cannot put the real name because if [they] do so, people will go and search for them, and (clients) do not need the agent already," Koh speculated.
Koh was also charged S$1,500 for the trip by the agent, which Koh found "very reasonable" at that time, for a trip over a period of three days.
He found himself in for another surprise however, when he met the woman, who was waiting for both of them at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City with her sister.
With a laugh, Koh said:
"She was 50 per cent different from the photo. He (The agent) himself was also shocked because he had never met the girl, had never communicated with the girl. It was somebody who had so-called 'supplied' him with the girl and he simply put it up on his website."
In any case, the woman and her sister accompanied and Koh and his agent to the hotel, where Koh paid for the accommodation of the two women by himself — a decision that he came to seeing as they were from a province outside the city and could not possibly return right away.
He met three other women, settled on one, but decided to reject her eventually
Afterwards, Koh and the agent went to lunch with the woman, whereupon two more women, called from other provinces, came to join them.
But this whole process only made him more uncomfortable.
"He (the agent) didn't even ask me about criteria at all...So now I have three ladies having lunch with me, everyone trying to feed me, bringing food to my bowl. So I felt a bit uncomfortable."
He decided to give one of them a chance, and took her out to coffee the next day. That was when he found out that she spoke very little English. At that time, Koh did not how to use apps such as Google translate.
"Somehow or rather we still managed to communicate through sign language. And my agent was not with me. He left me with her," Koh added.
However, he eventually decided against taking her as his wife, much to her disappointment.
"She's too short for me physically...she's actually also too young for me, at about 25-26," Koh said, although he pointed out that she had a good character.
More importantly, Koh added, she was finishing her architectural degree, which she wanted to give up for marriage.
However, Koh refused to let her do so on the grounds that attaining her degree was the dream of her father.
A photo of his future wife from his agent was the only information he ever received about her
His agent's reaction towards the rejection of the girl was, "Never mind, just change, get another one, you don't have to feel bad about it."
"He (the agent) just said he wanted to close the deal and quickly find another one."
This brought up Koh's own observation that his agent was "very business-minded" and did not take into account the welfare of the girl.
Koh then received another photo from his agent via WhatsApp, this time of the woman who would become his future wife.
The photo was also the only piece of information that he ever received from the agent about her, with a complete absence of information on her family.
"I knew nothing of her occupation, educational standard, which province she came from, how tall is she, what's her weight, I did not have these essential information."
I knew nothing, whether her parents were alive or not, how many brothers and sisters (she had), what are they doing, which province they are from — all this information was not there."
As for the meeting with the woman, his agent added that a contact of his would be waiting for him over in Ho Chi Minh to arrange the event and did not accompany him for the journey.
Instead it was Koh's own daughter who came along with him, with the airfare alone coming up to S$1,200 for a last-minute trip on a budget airline.
Agent's contact brought along another woman
Koh's future wife, Le Thi Ngoc Thao, was not the only woman he was introduced to on the trip however. Prior to the meeting with her, another woman was brought to the hotel by his agent's contact on the first day of their arrival in Vietnam.
"This lady (the agent's contact) tried to push her own girl onto me, simply because she could earn a commission."
In addition, the contact also tried to pretend that she could not find the meeting location that they had agreed upon with Koh's future wife, only to eventually relent at the insistence of his daughter.
By the time they finally reached Coffee Bean, "my wife was about to leave," Koh said. "We arrived just in time."
Married in two months, by September 2014
Koh subsequently found out during the meeting that Le, who was 30 years old, was also fluent in Mandarin, as a result of her experience from being a supervisor at a Taiwanese garment factory.
"That was the deciding point," he said.
He was also bolstered by the sentiments of his daughter, who added that he needed someone who could understand him.
For Le's part, the deciding factor was the fact that he had brought his daughter along to the meeting, and the fact that he was also a teacher.
Recounting Le's perspective:
"Other men just come on their own. You brought your daughter who is pretty old already. So I know you are very serious."
Afterwards, Koh brought Le over to Singapore to stay for a week so that she could meet the rest of his family and become more familiar with Singapore.
Koh clarified that this was not done immediately however, as he had to first undergo a lengthy process in submitting a letter to ICA, along with his own medical report, bank statement, salary slip, income tax and CPF, in order to demonstrate that she was not entering into the vice trade.
The subsequent three trips to Vietnam largely revolved around meeting her family, wedding preparations, and the wedding ceremony itself which happened on September 6, 2014.
The newlyweds then flew back the next day, on September 7, and solemnised their marriage two days afterwards in his home, which meant that Le could apply for her Long-Term Visit Pass. She then became a Permanent Residence (PR) in 2017.
Throughout the entire process, Koh highlighted that his agent had only been effectively involved in his initial flight to Vietnam.
"Throughout the whole thing, my agent only got himself involved in the first round. The rest of it all, I did it on my own, including the marriage ceremony (which) my daughter and I went over (for). We did not understand Vietnamese, whatever they said, we just followed.
He had not actually seen my wife and had no information about her."
Experience influenced how he set up his own marriage agency
The experience eventually spurred Koh to set up his own Vietnamese marriage agency in light of what he felt was the agent's inadequacy in providing both parties crucial information about each other.
"An agent may not want to provide essential information, simply because he wants to close a deal," Koh said. But this was precisely what he was hoping to change.
B&G was thus established on April 1, 2018.
This was following his retirement as a teacher, "with the blessing of my church friend, who helped me to register the company," and with the agency's website being established with the help of his daughter's husband.
His main source for potential brides is an anonymous partner, with contacts in "almost every province" of Vietnam. This partner, Koh added, is aware of the kind of profiles he is searching for.
"I want decent girls, with decent jobs, occupations and a good family background."
Instituted a screening process for his male clients
Koh also observed that many Vietnamese women had been married to Singaporean men through the recommendations of either their own friends or the men's.
But this means there is no screening in place for the men who may or may not necessarily have the means to support the woman with his income, or might still be living with his extended family (which, according to him, is an invitation for heightened scrutiny and tension).
Such marriages often end in divorce, he said.
For his part, Koh said that he has instituted a screening process for male clients. Requirements that his clients must meet are:
- Must provide age, marital status, and how much they earn,
- This includes information such as their payslip, income tax, CPF statement, and whether they live alone or with their family.
- Earn a minimum salary of S$3,000, and
- Provide a photograph of themselves.
Koh is firm on these requirements and clients who express their discomfort are told to seek another agent.
"I need all this information because I want to be fair to the woman," he said.
One or two clients have therefore left this way, although most who approach him are already aware of his requirements and usually earn above S$4,500.
If the client has given his status as a divorcee, he must also indicate the number of years he has been divorced. According to Koh:
"Chances are that they are actually not (divorcees), they are in the process of divorcing, they have not got the final judgement. They want to prepare in anticipation for the final judgement (so) they say, 'These few months I can interact with the girl all that, the moment I get my final judgement, I will marry her."
Such a mentality is not fair to the Vietnamese woman, he said.
"What happens in the process if you decide to reconcile with your wife? What happens to this woman then? Must have a complete break first.
I also need to find out your maintenance. How much you pay to your ex-wife, how much you have to pay for your children, and will your children be with you, or will they only come by on weekends? These are the information that I need for divorcees."
Regarding potential clients who have asked "how much I have to give to buy a wife?", he is quick to cut them off.
"You're not here to buy, you're here to marry. You give due respect to your spouse, it's equal. They are not second-class citizens."
The key to a smooth marriage: Helping your wife with their financial situation in Vietnam
What are some difficulties that the newlyweds might face?
Drawing from his own experiences, Koh also has a piece of crucial advice to maintaining such marriages:
"I always tell my clients, if you settle her problems in Vietnam, you have settled a great problem for yourself in Singapore. Because if your wife need not have to think of a family at home, need not have to worry about her family at home, then your marriage life will be a peaceful one. If not, she will keep on worrying about what happened to her mother, what happened to the condition of her house, the medical condition of her mother, all that."
Within three months of their marriage, Koh helped Le to rebuild the house of her mother, from an attap house that had no floor and a door that could not close against the wind or rain.
Koh also bought amenities for his in-laws, such as a new sofa and TV set, although he stresses that clients should help strictly within their means.
"If you can afford (to do so). You can (for instance) say, just renovate the toilet for them. You don't have to save the whole house, just some essential things."
In addressing what he said was a misconception of such brides as "gold-diggers", Koh explained:
"The misconception is always that they are gold-diggers, that they are coming here to cheat, they are not serious. I tell my clients, if you ask me whether they are coming here for financial reasons, the answer is yes. If you asked me whether they are gold-diggers, the answer is no.
Even my helper (who) comes to Singapore, it's also financial reasons. Are they coming here to steal, to cheat? That's not the intention. The intention is to come here and earn a honest living and send money back. So same thing for these Vietnamese ladies. They want to change the life of their parents, of their siblings.
They get married here. And they like Singapore because they heard a lot of good things about Singapore. Singapore men have a good reputation and Singapore's law also has a good reputation. Because in Vietnam, if the husband beats up the wife, they can't seek redress, unlike in Singapore where they are well-protected."
Top photo by Matthias Ang