SINGAPORE - As you walk along the corridors at Katong Shopping Centre, you might encounter an unusual shop nestled among the maid agencies.
The women inside it are well-dressed. They wear lipstick and have powdered faces. Outside his shop is a signboard with the words "bride" in Chinese characters.
Despite that, customers still are mistaken.
"People see ladies sitting in my office all day and immediately assume they are maids.
"Can't they see that my ladies are dressed so nicely, with make-up and their hair done up? These women are looking for husbands, not employers," says Mr Francis Toh, 58, the Singaporean owner of First Overseas International Matchmaker.
There are at least 17 such marriage agencies in Singapore, going by a check of the Yellow Pages..
Some specialise in matching professionals and executives.
Others, like Mr Toh's, pair local men with foreign brides, mainly from Vietnam and China.
Mr Toh's clients are men who typically have little luck with local women. They are usually blue-collar workers in their 30s to 50s with little education. Their preferred mate? Young, submissive and foreign.
The women, in turn, are usually farmers' daughters, aged 18 to 25. They come from the poor, rural areas in southern Vietnam, such as Tay Ninh and Binh Thuan, and regard Singapore men as a way out of poverty.
Mr Toh says in Mandarin: "These aren't marriages of love, but who cares? The women just want someone to provide for them. And the men are looking for companionship. It's a win-win situation."
He has been in the business since 1998 and set up this company in 2004.
In the early days, matches were made mainly by taking the men to Vietnam for "viewings", he says.
Up to eight men in each group would travel to villages in Vietnam, where the women would line up, dressed to charm.
There, the men would select their brides and even have a wedding reception.
Vows would be exchanged for $12,888 package that included air tickets, a health check-up for the bride, the matchmaker's overheads and payment to middlemen.
It was on a similar trip back in 1999 that Mr Toh met his wife.
They were married four years later and have a nine-year-old daughter.
His wife, Madam Rachel Nguyen, 30, runs a nail salon at Pearl's Centre in Chinatown.
Says Mr Toh: "As long as there is commitment and patience in a marriage, it is possible to find your happily-ever-after."
But greater enforcement of immigration laws in Vietnam have made such trips risky. Says Mr Toh: "The Vietnamese authorities consider these 'viewings' as human trafficking and arrest those who conduct them."
His Vietnamese brother-in-law was nabbed in 2009 and convicted for taking two men on a matchmaking trip to a village near Ho Chi Minh City. He is currently serving an eight-year jail term.
Now, Mr Toh flies the girls here on social visit passes, valid for two to four weeks. They stay with his family in a four-room flat in the Chai Chee area.
In the day, the girls meet prospective husbands. Some choose to sit in his office - the size of a two-room flat - hoping the man of their dreams will stride in.
If a man wants to marry them, he pays the agency $6,800 in cash or cheque.
Easy money? Nope.
For one thing, the agency loses money if the girl can't find a match.
Says Mr Toh: "We cover their living expenses and airfare, which comes up to $700 for each girl.
"We also spend $1,500 a month on newspaper advertisements for them."
Two in five are denied entry into Singapore, he says.
He believes this is because they are unable to give satisfactory answers to immigration officers regarding their accommodation in Singapore, or because of their limited command of English and Chinese.
"It's sad when we have to lose business like this," he says.
In some cases, the women are desperate enough to contemplate entering into sham marriages, which are illegal here. Mr Toh gets at least two inquiries every month from such women.
He says: "The women ask indirectly. They'd ask 'Can you arrange a marriage for me? I'll pay you to do so.
"This is telling, because for genuine marriages, it is the men who pay me.
"But I never entertain such requests," he says. "I don't want to get into trouble."
Sometimes the girls go home empty-handed because of their sky-high expectations.
In 2007, for example, a 42-year-old woman from China engaged his services.
She earned about $200 a month, but wanted a husband who earned $3,000 to $6,000 a month, lived in private property and ran his own businesses.
Although Mr Toh told her that these expectations were "unrealistic", she insisted.
She eventually returned to China when her social visit pass expired. Says Mr Toh: "I try to manage their expectations. You can't expect a prince to come in on a white horse right? They are already very lucky if they can find a nice, honest, hardworking man.
"But some of them are just so stubborn."
It's not just the women - the men also give problems.
One in 10 typically tries to avoid paying him the matchmaking fee, he says. After being introduced to a prospective bride, the man would pretend not to be interested, only to try and strike a private deal with the woman.
"These men usually approach my girls when they go to the washroom. They'd then arrange to marry behind my back.
"Some are so brazen, they even return to Katong Shopping Centre to have coffee after getting married."
Mr Toh has been tricked at least five times, but he has never tried to recoup his losses.
"What's the point?" he says. "Taking them to court is a waste of time. It's hard to prove my case, because the girl can play along and corroborate the man's story.
"When it happens, I just treat it as bad luck."
A matchmaker's job is done once the marriage is solemnised.
But some former clients have returned to him with their marriage woes.
He says: "I ask them to either talk it out or get professional help. I'm not a marriage counsellor. I can't solve their family problems."
But once, in 2009, he intervened.
Then, he had paired a 21-year-old Vietnamese woman with a 50-year-old Singaporean man.
Barely two weeks after the man took the woman home, she came running back to the agency.
The man apparently had a drinking problem. One night before the wedding, he came home drunk and used a knife to make her sleep with him.
Says Mr Toh: "I sent her back to Vietnam. I also didn't refund his fee, because he hid his drinking habit from me.
"I had made it clear when he signed the contract that if the marriage was cancelled because of him, he'd have to bear the consequences.
"It was also wrong of him to treat his fiancee that way."
Despite these challenges, Mr Toh's agency makes two or three successful matches a month.
Since launching his website in 2007, he now gets clients from China, India and the US as well. They typically view photos of the girls over his agency's website and come here to meet them in person.
Prospective brides are also coming from China.
These tend to be in their 30s, as they tend to marry later and are more selective.
But it's not all just business, he says, recounting one particularly touching story.
An employer approached him in 2007 to find a wife for her worker.
She bore the matchmaking fee, and came down personally to help choose her worker's wife-to-be.
Says Mr Toh: "That was quite sweet. It's rare for a boss to treat a worker so well."
Secrets of the trade
1 Get the women to dress up, use light make-up and tie their hair up. A woman's looks are obviously important to a man, so brides-to-be should appear neat and presentable.
2 No skimpy clothing, please. You may think men will be physically attracted to women in revealing outfits, but we are talking about marriage. You don't want to think the women are loose, or worse, prostitutes.
3 Use a translation app on your smartphone. Some foreign women speak almost no English or Chinese. Better still, install the app on the man's phone so he can do the translation work himself.
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