When I lived in Hong Kong, I tutored a woman named Maria one summer. She was in her early 20s and spoke fluent English, but wanted someone to help her with advanced vocabulary.
Every Saturday morning we met in the small flat Maria shared with her three sisters. Two bedrooms, each with a bunk bed, accommodated the single women. Their two elder sisters were married with children and living elsewhere in Hong Kong.
Maria told me early on about her five sisters and how their mother had died young, from ovarian cancer.
“Too many babies”, she said. “My dad kept wanting a boy.”
Wow. I felt so sad for Maria. Not only had she lost her mother at an early age (while Maria was still in her teens), but she also probably felt frustrated with a dad who wouldn’t stop at anything for a cherished son, despite the outcome. I kind of told her that in so many words.
She rolled her eyes. “I guess it’s all right because he has his son.”
“Sorry, I didn’t remember you telling me about a brother.”
“It’s from his second wife.”
Oh, I thought. That made sense. “You mean, after your mom died?”
“No, while my mom was still alive. My dad had two wives.”
“Your dad had two wives?”
“Yes.” She spoke as if everyone’s dad had two wives.
“Did you all live together?”
She looked down at the weathered floor, so I took that as my cue to stop questioning her. But when I returned to the university that afternoon, I raced to my department, where I had use of the internet (not commonplace back then) and searched Hong Kong and polygamy.
Under British rule, the Hong Kong government outlawed polygamy in October, 1971, more than a year after I was born.
But old habits die slowly, and when I lived there it was common for some Hong Kong businessmen to keep ‘second wives’ across the border in Shenzhen. There’s a saying in Chinese, 妻不如妾, 妾不如妓, 妓不如偷, 偷不如偷不著, which means:
A wife is not as good as concubine, a concubine is not as good as a prostitute, a prostitute is not as good as a secret affair, a secret affair is not as good as the affair you want but can’t get.