I came across a fascinating book about marriage culture in Hong Kong and couldn’t put it down until I finished it today. My to-read pile is already toppling over, but this one was too good to put aside.
Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Professional Practice in the Hong Kong Cultural Context (Hong Kong University Press, 2010) is edited by Katherine P.H. Young and Anita Y.L. Fok, and is arranged chronologically according to the different stages of marriage, divorce, and remarriage.
I’m drawn to this topic because while I was first married in Hong Kong, I didn’t have a Hong Kong marriage. My ex-husband was from mainland China, which has its own marriage culture, and I am from the US, which is different from both Hong Kong and the mainland.
When I got married the first time, the divorce rate in the US was at least 50% and it was on the rise in mainland China. My ex-husband had more friends who were divorced than who weren’t. It was that prevalent. So we weren’t really unusual in getting divorced ourselves five years into our marriage.
But I always thought Hong Kong was more traditional and therefore more stable in its marriage culture. Back in the 1990s, it was common for Hong Kong businessmen to work during the week in China and return to Hong Kong on the weekends. Second wives became kind of a norm in the mainland, although I knew that Hong Kong wives were not happy about it.
I learned a lot from this book. The divorce rate is very high in Hong Kong now, and it’s women who are initiating divorce there. Up until 1971, Hong Kong men could have more than one wife, but a large reform that year outlawed polygamy. Remember, this was all under the British. Then in 1996, there was another large reform that gave women more rights in divorce and changed the three year waiting period to just one year. Before then, men could divorce their wives, but it was much more difficult for women to initiate it. The book listed the three main reasons for divorce as domestic violence, extramarital affairs, and gambling/other addictions.
Hong Kong women have much more earning power than they did in 1971 when the first large reform took place, so they now have more financial independence and the means to be a single mother if their marriages don’t work out.
The book reported that women in Hong Kong still lose out when it comes to divorce, which is the case in the US, too. Women who are single mothers in Hong Kong (and the US) often need to work long hours just to break even with bills and other expenses, even though ex-husbands provide child support.
Each chapter not only told about the current state of marriage, divorce, or remarriage, but also gave tips to social workers who handle these cases. An interesting one about extramarital relationships advocated for treating all three parties equally and not demonizing the third party. I found this interesting because, at least in the US, it is very rare for a man to marry the woman he has an affair with. It happens plenty of times, but it’s more likely that he will stay married or end up with someone else.
Which brings me to another interesting, but predictable point: men remarry more often than women in Hong Kong. I think the same goes in the US. Divorced men in Hong Kong were not as ostracized as divorced women used to be. People in Hong Kong, according to the book, are becoming a lot more accepting of single mothers, divorced women, and remarriage when the woman has been married before but the new husband hasn’t.
Another chapter I enjoyed was an early one that advocated for delving into the couple’s upbringings when they are having marital difficulties. One woman was upset her husband was so withdrawn, but once she learned about his difficult childhood and how he shied away from conflict because his parents argued so much, she could better understand where he was coming from and didn’t take it personally.
There’s a lot more in this book, like how many Hong Kong men are marrying mainland women and how the marriage and birth rates in Hong Kong are at an all-time low. While the book features academic papers, I thought it read like a novel at times. I hope the editors will publish an update since the data from this one is now mainly 10-15 years old.