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Hong Kong Economy Hurts Mistresses

August 25, 2002

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SHENZHEN, China (AP) _ In the gray, dilapidated apartment buildings of Huangbeiling village, the good times of this boomtown have given way to silent despair.

Money from across the border in Hong Kong is not flowing as freely as before into the hands of the many mainland Chinese women kept as mistresses by Hong Kong men in this and several other ``er-nai cun″ _ ``second wives villages.″

``My friends used to cross the border three to four times a week, but now they may only go once a week,″ says Cheung Hung, a 47-year-old Hong Kong businessman who once kept two mistresses but says he now visits prostitutes. ``Now, many have taken pay cuts and they don’t spend as lavishly as before.″

Capitalist Hong Kong’s affluence has long been a magnet for women from poor provinces in central and western China.

Many of them settled in the melting pot of Shenzhen, where nearly half the 7 million residents are migrants. Prevented by immigration restrictions from crossing the border, the women hooked up with richer Hong Kong men living less than an hour away by commuter train.

There are no official statistics on the number of ``second wives,″ but thousands of Hong Kong philanderers _ from truck drivers to company bosses _ sought out attractive mainland women in the myriad nightclubs, karaoke bars, massage parlors and other trysting spots that sprang up across Shenzhen.

For the equivalent of a few hundred dollars a month, these men kept ``concubines,″ reviving an ancient Chinese tradition that is no longer legal in modern China. The mistresses led easy and extravagant lives by local standards, passing the time between trysts by playing mahjong, eating out and shopping.

But with Hong Kong’s economy in the doldrums and unemployment at a record high 7.4 percent, the tide has turned. Many men now make only occasional visits to their mainland lovers.

Keener competition between women scrambling for customers also means Hong Kong’s Casanovas can get away with spending about half what they used to, says Cheung, who runs a janitorial service.

From the point of view of one former mistress, Hong Kong men have become ``smarter″ and refuse to be tied down these days.

``We have a saying which goes, ’If you want to drink milk, you don’t necessarily have to keep a cow,‴ says the woman, a native of western China’s Sichuan province, who would give only her surname, Yang. She now works as a tour guide.

Few of the ``second wives″ are as lucky as a friend of Yang’s whose Hong Kong lover gave her $250,000 when they split up. To get by, many cash-strapped mistresses go back to work as nightclub hostesses or juggle several patrons at one time to earn extra income.

Because of the stigma associated with concubinage, they may have little choice. Mistresses are generally viewed as femmes fatales and home wreckers _ most of the women approached refuse to even speak with a visiting reporter.

Some do return to their native villages, rejoining former sweethearts who are often unaware of the women’s lives in Shenzhen. Others take children fathered by Hong Kong lovers back home to get residency documents using documents forged to show they are married or enrolling their child under a married relative’s name, then come back to the city.

In keeping with tradition, some Hong Kong men do try to maintain homes for more than one partner, particularly if children are involved. Inevitably, there is anguish on both sides, says social worker Paulina Kwok, whose family crisis support center handles about 100 cases a month involving extramarital affairs.

``The first wives often feel angry and extremely helpless,″ says Kwok. ``They think they have utterly failed.″

Private investigator David Cheung says he gets calls both from wives asking him to check on straying husbands and from mistresses wondering where their sugar daddies have gone.

``Often when men are doing well, they ignore their wives. But when they’re in bad shape financially, they return to their families,″ Cheung says.

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