Dating and marriage are fraught subjects in Hong Kong. The story goes like this: Hong Kong women long ruled the roost, making their husbands keep them in designer shoes and handbags. Then, over the last two decades, the rise of the Chinese mainland led to the rise of the Shenzhen mistress, and an increase in the number of ambitious young mainlanders living in the city. In the marriage economy, Hong Kong Cantonese women saw their stocks tumble.
This is a crude analysis, for sure, but it’s true that Hong Kong men and women alike are expressing a sense that it’s tough out there. Just as on the mainland, there’s family and societal pressure to marry and have children, and this can mean huge family strife. That’s traditional in Chinese society – what’s new is that, as in other parts of East Asia which have become far more prosperous in the last few decades, the financial independence of women has led to deep changes below the surface. According to the Asia Research Institute, the average age of marriage for women in Hong Kong is now over 30, higher than in the West as a whole, and up five years in just three decades. The male average is slightly older. There’s also been an increase in women in their 30s who have never married, as well as an increase in the rate of divorce – both mirrored in mainland society as time goes on. It’s been a long time since there was a serious social stigma around divorce in Hong Kong.
In Chinese culture, it’s generally accepted that the man should be more accomplished or educated than his wife, and have the better job. This leads to two types of people having the most problems finding a partner: highly accomplished and educated women (well-paid professionals with graduate degrees), and men who are short of both money and education. For the large numbers of middle-class men striving to save money and get ahead in the face of fierce competition at work, the fact that they’ll be expected to shell out for everything, pay a dowry and possibly provide a flat and a car before getting married is a huge burden.
But love still finds its way. A newcomer venturing onto the dating scene here won’t find anything particularly strange to behold. Hong Kong people do go on dates, and asking a woman out is not an intention to marry. However, a relationship that has moved steadily along for a few months carries an implicit goal of marriage along with it, and that even the most modern woman probably frowns on the idea of dating ‘just for fun’, even if she is liberal-minded in most ways.
Dating is traditional in the Western sense – the man is supposed to pay, bring a small gift, possibly take the woman home in a taxi before heading home himself. If he knows what’s good for him, he’d better buy flowers and spring for a classy dinner on Valentine’s Day. The Hong Kong woman, stereotype has it, wants it both ways – to be considered an equal and arguably a superior, and still get the benefit of traditional gender roles when it suits her. But remember – the city is full of men and women from elsewhere in China as well as a myriad of other countries, and relying on stereotypes for your information is a dangerous game.
Hong Kong, of course, has long had a large marriage pool of foreigners complicating the issue. These range from the boisterous banker boys to long-term foreign residents, to less privileged foreign domestic helpers. Cross-cultural dating can both simplify and complicate issues. In terms of Western men and local women – the most common combination – the classic problem is of men here for the short-term with no intention of committing, and women who may not realise or believe this. Hong Kong has a big party scene and is perceived as a place where white men in particular punch above their weight – the man who considers himself of average looks and charm in his home country may find himself more in demand. And since sexual mores are quite liberal, the cliché of the obnoxious Western playboy has some truth to it; as does the cliché of the family man who is tempted to stray from his partner after they relocate to Hong Kong.
But while intentions may be harder to decipher and cultural confusion may cause hurtful misunderstanding, the foreign partner can also circumvent social expectations. He or she will not be expected to observe all the family niceties and can blunder along saying the wrong thing to a future mother-in-law without being held responsible.
Anecdotally, Western women also report difficulty finding partners here – Western men tend to date Asian women, and local men show less interest in them. In general, a relationship between a Hong Kong local and a foreigner rests on the same principles of respect, care for another’s feelings and open discussion as any other kind of relationship. With cross-cultural dating, though, it may be important to clarify things from time to time – to make clear that you don’t find pouting very interesting, or that you have the right to know what the future holds. Linguistic difficulty can get in the way, too.
Of course, there is no shortage of sincere marriages between local women and foreign men (and the other way around, though this seems to be a very small minority of cross-cultural couples). Hong Kong is also a place where financially independent people from almost any combination of countries meet and fall in love – there are plenty of Western couples who met here.
Foreign spouses have the same rights as locals do in terms of property ownership, divorce law and so on. Hong Kong has long been an exceedingly international city, and given good intentions and a strong relationship, parental approval will generally be found in time. Note, however, that there is a big difference between perception of a white spouse versus a black, Asian or Middle Eastern spouse. The older generation often resorts to racial stereotypes, often perceiving whites as culturally superior to other non-Chinese races, and this can be an unpleasant extra layer of difficulty to work through.