The other woman

Downturn sees mistresses made redundant

The other woman

Farewell sweet mistress: actress Gong Li got her big break playing a concubine

Zhang Mutou, an area of the formerly booming Dongguan industrial zone in Southern China, has two nicknames. The first is ‘Little Hong Kong’, a recognition of the nationality of many of the factory owners. The second is ‘the Paradise of Concubines’, a reference to the factory owners’ mistresses.

However, as the Ta Kung Pao newspaper points out, all is not well in the Paradise of Concubines. Guangdong province is home to 70,000 factories, but 2,452 closed in 2008 – thanks to slumping exports to the US and Europe. Many of these factories were owned by Hong Kong residents.

Hard times for the Hong Kong entrepreneurs, means more than just downsizing on the factory floor. It also means getting rid of your Guangdong-based mistress. According to Ta Kung Pao, half the properties now empty in Zhang Mutou, were previously housing mistresses.

Since China’s ‘reform and opening’ began in 1978, Hong Kongers have been the biggest investors in neighbouring Guangdong.

Over the past 30 years this has encouraged unusual living arrangements, with Hong Kong businessmen regularly having a wife and family back home, and a young mistress living near their factory across the border. Sometimes she becomes an all-but-legal second wife, and bears him a second family.

Concubines, of course, have long been a part of Chinese culture. One of the few Chinese movies that Westerners may have actually seen is Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern. China’s leading actress, Gong Li, plays the ‘third concubine’, and resides in a sumptuous courtyard in Pingyao. What is all the more amazing is that this film is not set in the 18th century, but in the 1920s, during China’s warlord era. Another internationally well-known Chinese movie is Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. You get the point.

Under Chairman Mao the concubine culture disappeared. Indeed, by the time of the Cultural Revolution the average Chinese male was about as likely to have a mistress as a Maserati.

However, China’s booming economy saw the concubine culture re-establish itself. A new generation of alpha males – the budding business tycoons – were quick to take on mistresses.

Affairs of the heart remain a subject likely to generate press interest. Readers will recall that in WiC1 we featured an article about fakes (shanzhai). Well, it seems that even the ‘mistress culture’ can get the shanzhai treatment, albeit only at the journalistic level. A Qingdao newspaper, the Peninsular Metropolitan News recently published a story about a local businessman named Fan, who had five mistresses. With his business suffering, he decided he could only afford one – since each concubine supposedly had a paid apartment and a monthly allowance of Rmb5,000. Fan organised a talent contest to the find the best mistress – although in something of a departure from the norm they not only had to sing but also impress with their ability to imbibe alcohol. The story became even more lurid when the first mistress to be ‘eliminated’ tried to drive the others off a cliff in the Laoshan mountains.

It proved to be fake story, although given the unpredictability of much going on in contemporary China it took many in, including CNN which published the story on its website (‘Chinese mistress contest takes tragic turn’). The Peninsula Metropolitan News has since stated that the story was a fabrication, (and to its credit) apologised to readers. The offending journalist – like quite a few mistresses – has joined the ranks of the unemployed.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.