One Couple, Two Cultures

Apr 15, 2009
*Special to asia!
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Once considered forbidden fruit, Western-Chinese marriages are now as common as mandarin oranges. Dan Waters takes a fresh look at a ripe ol’ issue.

Today, if a Western-Chinese couple walk down the street hand-in-hand, few heads turn. In places like Singapore and Hong Kong, mixed marriages are so common they are seldom remarked upon, demonstrating remarkable progress in human relations and common sense. It was not always so. Up until World War II, fraternisation between the races in most communities was not the done thing.

When western men came to work in places like Singapore, Hong Kong and the China Treaty Ports in the 19th century, they came alone. Of the first 11 partners in Jardine Matheson (the “Princely Hong”), eight died unmarried, two married after they retired in Scotland, and only one partner married while he lived in the East. Most of these Taipans (“big bosses”) took “protected women.” Each carried a “pass” which certified they were “respectable mistresses” so as not to be confused with prostitutes.

David Jardine wrote in 1856: “… as a general rule, I think the system of non-married partners is a good one.” Many of these were long-lasting, loving, honourable relationships. In the evening the man “paid his respects” to his amour who lived in accommodation which he provided. Afterwards, he would return to his own home. Convention had it that the couple were not seen together in public. On retirement to his home country the “gentleman” made financial provision for his “protected woman” who was sometimes even placed on the firm’s payroll. She was styled a ‘pensioner’ and Eurasian offspring were found suitable employment.

Despite both Chinese and European societies being unaccepting of interracial marriage there was one notable exception. Ho Kai (later Sir Kai Ho Kai), a brilliant student, qualified in Britain as a physician and then went on to qualify as a barrister in 1881. In that same year, in racist, Victorian London, Ho did an unheard-of thing. He married an Englishwoman. That could have been the first Anglo-Chinese marriage ever. Although we know little about her family it is believed Alice Walkden’s father was a Member of Parliament at Westminister. Ho returned to Hong Kong in 1882, together with his English bride, where she was said to have been one of the most gracious ladies ever to have set foot in the colony. It was an unhealthy place in those days and she died of typhoid fever two years after giving birth to a daughter who was sent back to England. The daughter died young and unmarried.

Understandably, during the World War II on active service, prejudices eased somewhat and fraternisation did take place—within the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) in Southern China, for example. Indeed a few Western-Chinese marriages resulted, but after the War, in territories like Hong Kong, pre-war taboos returned. I, myself, was ostracised by colleagues because of my marriage to my Chinese wife on the Queen’s birthday in 1960—which my mother-in-law made sure was an auspicious day in the Chinese calendar. My British boss accused me of “letting the side down.” British colleagues not attending my wedding included one who boasted: “A Chinese had never crossed my threshold as a guest. You never know what they might do!”

340 At the wedding reception with the Chinese characters, "double happiness" in the background


My wife’s father was strongly against our marriage but he died a year before we wed. My wife’s grandfather’s fifth concubine had previously warned my girlfriend, as she then was, of the “love-them-and-leave–them” practice adopted by some Europeans. Among our wedding presents was a chi kwo, a gourd that resembles a man’s penis and scrotum. The implied message was of course, “a hundred sons and a thousand grandsons.”

For my book, One Couple Two Cultures, a labour of love both literally and figuratively, I am grateful to the 81 Western-Chinese married couples from around the world whom I interviewed or who completed questionnaires. Eighteen per cent of these comprised Chinese husbands with Western wives, among whom were two divorced couples and another couple who openly admitted they were not happy. But this they attributed, not to cultural differences, but to a 15-year age gap and lack of common interests.

Even though the middle-class spouses in my survey, mainly employed in the professions and in business, have been accorded the cloak of anonymity by me, couples certainly did not beat a path to my door. Indeed 29 per cent of those invited refused to be interviewed or to return a questionnaire. The following account is based on the voices of those 81 couples, as well as my own personal experiences and analysis that have been woven in. Many of the issues facing the spouses, as you will see, are practical ones met by the couples in their daily lives. Indeed many are similar to the problems facing same-culture married couples.

Communication can be a problem and, while most of the Chinese in my sample spoke good or excellent English, only a limited number of Westerners had a reasonable command of Chinese. One Australian wife who came to Hong Kong found that, during the day when her Chinese husband was at work, she was left in a large house with female in-laws and servants none of whom spoke English. “Simple instructions had to be guessed at or ignored,” she said, and she was left wondering what on earth was going to happen next. Of course even if you understand your partner’s language there can still be misunderstandings. As the Chinese say, with slang, nuances and colloquial expressions, “A chicken cannot talk to a duck.” Difficulties can also arise in communicating with partner’s friends and in-laws. Family harmony is important. Westerners are generally far more explicit and direct in their speech and manners. Chinese culture demands concern for “face.”

Relationships are like crystal, easily shattered, never to be reassembled.

Being a partner in a mixed marriage with Eurasian offspring (today having Chinese blood in one’s veins can be considered a cachet) can be a wonderful learning experience. The mind is “stretched” and new opportunities open up. One learns poignant expressions such as, “Melon Fields, under the Pear Tree!” Every Chinese is supposed to know that you do not bend down in a melon field and you do not adjust your hat under a pear tree or someone may think you are stealing melons or pears. The lesson is, of course: Do not arouse suspicion!

Dr Dan Waters ISO BBS was born in Norwich (UK), city of pubs and churches. He fought as a Desert Rat and in Italy, including taking part in the landings at Salerno and Anzio. After World War Two, in 1954, he joined the Colonial Service and set sail for Hong Kong where he has lived ever since. He has written widely about Hong Kong’s history, culture and customs.