Brace Fellow Jennifer Fan ’09 Studies ‘Astronaut’ Women and Changing Roles in Hong Kong Society

This summer, Brace Center Fellow Jennifer Fan ’09 studied developments in the marital status of Hong Kong women from the 1950’s onward. She presented her work last Monday. Fan’s presentation was entitled “Housewives, Astronauts, and Superwomen – The Development of Status of Hong Kong Women in Marriage from the 1950’s to Now.” In her research, Fan found that during the 1980’s and ’90’s, women in Hong Kong gained greater equality and respect in their marriages, while they became increasingly independent from their husbands. Fan found her research surprising. “Initially, I thought the changing role of Hong Kong women in marriage would be influenced primarily by the clash of Western and Chinese cultures,” she said. But she found that “many political factors” influenced the development of women’s status in marriage. Most people think that the term “astronaut” only describes a person trained in space travel. Fan’s presentation explained another definition for the word. In the context of immigrants from Hong Kong, “astronaut” refers to the wives left at the so-called “space station” in foreign countries. Additionally, the Cantonese pronunciation of the term (tai hung yaan) translates as “wife,” “empty,” “person,” respectively, and implies that these women are left alone in a foreign county without any resources. Fan said that these “astronauts” were forced to take the role as the head of the family in their husband’s absence. Once the families were reunited, the new power and independence the women experienced, along with Westernized views of spousal relationships, allowed the wife to gain more power in her marriage. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, many of these “astronaut families” formed in Hong Kong as a result of the public’s fear of the return of Communism. The Open Door Policy in 1978 and the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984 prompted thousands to seek overseas citizenship. But “astronaut families” also brought about an adverse effect on the growing status of Hong Kong women in marriage. The phenomenon increased the issue of “Baau Yi Naai,” or concubinage. Fan said husbands of “astronaut” wives sought emotional and physical compensation through the practice of keeping concubines. The Marriage Reform Ordinance of 1971 forbade concubinage. Although the status of concubines was not legally recognized during the period of the formation of “astronaut families,” the practice of keeping concubines became increasingly common. This lack of social recognition demonstrated women’s inferior status. Fan linked the rise of women in Hong Kong women’s power in marriage to Hong Kong’s industrialization and Westernization. In 1949, a huge influx of Chinese merchants fleeing Communism brought economic capital to Hong Kong. Additionally, the United States’ embargo in China left Hong Kong without re-export opportunities. The Korean War lead to many refugees seeking shelter in Hong Kong and provided a large cheap labor workforce. Hong Kong soon became an industrial city with thriving new factories. Women began taking jobs in the emerging textile, plastics and electronics industries. Through contributions to the family income, women were able to enhance their status within their marriages. Fan became interested in this topic in part due to personal involvement with the issue. Several of her family members were a part of the large exodus from Hong Kong in the 1980’s and ’90’s and hold citizenship in countries such as England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Taiwan. She focused her research by looking at the question of why the marital role of women in Hong Kong changed so drastically from the 1950’s to the present day. Fan is the final student in a series of four Brace Student Fellow presentations to offer her work to the Andover community. She launched the project last May, with a proposal for study on the topic. Travis Conley, Chair of the Chinese Department, worked as Fan’s faculty advisor and guided her throughout her research. Alexandra Rahman ’08, another Brace Center Student Fellow said, “[The presentation was] very interesting, enhanced by the fact that [Fan’s] family was part of the exodus.” Today, women in Hong Kong earn wages equivalent to those of their male colleagues, said Fan. Even so, the strong influence of patriarchal Chinese tradition prevents some families from egalitarian marriage. To end her presentation, Fan predicted greater marital equality in Hong Kong in the coming years.