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  • Aug 22, 2014
  • Updated: 1:08am

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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am

Women's and gender studies programmes have been an academic growth industry in recent years throughout the world, and Hong Kong has been no exception to this trend. Recent studies of Chinese women have documented the lives of sworn spinsters and other single women who decided - for various reasons - to live separate existences from men, adopt a 'vegetarian' lifestyle and live in what were known as chai tong, or 'vegetarian halls'.

A noted feature of life for many women in Hong Kong, the Pearl River Delta and the Chinese migrant world in Southeast Asia, chai tong allowed single women to live together without the need to marry. In the densely populated West River districts, particularly around Shunde (better known in Cantonese as Shun Tak), chai tong served a useful social function: they enabled women to be accommodated without a family member having to provide a dowry, arrange a marriage, or care for them in sickness and old age. Few chai tongs have survived, but they were a common sight between the 1940s and 90s.

While the women who lived in them were known as 'vegetarians', the term carried different connotations than it does today. Some women - usually dedicated disciples of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy - ate no meat at all. Others - like most Chinese people with Buddhist-influenced belief systems - were notionally vegetarian only on the first and 15th days of the lunar calendar. A few chai tong became renowned for their food, and covered expenses by cooking for restaurants and catering for events that required vegetarian fare.

For a combination of historical and geographical reasons, chai tong were less common in Hong Kong than in Singapore and Malaysia. Historically, most single Chinese women who came to live in Hong Kong were migrants from elsewhere in the Pearl River Delta, and many regarded themselves as temporary sojourners, rather than permanent settlers, in their new home. Most retained close personal and family links with their home districts and frequently returned for visits. This, in turn, meant that when their time came to retire, a return to the mainland was a logical, economically rational choice.

Personal circumstances were very different for those who built new lives in the Nanyang ('south seas'), as Southeast Asia was termed. After a working life spent in the tropics - most of those women who became 'vegetarians' worked as amahs or manual workers of one sort or another - personal links with home had weakened. Few returned more than a few times in as many decades. In addition, people had become accustomed to a hot climate, different food and a more relaxed Malayan lifestyle, and felt that they could no longer adapt to life in China. Chai tong in these countries, therefore, provided a refuge in old age for retired migrant women. Over time, some evolved into elderly care facilities.

Numerous reasons were advanced as to why some women chose not to marry, but close observation of the unhappy life experiences of others influenced many. One common refrain was the comment that: 'If my husband becomes wealthy, he takes a concubine. If he becomes poor, I have to go out to work.' Many women decided this was an arrangement to avoid if they had any choice.

Among the best-documented examples of solidly researched information on these fascinating, little-known topics can be found in the recently published Cantonese Society in Hong Kong and Singapore, a series of essays by the late Dr Marjorie Topley.

The Cantonese colloquialism tau-foo por ('bean-curd hag') is both a common slang expression for lesbians and a double-edged reference to vegetarianism.

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