Men about the house

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


Terry Chan Wai-nok drew satisfaction from his work as a school administrator and enjoyed socialising with colleagues. But after his daughter, Tin-ching, was born last year, the 29-year-old began to rethink his role.

'My wife and I were discussing who should stay at home to take care of the baby,' he says. 'As a man in my prime, I should be a go-getter and try my best to build a career. But I knew my job as a school administrator did not hold as much prospect as that of my wife. Her job as an interior designer is stable and pays well.

'Eventually, we agreed that I would quit my job and become a full-time dad.'

The ranks of 'Mr Mums' have been swelling in Hong Kong over the past decade. Asian societies are still largely wedded to traditional notions of men's key role being outside the home as providers, with women being responsible for raising the children and keeping house. But recent studies show shifts in conventional division of duties.

The number of full-time fathers (those who list homemaking as their primary work) has risen from 3,200 to 15,000 between 1986 and 2010, according to the Women and Men in Hong Kong report released by Census and Statistics Department last year. It mirrors men's falling participation in the workforce, from 80.5 per cent in 1986 to 68.6 per cent in 2010, with that of women rising from 48.9 per cent to 52 per cent over the same period.

Meanwhile, younger women are catching up in the salaries stakes as they become better educated. Although men account for more than 60 per cent of the 800,000 people in Hong Kong who earn more than HK$20,000 per month, a different picture emerges when we take a closer look at younger earners, with 38,000 high-income women in the 20 to 29 age group compared to 35,100 men.

Such shifts recently prompted the Equal Opportunities Commission to have the Gender Research Centre at Chinese University carry out a study on how men view their identity.

The study, which includes in-depth interviews with 71 men, is the first of its kind in Hong Kong, says commission member and legislator Frederick Fung Kin-kee.

'Men no longer enjoy the edge over women in education and work,' he says. 'The loss of physically demanding work, relocation of factories northward and booming service industry mean the labour market is more favourable to women. But men's perceptions have yet to catch up with the new economic realities. They still think the worth of a man is mostly built on his salary and career. They suffer from low self-esteem if their partners earn more than they do.'

It takes strength of character and conviction to defy social conventions. When Ron Chan Wai-ming decided in 2008 that he should give up his job as civil engineer to be a full-time father, he ran into a lot of opposition.

'Some of my siblings objected. I was already in middle management and they felt it was a waste of my experience, education and master's degree,' he says. 'But I explained that this was just a trial phase. I have kept renewing my engineering licence. While new techniques are constantly surfacing in IT and medicine, engineering stayed much the same in the two decades I worked [in that field]. I can always go back if my priorities change in future.'

Terry Chan faced similar objections from family and friends. 'My wife's parents disapproved of it as they thought I wouldn't be up to the task of child rearing,' he says. 'My friends were also shocked by my decision; they didn't know anyone who stayed at home as a full-time dad. They find it hard to stomach, viewing it as living off a woman's earnings. But I'm not lying idle at home.'

As he has learned, 'being a full-time father is a 24/7 job, with no down time and no days off'.

'I have to give up my regular lifestyle to tend to my daughter's needs, which arise at any time. Caring for an infant requires a lot of energy.'

Keeping a house in order is no easy task, either, Terry Chan says.

'Everything was a mess when she was first born. I'm proud that I overcame all the difficulties. I also give myself credit for the fact that she seldom falls ill.'

Proving he's no slouch, Terry Chan also runs a photography website with friends.

'Our company has its own studio, and I give photography lessons there on weekends, when my wife can take care of the baby. The company is still in its infancy, but my wife and I agree that once the money starts to roll in, our roles can be reversed,' he says.

As a stay-at-home dad Ron Chan has found new outlets for his talents, too; he took up photo- and video-editing and is now helping to set up the Parent Teachers Association at his eldest daughter, Naomi's, school.

'I take videos of her cake-making sessions with friends. I add special effects to their pictures and put them on Facebook,' he says. 'Naomi's school opened two years ago and it's a challenge to establish the PTA. I use my new software-editing skills to make posters and display boards. The mothers are good at communication and gathering people. As a man with an engineering background, I am good at planning and implementation. Last Christmas, the mums were stumped when they had to make an 2.5-metre palm tree for a Christmas play, so I came up with a structure using a basketball stand and metal struts. My expertise in construction stood me in good stead.'

He and his wife have divided the task of recording their two daughters' development: while his wife has been keeping a written diary since their birth, he's in charge of the visual records. 'We will let them see the whole [thing] when they turn 18,' he says.

Perceptions of gender relations as a zero-sum game in which women's success implies men's failure are slow to change. Attitudes have yet to catch up with social shifts, says Paul Yip Siu-fai, a social work professor at the University of Hong Kong.

'Despite the rise in women's financial and education status, the stereotype of men presiding over the household from without and women maintaining it from within is still ingrained,' he says.

'Men are perceived as poor at raising children, but with enough practice they can be expert, too. To achieve real gender parity, there should be more family friendly measures like the adoption of parental leave. In Sweden, a couple is entitled to 18 weeks of parental leave after the birth of a child. They can work out who should take the leave for the best child-rearing arrangement.'

Although a number of full-time fathers are married to career-oriented high-fliers, it's the desire to be actively involved in their children's upbringing that prompts them to take the plunge.

Ron Chan and his wife have two daughters, Naomi, six, and 17-month-old Yumi.

They believe young children learn best from parents, and both felt guilty when they arrived home from work late at night and it was their maid who witnessed the milestones in their growing up.

'We didn't want our children to be like pet dogs, which are well fed but yearn for their owners to come home all day long,' Ron Chan says.

'Neither of us wanted to outsource parenting to teachers or our maid, who took care of Naomi as a baby. Since my wife is a doctor, with a better and more stable income, we decided that I should be the one give up my job to care for the children. I stepped in when Naomi turned two.

'For young children starting to develop their own value system, the presence of a parent is of utmost importance. I can rectify mistakes as soon as I see them. I lose my temper sometimes when helping Naomi with her homework, but I say sorry to her afterwards. I want her to know that it's important to own up to one's mistakes. It's these small lessons in life which are valuable.'

Terry Chan, too, reckons that since he's more familiar with his daughter's temperament than others, he'll probably make the better tutor in some areas.

'I play piano and guitar. I won't enrol her in classes but will teach her myself, instead. With a childhood filled with quality time with her parents, my daughter will grow to be a confident and happy person.'


Equal Opportunities Commission chairman Lam Woon-kwong suggests spouses should have regular discussions with each other on how to allocate parental duties as a first step towards attaining gender equality.

'Women should stop being passive and deferential to men's wishes,' he says.

'They must take the initiative to ask the man to help shoulder household duties. Most men have a conscience and know that they should help out with the children's homework. It's just natural lethargy that prevents them from doing what is right. They are easily distracted by football games on television.

'While women shouldn't berate them, they certainly can nag them to do their share.

'There's no point in advocating gender equality when women still do the lion's share of housework. Our recent study showed that women do three times the amount of housework than men even with full-time jobs,' he says. 'Men need to understand that nowadays both spouses assume the dual roles of breadwinner and homemaker.'

Although many big companies have flexible work arrangements, men are often reluctant to make use of them.

'Once men accept the concept of shared household responsibility, they will no longer feel embarrassed if their wives earn more or if they have to do more housework.'

Lam practises what he preaches: he and his wife have embraced the concept of joint household responsibility with gusto.

'When I proposed to my wife, she told me she couldn't cook. Knowing that I was also a poor cook, she said we should do it together. So we agreed that whoever got up first in the morning would make breakfast. If she cooks, I do the dishes. If she washes clothes, I vacuum the floor. In the 30 years we have been married, we have shared all the household work without domestic helpers.'