Why people don't mind being left on the shelf

ONCE upon a time, men were men and women were women. Men were the breadwinners and women were the homemakers - so the story went.

And, although it is still a story on which many of Hongkong's children are being brought up, men in the territory today are finding there is a world of difference between the values they had accepted as natural, and reality.

Many Hongkong women are more assertive, economically independent and better educated than their mothers, and expect more from life than their mothers ever did.

Grace Ng, 31, works in the sales department of an arts magazine and enjoys being single: ''I value independence above all else,'' she said. ''When I was young, marriage seemed inevitable, a natural stage in your life. But I now realise there are many choices in life and marriage is just one.'' Although there is pressure from her family to settle down, she has no plans of doing so for the time being. ''We live in very uncertain times, and 1997 is a good excuse for me not to commit myself to that kind of a relationship. It's much easier to flee if you only have yourself to consider,'' she explained.

Ms Ng is one of a generation of educated Hongkong women in her 30s who have begun to enjoy some of the gains women have made in society, primarily through education and the workplace. ''I had a very traditional upbringing and was the epitome of a good girl. But four years away at University in Canada changed my world view completely,'' she recalls.

Figures from the Census and Statistics Department show that more and more, Hongkong women are marrying later. In 1971, the average age for marriage was 23.6, a decade later it was 24.4 and in 1991 it was 26.8. The 1991 figures also show that while the overall marriage rate's been dropping, more men have been getting married between 30 and 44. The average age of marriage for men is 33.1.

According to University of Hongkong demographer Dr Ronald Skeldon, higher levels of education and increased opportunities in the workplace were some of the factors contributing to this trend.

While there is less stigma attached to a woman's status as a single in her 30s today than there was a decade ago, it is still more acceptable for men in their 30s to be unmarried. But that is not to say men are not feeling the pressure. They are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile their expectations of finding a dutiful wife with that of the modern woman.

''We were subjected to a traditional upbringing and our socialisation taught us that there are very distinct roles for men and women. Men were the breadwinners, women looked after the home. But in reality, the traditional dichotomies are becoming more and more blurred,'' said Lau Chi-fai.

Mr Lau, 35, readily accepts that traditional roles have to be questioned and redefined, but says it's difficult for men to locate themselves in this new order and that many are at a loose end.

Although he does not believe in the institution of marriage per se, he is under immense pressure from his family to marry. His parents have even suggested arranging meetings with possible candidates.

But even though he rejects the notion for now, he admits: ''Maybe when I am older and the pressure becomes insurmountable, then I cannot discount the possibility that I will succumb.'' ''Once you reach a certain age and have been through a number of unsuccessful or broken relationships, you get tired of all the trials, tribulations and disappointments of another relationship.'' Unlike Mr Lau, solicitor Simon Tso said there's no way he'd marry to please his parents or anyone else. As a lawyer, there are many functions and social gatherings he's expected to attend with a female partner, but on such occasions, he'd rather go with a friend, or not at all. ''I don't really like them,'' he said.

'' In the long run, I know this could undermine my career prospects, but for the time being I don't want to force myself to do something I don't enjoy,'' he said.

Mr Tso, who refused to give his age, resented the expectations others hold of him to be either married or dating somebody on a steady basis. ''As I become more senior in my profession, there will be more expectations for me to get married, but these are just norms of social behaviour.'' Comradeship, and not companionship, is what Fung Kam-kong is looking for. The 36-year-old Consumer Council Complaints Officer feels that while it's difficult for men to play a non-traditional role in modern relationships, it's just as hard for women to accept non-traditional men.

''On a superficial level, women are more independent now than they used to be, but on another, many of the old internalised values are hard to shake off,'' he said. ''Even if they are not economically dependent on men, some are still psychologically dependent.'' Unlike many of his peers, Mr Fung said he was under no pressure to get married and believes that much of the pressure men feel in dealing with women arise from their ''unwillingness to learn how to communicate.'' In the past, when roles were clearly defined, men did not have to communicate with women, he said.

Ms Ng agreed that women also face conflicts between how they have been brought up to behave and their new position in society.

''We're not only going through a period of political transition here, but are also facing a period of transition in relations between the sexes,'' she added.