Defying the expat code on violence in the home

WHEN her husband grasped her throat in rage and squeezed until her vision blurred, Pauline Smith's (not her real name) faith in the Hong Kong police took a battering.

Her husband, a senior officer, dropped her limp body in their government quarters as their two children looked on.

''I was unconscious,'' she said. ''He was a complete madman.

''I appealed to some policemen I knew. They said there was nothing they could do; it was very sensitive.

''I came to the conclusion that I didn't stand a chance.'' A businesswoman, Ms Smith met her English husband in Hong Kong in 1966 and watched him rise through the ranks of the force. They appeared to be a successful expatriate couple enjoying all the territory had to offer.

But for more than a decade, Ms Smith said, she kept her husband's drinking bouts and abuse secret in order to protect his job, his income and their government flat. It was not until the day she lay gasping on her own floor that she finally decided to break the expatriate code of silence.

On that occasion, Ms Smith had just returned from police headquarters, where she had a two-hour meeting with a senior police welfare officer. She had told the officer, she recalled, of the drunkenness, the adultery and the beatings witnessed by their two children.

''I went to him to ask for help for my husband and myself. I told him I was very scared, my husband had a drinking problem and a gun. I went to him in complete confidence and I was betrayed,'' she said.

''Two minutes after I walked out he must have called my husband, because he was at home, waiting for me.

''That night, he tried to strangle me.'' The incident became the final straw in her marriage and revealed the unbending solidarity of expatriate police officers and civil servants.

''An assistant commissioner approached me and said that, during the divorce proceedings, if I tried to take any money from my husband, he would break both my legs and see me out of Hong Kong,'' she said.

''I knew him vaguely - I'd met him at official functions. Maybe he'd had a bit to drink, but it was a real threat.'' Two male clients of her firm were bundled into police stations, questioned and accused of having affairs with her, she said.

''I found the wives wouldn't talk to me. One even came up to me and said 'How dare you leave your husband?' I told her he had tried to kill me and she said 'We all have to put up with these things. Who do you think you are?' '' Rumours of the violent separation leaked out and Ms Smith's business profile encouraged other women to confide in her. She received letters and phone calls pouring out similar stories of abuse.

''It's very common. I couldn't believe it,'' she said.

''They were people I'd been to Government functions with and, on the surface, everything looked terrific but underneath it was terrible.

''I had so many women coming to me, saying they were married to senior people in the Government and the private sector.

''It's fear that keeps these women silent - fear and no money.'' Income from her business allowed her to leave the couple's flat and support her teenage children.

A decade later, Ms Smith has won her divorce and remarried.