Why is the number of single fathers above 60 in Hong Kong growing?
Failed cross-border marriages and changing gender roles have seen such cases more than double in a decade
A loud crack marks the end of a scuffle between Joe Wong and his elder daughter, Jane, 15. The duo stare in shock at a bunk bed that has just collapsed – the result of Wong climbing onto the upper level in a fit of rage to snatch a game console out of the girl’s hands.
Luckily, no one is hurt, but the episode is just one of many conflicts in this single-parent household. Wong, 53, an engineer, has been raising two daughters on his own since his divorce seven years ago.
“We used to have really physical fights because of her obsession with gaming,” he says. “I had no clue what she was thinking about. All I could do was to be there and watch. And every day she becomes more boyish, more like me.”
Wong is far from alone when it comes to experiencing the challenges of parenting solo. Official statistics show that in 2016, Hong Kong was home to 14,169 single fathers who were divorced or separated – a 15.1 per cent rise from 12,312 a decade ago.
Older men in this position may face greater difficulties due to a lack of help or resources. A total of 7,164 single fathers are over the age of 50, up 81.3 per cent. Within this group, the number of those aged 60 or older more than doubled to 1,799 – an increase of 111 per cent from 852 in 2006.
These figures, however, buck the overall trend of single parents in the city, whose numbers have fluctuated over the years. The authorities count single parents as those with children under the age of 18.
According to a government report, the growth of the single-father demographic is closely related to the increase in the number of divorces recorded in recent years, and in particular, those involving cross-border marriages.
Social worker Jolian Chui Pui-ling says such unions have been on the rise over the last decade and may be linked to the rising trend of single fathers in Hong Kong, especially as a result of divorces between local men and mainland women.
More than a decade ago, marriages between Hong Kong men and women across the border peaked. The men were usually much older than their wives. Because they were unable to find a partner in the city, they looked across the border for marital bliss.
News reports at the time suggested that many mainland women in such cases, especially those from villages, sought Hong Kong husbands to pursue a better standard of living in the city.
In 2005, at least 45 per cent of couples who tied the knot, or 19,501 out of 43,018, involved a mainland bride or groom.
“The children of those who got married in those years and later divorced would be in their teens by now,” says Chui, of the Cross-boundary and Inter-country Social Service, an NGO.
“Often these couples marry without really getting to know each other, and because the bride is from the mainland, it would be a few years before she obtains a one-way permit to live in Hong Kong.
“During the wait, the newlyweds spend more time apart than together,” she says.
“After the wives come over, it sometimes just doesn’t work out because of the new lifestyle.”
When couples in these situations break up, the mainland mothers may leave their children in Hong Kong under the care of their local fathers.
On the topic of older men raising children alone, Chui said their age meant these fathers were often more traditional in their roles and attitudes.
“They are reluctant to ask for help from others because they want to maintain their image as strong and reliable,” she explains. “They don’t want a disconnection between their children’s expectations of them and the reality, and [for the children to] see their fathers as useless.”
The statistics for single fathers also include a group of men who are still married.
Sze Lai-shan, an organiser from the Society for Community Organisation (SoCO), another NGO, says: “Some ‘single fathers’ now aren’t really single – they are just waiting for their mainland wives to gain residency so they can move to the city.”
Such families, whom Sze says she has helped reunite, may be classified as single-father households on paper. And because of the backlog of applications, mainland mothers in these situations may wait for a prolonged period before being granted approval.
The challenges these couples face are similar and likewise take a toll on the children, Sze admits.
“As the breadwinner, the fathers would still have to juggle between parenting and making money so they will have a hard time disciplining or teaching their kids because they spend most of their time at work.”
A mother’s absence
In cases where families lack a maternal presence – whether temporarily or permanently – the absence of a mother inevitably affects the children.
For Joe Wong, this is reflected in the changes in his girls’ personalities.
“Every time I fought with my older daughter, I felt so overwhelmed by the whole situation,” he says. “I felt I couldn’t do it alone, because these responsibilities are supposed to be shared by two.”
At one point, their relationship was so bad that Wong sought help from social workers and counsellors.
Isamonia Fung Siu-kok, general director of the Family Blessing Ministry, an NGO offering help to single-parent families, says: “Single fathers may have trouble when it comes to bonding with their kids, so even if they live together, they may feel distanced from one another.”
Fung says Wong is a “rare example”, because most single fathers she has met “do not know how to reach out for help”.
Some single fathers shy away from bonding with their children to escape the spectre of their failed marriage, she adds.
“Very often they become workaholics, handing over the kids to domestic helpers or grandparents.”
For single father Chan Siu-kwai, 37, the challenges have more to do with teaching his 12-year-old daughter Ying about womanhood.
When Ying had her first period, Chan knew it was time for him to let go of his conservatism and talk about puberty and sex.
“If her mother were still alive, I am sure she would have gone to her for advice, but I know she feels embarrassed and hides it from me because I am her father,” he says.
Chan, a mainlander, married a Hong Kong woman. After she died last year, he quit his job in Guangzhou to come to the city and look after his three children, aged 11, 12 and 15.
“I try to make sure I cater to each of their needs because I have taken on the role of a father and a mother,” he says.
Chan is unemployed, and the family relies on support from the Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme.
Many single fathers such as Chan view their situation in terms of having to act as both father and mother. But Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, from the University of Hong Kong’s department of social work and social administration, says it is not necessary to be confined by gender stereotypes.
“Who’s to say that only mothers are good at the talking and nurturing part of parenthood? We are seeing a constant change of gender roles,” Yip says.
“Women have become more independent and career-oriented over the years, and just like men in some divorce cases, the women may give up custody of their children, resulting in more single fathers.”
Meanwhile, social workers have called for a more open mindset towards single parents and for the authorities to give them more support.
“It’s tough to balance earning money and raising kids alone,” Sze of SoCO says. “Instead of judging all the time, be sympathetic – something we need more of in Hong Kong.”