BBC News

Friday, 13 December, 2002, 22:50 GMT

Hong Kong's abused husbands

Refuge for battered husbands in Hong Kong
A role reversal is taking place in Hong Kong

BBC News

Hard economic times in Hong Kong are being blamed for the emergence of a serious new social problem involving wives physically assaulting their husbands. Damian Grammaticas visited a refuge for the abused men.

The door opens and a sad figure shuffles in to the room.

In each hand Mr Wong is carrying a bag of shopping. There are some oranges in one, a few bananas in the other.

It has taken a few days to arrange my meeting with Mr Wong, but he has finally agreed to talk to me.

Shameful admission

For a man living in a Chinese society, what has happened to Mr Wong is a deep source of shame. It is not something many men would talk about easily.

I have come to Hong Kong's first shelter for men who have fled their homes after being battered by their wives.

Mr Wong sought refuge here last week. He is one of a growing number of men in Hong Kong who are the victims of domestic violence.

Slowly he tells me his story. At first his answers are short and simple.

Gradually he opens up. He is 70 years old. He had always argued with his wife he says, but then things changed.

But a few years ago he developed diabetes. As a result he lost his job.

"She's not a good woman," Mr Wong tells me. "In the past when I made some money it was alright. But since I became unemployed, she started being violent. She scratched me and hit me with a chair."

Battered ego

Over the course of a year Mr Wong was battered by his wife several times.

When the doctors in the hospital emergency room discovered what had caused his injuries they sent him to the hostel.

A domestic violence victim preserves his anonymity
Male victims of domestic violence shun publicity
Mr Wong walks slowly with a limp. In his dull eyes you can see the depth of his unhappiness.

He says he feels a sense of failure that his marriage has disintegrated in this way.

"But you're a man," I say, "people will say why didn't you stop your wife when she hit you?"

"Because of my diabetes - I am sick," Mr Wong replies. "So I'm too weak to stop her. If I was healthy I think I might have fought back."

Last year, 179 men in Hong Kong reported being the victims of domestic violence. That is a four fold increase in just four years. It's a problem that is suddenly being taken seriously.

Hard times

The rise in the rates of domestic violence against men has mirrored the rise in unemployment over that period.

Hong Kong has suffered two recessions in the past four years. In these tough times, it is middle-aged and older men who have been losing their jobs.

At home, the strain is making marriages crumble. Wives who find their husbands can no longer provide for them are hitting out.

Hong Kong's economic woes are also accelerating some deep-seated social changes. Women in Chinese societies used to be confined to subordinate roles in the home.

Increasingly they are getting their own jobs. The are becoming more independent and more assertive.

In the hostel they are seeing more and more men who have been beaten for being unfaithful to their wives, or for having a concubine, the old Chinese practice of a second wife.

Women hit back

Many men have concubines or girlfriends across the border from Hong Kong in China.

Christine Chow, is a social worker at the hostel. "It's easy for men to have girlfriends in China today," she says. "Women no longer want to tolerate this situation any more. They just want to express their anger, to fight back. They tell their husbands they won't allow them to do this any more. They won't accept it."

Sitting at a table outside, Mr. Wong cuts a lonely figure. Dispirited and humiliated, he spends his day staring into the distance.

He is going to get a divorce, he says. But he has no home now.

Domestic violence against men is a new phenomenon. However, women are still much more likely to be victims.

Ten times more women than men in Hong Kong are battered by their spouses.

The difference now is some men are on the receiving end, too.