By Wee Kek Koon
- Taking concubines was common in China, Hong Kong and Singapore until the mid-20th century. The children of principal and minor wives had a different status
- By convention a concubine’s son only could be promoted to the top rank if the principal wife had no sons, but men bent the rules for the wife they loved most
Stanley Ho Hung-sun died last month, aged 98. Famous and infamous in equal measure, he was celebrated for his bon vivant approach to life, in particular his marriages to four women at the same time, all of whom he referred to as his wives.
Like Ho, my maternal grandfather had four “co-wives”, but unlike Ho, he wasn’t a billionaire. He wasn’t even particularly well off. He came into a bit of money from his father, a Chinese sugar cane plantation worker in Cuba made good, and opened a tailor’s shop on North Bridge Road, in Singapore.
In time, he took four wives and installed all four households under one roof. According to my mother, a child of wife No 2, relations were often fractious, but by and large the wives and their 17 children got along.
Polygamy was practised in China until the middle of the 20th century. To regulate family life and protect the legal rights of the individuals involved, the ancient Chinese devised the dishu system to govern polygamous arrangements.