Sex Roles

, Volume 57, Issue 3–4, pp 249–265 | Cite as

Eternal Mothers or Flexible Housewives? Middle-aged Chinese Married Women in Hong Kong

  • Petula Sik-ying Ho
Original Article


How do Hong Kong Chinese women position themselves in relation to this stigmatized social category of “si-nai” (middle aged-housewives) and the prevailing norms and values regarding women’s roles? The case of middle-aged, married women in Hong Kong provides empirical support for an alternative understanding of the identity of adult woman and helps to problematize conceptualizations of women’s identity as centered on their mother roles. The narratives of these twenty-six women show the fluidity of their roles as mothers (and wives). These roles change with reference to social context, life circumstances, and life course. Many middle-aged women have tried to resist becoming “mad housewives” and have learnt to be “flexible housewives” by actively decentering their role as mothers.


Motherhood Housewife Identity Heteronormativity 



I would like to thank the two research assistants, Ms. Helen Goh and Ms. Carmen Ng for helping me with coding the data.


  1. Archer, S. (1991). A feminist’s approach to identity research. In G. R. Adams, T. P. Gullotta, & R. Montemmayor (Eds.), Adolescent identity formation (pp. 25–49). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  2. Arendell, T. (2000). Conceiving and investigating motherhood: The decade’s scholarship. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62, 1192–1207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bartky, S. (1990). Femininity and domination: Studies in the phenomenology of oppression. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  4. Bassin, D., Honey, M., & Kaplan, M. M. (1994). Introduction. In D. Bassin, M. Honey, & M. M. Kaplan (Eds.), Representations of motherhood (pp. 1–25). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bordo, S. (1993). Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  6. Burkitt, I. (2004). The time and space of everyday life. Cultural Studies, 18, 211–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burns, A., & Leonard, R. (2005). Chapters of our lives: Life narratives of middle and older Australian women. Sex Roles, 52, 269–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Caplan, P. (1989). Don’t blame mother: Minding the mother–daughter relationship. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  9. Census and Statistics Department (2006). Women and men in Hong Kong: Key statistics. Hong Kong: Census and Statistics Department.Google Scholar
  10. Central Intelligence Agency (2006). CIA—The world factbook—Hong Kong. Retrieved December 21, 2006, from, December 19.
  11. Chan, S. Y. (2003). The Confucian conception of gender in the twenty-first century. In D. Bell & H. Chaibong (Eds.), Confucianism for the modern world (pp. 312–333). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Chan, C. Y. Z., & Ma, L. C. J. (2002). Family themes of food refusal: Disciplining the body and punishing the family. Health Care for Women International, 23, 49–58.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Charmaz, K. (2005). Grounded theory in the 21st century: Applications for advancing social justice studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 507–535). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  14. Cheal, D. (1991). Family and the state of theory. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  15. Chodorow, N. (1990). Gender, relation, and difference in psychoanalytic perspective. In C. Zanardi (Ed.), Essential papers on the psychology of women (pp. 420–436). New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Coontz, S., & Parson, M. (1997). Complicating the contested terrain of work/family intersections: A review essay. Signs, 22, 440–452.Google Scholar
  17. Derrida, J. (1976). Of grammatology (G. C. Spivak, Trans.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Derrida, J. (1996). Remarks on deconstruction and pragmatism. In C. Mouffe (Ed.), Deconstruction and pragmatism (pp. 77–88). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  19. Dill, B. T. (1994). Across the boundaries of race and class: An exploration of work and family among Black female domestic servants. New York: Garland.Google Scholar
  20. Elvin-Nowak, Y., & Thomsson, H. (2001). Motherhood as idea and practice: A discursive understanding of employed mothers in Sweden. Gender & Society, 15, 407–428.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Forcey, L. R. (1994). Feminist perspectives on mothering and peace. In E. N. Glenn, G. Chang, & L. R. Forcey (Eds.), Mothering: Ideology, experience, and agency (pp. 355–375). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Garey, A. L. (1999). Weaving work and motherhood. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Gergen, K. (1997). Realities and relationships: Soundings in social construction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity. Cambridge, UK: Polity.Google Scholar
  25. Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2005). Paradigmatic controversies, contradictions, and emerging confluences. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (pp. 191–216). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  26. Gubrium, J. F., & Holstein, J. A. (1997). The new language of qualitative method. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Hartsock, N. C. M. (1998). The feminist standpoint revisited and other essays. Boulder, CO: Westview.Google Scholar
  28. Harvey, N., & Halverson, C. (2000). The secret and the promise: Women’s struggles in Chiapas. In D. Howarth, A. J. Norval, & Y. Stavrakakis (Eds.), Discourse theory and political analysis: Identities, hegemonies and social change (pp. 151–167). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Hattery, A. (2001). Women, work, and family: Balancing and weaving. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  30. Hays, S. (1996). The cultural contradictions of motherhood. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Ho, P. S. Y. (1999). Developing a social constructionist therapy approach in working with gay men and their families in Hong Kong. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, 9, 69–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Ho, P. S. Y. (2001). Breaking down or breaking through: An alternative way to understand depression among women in Hong Kong. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 10, 89–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Ho, P. S. Y. (2006). The (charmed) circle game: reflections on sexual hierarchy through multiple sexual relationships. Sexualities, 9, 547–564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Ho, P. S. Y. (2007a). “Money in the private chamber”: Hong Kong Chinese women’s way of planning for their retirement. Affilia, 22, 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Ho, P. S. Y. (2007b). Desperate housewives—The case of “Si-nai” in Hong Kong. Affilia (in press).Google Scholar
  36. Ho, P. S. Y., & Tsang, A. K. T. (2002). The things girls shouldn’t see: Relocating the penis in sex education in Hong Kong. Sex Education, 2, 61–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Ho, P. S. Y., & Tsang, A. K. T. (2005). Beyond the vagina–clitoris debate: From naming the sex organ to the reclaiming of the body. Women’s Studies Forum International, 28, 523–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Ho, P. S. Y., Wong, D. H. W., Cheng, S. L., & Pei, Y. X. (2005). The real deal or no big deal—Chinese women in Hong Kong and the orgasmic experience. Issues in Contemporary Culture and Aesthetics, 1, 177–187.Google Scholar
  39. Holloway, S. D., Suzuki, S., Yamamoto, Y., & Mindnich, J. D. (2006). Relation of maternal role concepts to parenting, employment choices, and life satisfaction among Japanese women. Sex Roles, 54, 235–249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Holstein, J. A., & Miller, G. (1993). Reconsidering social constructionism: Debates in social problems theory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  41. Howell, L. C., & Beth, A. (2002). Midlife myths and realities: Women reflect on their experiences. Journal of Women and Aging, 14, 189–204.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Hunter, S., Sundel, S., & Sundel, M. (2002). Women at midlife: Life experiences and implications for the helping professions. Washington, DC: NASW Press.Google Scholar
  43. Jacobs, J., & Gerson, K. (1997). The endless day or the flexible office? Working hours, work–family conflict, and gender equity in the modern workplace. Philadelphia: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.Google Scholar
  44. Johnston, D. D., & Swanson, D. H. (2006). Constructing the “Good Mother”: The experience of mothering ideologies by work status. Sex Roles, 54, 509–519.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Koo, L. (1995). The (non) status of women in traditional Chinese society. Hong Kong Psychological Society Bulletin, 14, 7–37.Google Scholar
  46. Kroger, J., & Haslett, S. J. (1991). A comparison of ego identity status transition pathways and change rates across five identity domains. Journal of Aging and Human Development, 34, 303–330.Google Scholar
  47. Kwok, S., & Wong, F. K. D. (2000). Mental health of parents with young children in Hong Kong: The roles of parenting stress and parenting self-efficacy. Child and Family Social Work, 5, 57–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lai, A. C., Zhang, Z., & Wang, W. (2000). Maternal child-rearing practices in Hong Kong and Beijing Chinese families: A comparative study. International Journal of Psychology, 35, 60–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. LeBlanc, R. M. (1999). Bicycle citizens: The political world of the Japanese housewife. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  50. Lee, C. K. (1998). Gender and South China miracle. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  51. Lee, S. (1999). Fat, fatigue and the feminine: The changing cultural experience of women in Hong Kong. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry: An International Journal of Comparative Cross-Cultural Research, 23, 51–73.Google Scholar
  52. Lee, W. K. M. (2002). Women employment in colonial Hong Kong. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 30, 246–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Lee, K. J., Um, C. C., & Kim, S. (2004). Multiple roles of married Korean women: Effect on depression. Sex Roles, 51, 469–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Leonard, V. W. (1996). Mothering as a practice. In S. Gordon, P. Benner, & N. Noddings (Eds.), Caregivings: Readings in knowledge, practice, ethics, and politics (pp. 124–140). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  55. Logan, J. R., Bian, F., & Bian, Y. (1998). Tradition and change in the urban Chinese family: The case of living arrangements. Social Forces, 76, 851–882.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Luk-Fong, Y. Y. P. (1999). ‘In search of a hybrid guidance curriculum for Hong Kong primary schools’, paper presented at the 16th Annual Conference of the Hong Kong Educational Research Association, 20–21 November.Google Scholar
  57. Luk-Fong, Y. Y. P. (2005). A search for new ways of describing parent–child relationships: Voices from principals, teachers, guidance professionals, parents and pupils. Childhood, 12, 111–137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Marcia, J. E. (1987). The identity status approach to the study of ego identity development. In T. Honess & K. Yardley (Eds.), Self and identity: Perspectives across the life span (pp. 161–171). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  59. Marecek, J. (2003). Mad housewives, double shifts, mommy tracks, and other invented moralities. Feminism & Psychology, 13, 259–264.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. McMahon, M. (1995). Engendering motherhood: Identity and self-transformation in women’s lives. New York: Guilford.Google Scholar
  61. Miller, M. (2005). The feminine mystique: Sexual excess and the pre-political housewife. Women: A Cultural Review, 16, 1–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Ng, W. C. (1999). What do women want? Giving university women in Hong Kong a voice. Feminism & Psychology, 9, 243–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Ng, C. W., & Ng, E. G. H. (2005). Hong Kong single women’s pragmatic negotiation of work and personal space. Anthropology of Work Review, XXV, 8–13.Google Scholar
  64. Ngo, H. (2002). Part-time employment in Hong Kong: A gendered phenomenon? International Journal of Human Resource Management, 13, 361–377.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Norton, T. R., Gupta, A., Stephens, M. A. P., Martire, L. M., & Townsend, A. L. (2005). Stress, rewards, and change in the centrality of women’s family and work roles: Mastery as a mediator. Sex Roles, 52, 325–336.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. O’Donnell, L. N. (1985). The unheralded majority: Contemporary women as mothers. Lexington, MA: Lexington.Google Scholar
  67. Oberman, Y., & Josselson, R. (1996). Matrix of tensions: A model of mothering. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20, 341–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Ong, A. (1999). Flexible citizenship: The cultural logics of transnationality. London: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  69. Pearson, V., & Wong, D. K. P. (2001). A baseline survey of student’s attitudes towards gender stereotypes and family roles. Hong Kong: Equal Opportunities Commission.Google Scholar
  70. Pun, S. H., Ma, J. L. C., & Lai, K. C. C. (2004). In search of perfect motherhood for imperfect childhood—Experiences of 22 Chinese mothers. Child and Family Social Work, 9, 285–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Robertson, J. (1998). Takarazuka: Sexual politics and popular culture in modern Japan. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  72. Rogers, S. J., & White, L. K. (1998). Satisfaction with parenting: The role of marital happiness, family structure, and parents’ gender. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 60, 293–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Ruddick, S. (1994). Thinking mothers/conceiving birth. In D. Bassin, M. Honey, & M. M. Kaplan (Eds.), Representations of motherhood (pp. 29–46). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  74. Sandywell, B. (2004). The myth of everyday life: Toward a heterology of the ordinary. Cultural Studies, 18, 160–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Scarr, S. (1998). American child care today. American Psychologist, 53, 95–108.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Schwandt, T. A. (2000). Three epistemological stances for qualitative inquiry: Interpretivism, hermeneutics, and social constructionism. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 199–213). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  77. Shek, D. T. L. (1996a). Perception of the value of children to Hong Kong parents. Journal of Psychology, 130, 561–569.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Shek, D. T. L. (1996b). Midlife crisis in Chinese men and women. Journal of psychology, 130, 109–119.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Shek, D. T. L., Tang, V. M. Y., & Han, X. Y. (2005). Evaluation of evaluation studies using qualitative research methods in social work literature (1990–2003): Evidence that constitutes a wake-up call. Research on Social Work Practice, 15, 180–194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Short, S. E., Chen, F., Entwisle, B., & Fengying, Z. (2002). Maternal work and child care in China: A multi-method analysis. Population and Development Review, 28, 31–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Smith, D. (1990). Texts, facts, and femininity: Exploring the relations of ruling. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  82. Spain, D., & Bianchi, S. M. (1996). Balancing act: Motherhood, marriage, and employment among American women. New York: Russell Sage.Google Scholar
  83. A. Strauss & J. Corbin (Eds.) (1997). Grounded theory in practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  84. Su, B. (1996). Women’s marital status: Past and present. Beijing Review, 11, 18–19.Google Scholar
  85. Tam, S. M. (1999). Private practice and gendered power: Women doctors in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.Google Scholar
  86. Teng, J. E. (1996). The construction of the “traditional Chinese woman” in Western academy: A critical review. Signs, 22, 115–151.Google Scholar
  87. The Women’s Foundation (2006). The status of women & girls in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: The Women’s Foundation. Retrieved March 1, 2007, from Scholar
  88. Thoits, P. (1992). Identity structures and psychological well-being: Gender and marital status comparisons. Social Psychology Quarterly, 55, 236–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Tsang, A. K. T., & Ho, P. S. Y. (2007). Lost in translation: Sex & sexuality in elite discourse and everyday language. Sexualities (in press).Google Scholar
  90. Tutty, L., Rothery, M., & Grinnell, R., Jr. (1996). Qualitative research for social workers: Phases, steps, & tasks. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.Google Scholar
  91. Wang, X. Y., & Ho, P. S. Y. (2007). My sassy girl: Women’s aggression in dating relationships in Beijing. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22, 623–638.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Whitbourne, S. K., Zuschlag, M. K., Elliot, L. B., & Waterman, A. S. (1992). Psychosocial development in adulthood: A 22-year sequential study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 260–271.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Yau, O. H. M. (1995). Consumer behaviour in China. London: Routledge.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Social Work & Social AdministrationUniversity of Hong KongHong KongChina

Personalised recommendations