This paper is based on the field work consisted of participant observation in a Catholic-background men’s centre in Hong Kong and in-depth interview with individual fathers between 2004 and 2007. The men’s centre promotes that men should assume their familial role as husbands and fathers and that men need other men as peers to support one another. I participated in two of their self-help groups and one men’s rights group. In addition, I conducted face-to-face semi-structured in-depth interviews with a total of 30 fathers through snowballing. Some of these informants were members of the men's centre while some were not. Fathers with different class backgrounds and marital statuses were included. Some were working-class men (e.g. construction site workers), some were professionals (e.g. lawyer), and some were business owners. Some were married; some were divorced; some were single fathers taking care of their children. Yet these fathers were all mid-aged, i.e. late-30s to 60s.
Patriarchy is rooted in the history of Hong Kong and continues to exist in contemporary society. In both the colonial and post-colonial periods, notions of masculinity and fatherhood in Hong Kong are seen to be extremely conservative and they highlight the role of the state in the adoption and reproduction of patriarchal ideology. While changes towards gender equality have occurred slowly after long-term struggle, a coherent gender policy has been lacking. This has contributed to a socio-cultural environment that encourages the naturalization and normalization of the patriarchal structure and practices in the family.
The “new good men/father” notion proposed by the men’s centre situates men in the family context, with traditional masculinity reiterated and resurrected. Economic requirement on men prevailed in the centre’s discourse. Authority of men was also emphasized through encouraging fathers to assume their educator’s and decision-maker’s role. New elements of fatherhood, like doing housework, taking care of and playing with children, as well as caring the wife, were added as ways to make the family harmonious and under control and became the new hegemonic standards for masculinity. However, wife sometimes exercise resistance to the structural power of men. Some even sabotage the male family structure by claiming their agency through divorce or extra-marital affairs. Patriarchal fatherhood is under threat.
Divorced and single-fatherhood was seen as deviant and was problematized in the discourse.
The thinking that marriage is the foundation of fatherhood rather than a romantic alliance is common among my informants. This belief subsequently motivates the father to give toil and sweat to maintain marriage and (“complete”) family which is deemed to be the facilitating environment in the interest of children. At the same time, fathers expect to get what they are promised by the patriarchal structure – filial children and an obedient wife. I call this expectation “structural thinking” within the patriarchal habitus of the father. Structural thinking is the internalization of the existing social structure with the expectation of gaining the benefits and outcomes which are defined and laid out by the structure. Within structural thinking, individual’s will and interest are often subsumed under the requirements of the power-laden structure. When the promised outcomes do not occur, structural thinking leads the social actor to blame other individual actors rather than seeing the biased nature of the structure, thus leaving the power-laden structure unchallenged. Men, as the beneficiary of the patriarchal structure, preserve it by demanding themselves and others to conform to it. It leads men to defend the patriarchal family and to tolerate a painful or loveless marriage just to guarantee a caring mother and a legitimate, intact family for the children. I would like to argue in this paper that the family structure legitimizes father’s power which is a two-edged blade – it does not only place him above other individual family members, but also lead to the distortion of his own subjectivities and individuality in cases like divorce.
Centre for Gender Research, University of Oslo Conference on Masculinities in Motion, Oslo, Norway