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Cursing The Concubines

Until recently, Mrs. Chan's story was Hong Kong's dirty little secret. The 44-year-old housewife found a stored number on her husband's mobile phone listed as baby wife. When she dialed the number in a city across the border in mainland China, another woman answered. Pretending to be a friend of her husband's, Chan asked who she was. "I'm his wife," came the reply. Chan got a divorce; she overdosed on sleeping pills twice. "I hated myself for living with a lie for so many years," says Chan. "Now I'm coming to terms with it."

Of all the side effects of Hong Kong's economic ties with mainland China, the most damaging may be the least talked about: the mistress phenomenon. As business ties have grown, so have second families. The two worlds were never supposed to meet: Hong Kong men supported women and children in dirt-cheap China, and their Hong Kong wives never had to let on if they knew. A recent high-court ruling threatens to blow the lid off the cozy arrangement by allowing hundreds of thousands of children of Hong Kong parents to immigrate. Though Beijing may yet overrule the court decision, the lie has been exposed. Social workers estimate that as many as 25 percent of married Hong Kong men commit adultery, and many have second wives. "The family is falling apart," says Crystal Kwok, a former radio host who used to take calls from cuckolded women. "The veneer of propriety is being destroyed."

Kwok is about to unmask Hong Kong's adulterous secrets, once and for all. She quit her job a year ago to make a film called "The Mistress," which will be released this summer. The movie chronicles the plight of Alex, a young Hong Kong woman who meets a man keeping a Chinese mistress, then becomes obsessed with their relationship. "Don't you find the whole situation disgusting?" she asks the man's lover. By the end of the film, corrupted and seduced herself, she replaces the woman as his mistress.

Maybe that's because the lifestyle offers such great fringe benefits. Hong Kong men set up their concubines with villas and cell phones across the border. (Guidebooks offer advice on the best pickup spots for presentable girls.) Even in Hong Kong these days, having a mistress at a business dinner has become a mark of wealth and success. "Men think that if you don't have a second wife, you're not a man," says Shirley Hong, a social worker who is writing her dissertation on the second-wife phenomenon.

But Hong Kong people, torn between colonial-style prudishness and their new-found Chinese roots, find it uncomfortable to discuss polygamy. Local stars turned down lead roles in "The Mistress," saying they didn't want to be associated with the topic, so Kwok cast the film in Taiwan and the United States. Alex is played by Jacqueline Peng, an American from Houston. Despite a big budget, the distribution company, Golden Harvest Entertainment, might release it as an art film. "This isn't something the average audience wants to watch," says Kwok. Maybe not, but it's getting harder to pretend the concubines aren't there.

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