Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Hong Kong's Deathbed Marriages

Now yesterday I had already mentioned the world's oldest profession and one corner of the city in which it practiced - Lyndhurst Terrace. But in fact, the workers were spread throughout the Colony. In its earliest years, almost no women or families came out with the men that actually worked in and expanded Hong Kong, whether British or Chinese. This is whyHong Kong's first census showed that there were more brothels (I believe 28) registered than families (I believe 26 or 27). Even as late as 1880, it was estimated by the Police that 70%-80% of the women in Hong Kong were prostitutes or women of easy virtue.

Let us then fast forward 11 years to 1892, the 50th anniversary of the Hong Kong's official establishment as a British Colony. There were still a few that might have remembered most of that period, but they were few and far between, and dying out fast. Younger colonials, and Chinese merchants, were increasingly moving to Hong Kong with their wives, turning an increasingly steely eye on the rather dubious habits of the menfolk, turning mistresses and courtesans into secrets that had to be concealed. But old habits died hard - literally, for the members of the Roman Catholic Church. There were many Catholics in Hong Kong, and they, like all other men, were not immune to keeping mistresses or having a common law wife - even though it was a great sin. Some of course were Portuguese, being numerous in Hong Kong, but there were certainly other Catholics here, be they soldiers, British civilians or even Chinese converts.

As these Catholics succumbed to disease and ailments, many would want to confess their sins to their priests, and at least some take solace in a marriage ceremony with their female companions to make up for their past misdeeds as they prepared to meet their maker. It was for this reason that the following bill was passed at the Legislative Council session on December 14th, 1892:
The Acting Attorney-General- I rise to move the second reading of a bill entitled an Ordinance [for Deathbed Marriages] to amend the Marriage Ordinance, 1875... the chief object of the Bill was to offer relief to certain scruples of the Roman Catholic Church in Hongkong. As a matter of fact, however, the Bill is general in its form and any Christian Church can make use of its provisions. On this occasion I will very shortly refer to the actual provisions of the Bill itself and the conditions under which a deathbed marriage is allowed to take place. In section 2, which sanctions marriage between people who have lived together in unlawful connection, I propose when we go into Committee to make some slight alteration in the language, and to substitute for "lived in unlawful connection" the words "lived together in unlawful concubinage." [there you go - Ed.] These marriages are only to take place under certain definite conditions. The first is that the parties are to be able to signify their consent to the marriage, and to do so in the presence of two witnesses. Then with regard to minors such marriage is not to take place, except either is a widow or a widower, [odd, no? - Ed.] unless the consent,the necessary consent, of those who stand in the position in loco parentis is obtained. Then no marriage shall be valid which, on the ground of kindred or affinity, would be invalid in England.
But then the amusing bit is at the end, which discusses the effects a deathbed marriage would have on any wills and testaments:
The rule in this colony and in England is that a marriage revokes a will. The Secretary of State has directed that if this Ordinance was introduced there should be a provision inserted that a deathbed marriage should not have the effect of revoking a will. The Secretary of State has not exactly stated what his reasons are but I could very well imagine myself [I'm sure your can sir! - Ed.] that a man might be under the influence of religious fervour and do possibly what his religious advisers or priests may tell him is his duty, and it is thought fit that a marriage under such circumstances should not revoke any previous provision which he had made possibly in good health for the benefit of his family or relatives.
As I have mentioned before, men that had wives at home would often take mistresses here, and the European merchants, when returning home, would simply settle the accounts of the affair with a lump-sum cash payment. Sometimes the money would instead be paid in trust, particularly when there were children involved with this second union, and in such cases, the mistresses were known as 'pensioners'. So by family or relatives in that last sentence, the Attorney-General is of course referring to the family back in England or wherever else - the last thing any Hong Kong judge wanted, after all, was to mediate between the first and second families of dead merchants. Perhaps that principle, a century on, informed the Court of Final Appeal's thinking too a few years back when they reversed their original decision to allow the children of Hong Kong men live here in the city...

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