Macau's gambling tycoon Stanley Ho (center) is surrounded by photographers as he operates a slot machine during the opening of a new casino in Lisbon, Portugal, on April 19, 2006. Photo: AFP / Francisco Leong

There’s an interesting phenomenon in Hong Kong that doesn’t happen a lot in comparable societies – and that is the practice of tycoons having multiple girlfriends and even wives.

Take Stanley Ho, probably the most notorious example. The 96-year-old ‘King of Gambling,’ who operates multiple casinos in Macau, has four ‘wives.’ He was legally betrothed to the first and second of these (polygamy wasn’t outlawed in Hong Kong until 1971) before taking two others whom he never officially married. Over the years, he has established families with each of these “wives.”

It all seems rather amicable. The three women who are still alive (Ho’s first wife, Clementina Leitão, died in 2004) live alongside each other, although each also has her own luxury mansion. Angela Leong, Ho’s fourth “wife,” is a powerful figure in both Macau and Hong Kong in her own right.

Property developer Joseph Lau, who regularly appears on the Forbes Rich List, was also publicly involved with two women for a long time, and has children with both. Lau, who is in effect a fugitive from the law – he was convicted by a Macau court in a bribes-for-land scandal in 2014 but skipped the jurisdiction, which does not have a rendition agreement with Hong Kong – caused a stir in 2015 when he gifted his daughter by his second girlfriend with a US$28.5 million diamond, followed the next day by a different one that cost US$48.4 million.

Ho and Lau are far from being the only ones. Another notable example is Cecil Chao, a billionaire who famously claims to have slept with 10,000 women and has had children by three of them. In 2014, Chao, you may recall, offered HK$1 billion (US$130 million) to any man who could “turn” his lesbian daughter straight.

Now, you might take the view that these rich dudes can live how they like, so long as all parties involved are fine with arrangements. What rankles me, though, is how people seem to eat up the whole spectacle around their affairs.

In Hong Kong, billionaires are worshipped, and when it comes to their personal lives they’re admired for their ability to have their cake and eat it too. Hongkongers revel in the drama of it all. Local media relay nuggets of salacious detail about in-fighting between wives and concubines like it’s some kind of modern-day Chinese palace drama.

In Hong Kong, the measure of success is always material. How much money have you made? How many properties do you own? How many women can you keep in them?

I tend to think that in a lot of ways Hong Kong folks are sticklers for things like taking the moral high ground, and generally “doing the right thing,” or playing by the rules. So why – when it comes to tycoons openly cheating and generally acting like they’re God-emperors – do they turn a blind eye or even celebrate such behavior?

Perhaps the explanation goes a little deeper than you might think. As mentioned, male polygamy was only outlawed by the government in 1971, but the phenomenon of having a mistress (“bao yi nai”), which has a long history, is not uncommon even now. (Note: this practice never applied to women who wanted more than one spouse.)

Taking tycoons and other wealthy people out of the equation, then, infidelity – even among the hoi polloi – is not as frowned-upon as you might expect. In fact, having a mistress is seen as a status symbol: a man has truly made it if he can have more than one woman.

Perhaps this takes us back to where we started. In Hong Kong, the measure of success is always material. How much money have you made? How many properties do you own? How many women can you keep in them? It’s almost as if having enormous wealth expunges all sins. (Witness also how easily Hongkongers forgive financial wrongdoing.)

But why does the multiple partner situation only apply to men? If a man is successful because he is able to have more than one wife, then surely the same should apply to women, too? One never hears about wealthy Hong Kong women who openly date more than one man.

I’m not saying this would represent progress for society. But surely our generation can aspire to more, for men, than having their pick of multiple wives and girlfriends, and, for women, being part of some tycoon’s harem. It’s time to end the unhealthy idea of polygamy going hand-in-hand with affluence as a signifier of success.

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