China

"Little Thirds" (小三) – Taiwanese Businessmen and Chinese Mistresses

One day I went with a friend of mine to a nice coffee shop near the campus of National Taiwan University. I don’t know how or why, but we began talking about family values. I don’t recall the details of that conversation, but one scene I remember vividly as if it had happened yesterday. She smiled at me and said, “We are more responsible.”

What she meant, of course, was that Taiwanese people care more about their families than Westerners. I have challenged this view several times, showing that terms like ‘love’ or ‘responsibility’ have different meanings in the West and in East Asia. In this and the next posts, I would like to talk about the phenomenon of the “little thirds” (xiaosan, 小三, also called 二奶), which, as I will show, derives from traditional East Asian concepts of family life.

In this post I will tell a few stories of Taiwanese businessmen who took mistresses during their stay in mainland China. In the second post I will show how “cross-strait families” (husband in China and wife in Taiwan) actually reinforce traditional values and social roles. In the third post I will provide ancient examples of concubinage, and in the fourth one I will explain the concept of “feeding”, or “nurturing” (養) a mistress, and what this has to do with traditional family structures.

Nightclubs, ‘Company Girls’, and China’s ‘Little Taipei’



According to the Washington Post, in 2010 more than a million Taiwanese lived in mainland China, half of them in Shanghai, most of them for work. Stories of Taiwanese men who spend almost the whole year apart from their families in Taiwan are therefore not uncommon. And while men in East Asian countries may keep mistresses and concubines according to their financial possibilities, men who live far from their family and native social environment are often even more tempted to do so. 

As Taiwanese businessmen face tougher competition in China, they are also experiencing greater difficulties in keeping a mainland mistress. Since the economy of the mainland has developed rapidly, Taiwanese are no longer as wealthy as they used to be when compared with the local population. A Chinese mistress may demand a monthly allowance of 300,000 NTD (around 10,000 US dollars), which is more than many Taiwanese can afford. Many men can’t make a “deal” with potential mistresses if they offer a lower price. 

Unfortunately, no statistics exist to show how many men keep a second wife; the xiaosan phenomenon belongs to those ‘unofficial’ habits that many have but few will publicly talk about. From time to time, though, the media report on individual cases, especially when the ‘normal’ functioning of the traditional family risks to be disrupted by a mistress. 

When in 2008 thanks to Beijing-Taipei rapprochement direct flights from Taiwan to mainland China started, many Taiwanese businessmen in China were worried. Now that their wives could come to visit them more easily, how would they be able to keep their love affairs with mainland xiaosan? An Apple Daily report from that year showed the situation of Taiwanese businessmen working in Kunshan, a city in China’s Jiangsu Province. 

Kunshan is one of the economically most successful cities in China, with a GDP that grew from 20 billion yuan in 2000 to more than 210 billion yuan in 2010. It has been nominated National Hygiene City, Excellent Tourism City of China, and National Garden City, and it has won the prestigious UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour Award 2010 along with Singapore and Vienna because of its successful immigration policies (in fact, due to Kunshan’s economic rise, its permanent residents have been outnumbered by immigrants). Kunshan has been dubbed “Little Taipei” because of its large Taiwanese community – more than 100,000 Taiwanese live in Kunshan, and 4,200 of the city’s companies are owned by Taiwanese.

Some Taiwanese businessmen living in Kunshan meet young girls at nightclubs. The relationship between patron, mistress and “first wife” is often complex and, as I will show in the next posts, reflects various aspects of traditional family ideology in East Asia. One Taiwanese businessman interviewed by Apple Daily said that when he started an affair with a local girl it was clear that he had to be careful not to make her pregnant. However, she tried to find a way to become pregnant. In the end, he was forced to borrow 500,000 NTD and give it to her in order to break up.

But, contrary to what one may believe, many businessmen meet their mistresses in the workplace. The owner of a company said that he started an affair with his accountant, and that now she has become indispensable for his business. “I could only end this affair if I gave up my company altogether“, he said.

A-Xian (阿娴), a pretty 23-year-old girl, became the mistress of a 50-year-old Taiwanese man. Both of them worked in a Taiwanese-owned company: he as a manager, and she as a clerk. At the beginning, she said, he made advances to her, but he was very careful because he was afraid others would find out: he had a wife and children back in Taiwan. Then, he just got used to the situation and stopped worrying too much. The two went to live together. He agreed to give her a monthly allowance of 7,000 RMB. “Other people’s second wives are paid more,” she said, “but others get less than I do.”

In 2008 she got pregnant. “I felt sick and threw up. I told him I might be pregnant. He was shocked. He said the only way out was to abort. Then I took some medicine and aborted.” 

When asked what kind of feeling that was, she replied: “I didn’t have any special feeling, there was just some placenta, I saw a small red thing come out. And he was very nice to me in those days. He cooked for me, bought me gifts, he spoilt me like a child.

Recently, the story of Glenda has made the headlines in Taiwan. The 38-year-old woman from the Philippines came to Taiwan for work and later married a Taiwanese man 9 years her senior. When he was transferred to mainland China by his company, she remained alone in Taiwan with their son and daughter, 7 and 4 years old respectively. After she found out that her husband kept a 22-year-old mistress in China, she couldn’t cope with the situation. On August 8, she killed her daughter and herself. 

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