Culture Clash


Sunday, July 7, 2002

Daughters, sons-in-law,
and the Chinese
family businesses

'Are you sure you know what you are getting into?" Kevin Suzuki asked Dan Chung. "My knowledge of Chinese family businesses is mostly from books, but I have read that sons-in-law often have a difficult time."

Kevin and Dan, both from Honolulu, were roommates during their college years and developed a close relationship where all topics could be discussed. Dan had just told Kevin that he was thinking of asking Wong Mei to marry him. Dan had worked for Wong Mei's father in Taipei, Taiwan, for the past five years. The business was family owned, and Wong Mei was a respected manager.

Kevin knew Wong Mei had sisters but no brothers. He wondered what her father, Wong Lung, would do when it came time to choose a successor. If Wong Lung behaved according to traditional norms, he would take a series of steps. After the marriage, Dan would change his name so that the Wong family line could continue.

With a strong preference that sons inherit the family business, Dan would become the owner and president of the company. If Dan and Wong Mei had a son, Dan would be expected to groom him to become the company president. This would mean that the son would have few choices about making his own life decisions, and Dan might eventually become uncomfortable imposing these expectations.

Dan is likely to face other difficulties. He will be seen as an outsider and there will always be the feeling among many that he married Wong Mei for her money.

Wong Mei had been a respected manager, and there will be some who feel that she should have inherited the company. Wong Lung may be a traditionalist, but this does not mean that all people in the company agree with him regarding the preference that sons receive inheritances. Many people in the company may feel that Wong Lung's preferences are archaic and that talented daughters should be allowed to rise to the top of the organization.

This incident and analysis developed from conversations with Lin Wen Shu, a student at the University of Hawaii College of Business Administration.

She points to other difficulties that might occur in a marriage between Dan and Wong Mei. If Wong Mei disagrees with how Dan is running the company, she can intervene by forming coalitions with relatives. Wong Mei will likely win, given her lifelong relations with extended family members. Dan might become a figurehead who has to have major decisions approved by his wife.

Harmony at home may become dependent upon Dan's acceptance of Wong Mei's directives concerning the family business.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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