In the Company of Single Women

Forty-six years ago, my grandfather retired from his position as a customs officer and with fortune’s second wind, established a small company, the workings of which to this day, remain somewhat of a mystery to me. I once asked my second uncle what it was the company did. Looking up briefly from his computer screen which, as usual, was covered with blinking red and green numbers, he shrugged and said, “I know what I do for the company, but other people, I’m not quite sure. A smattering of things, I guess.” 

First Uncle Kwang-Hong, the middle brother, in his office.

At its inception it was a medical supply trading company and only later, with my grandmother’s death, began its foray into real estate development. She had wisely bought random parcels of land throughout Taipei, leaving it to her sons who in turned built office buildings and tall condominiums upon it when they were grown and joined the company’s ranks.

Project drawings from the company’s heyday.

Why, people ask the children in our family, don’t we just “take over” the family business? It was and remains modestly successful and, were we to infuse it with youthful innovations, surely it could rise to become even greater?

Where important meetings once took place, old files and boxes of supplies pile up.

Fat chance, we reply, not least because the office exudes a musty smell and a blanketed quiet – all signs of a company in decline. The boys are off hunting bigger fish (i.e. companies that occupy more than just a single floor) and the girls, well, we can’t help but think of all the office ladies who in the company’s heyday, were still pretty young blossoms waiting to be plucked from white collar obscurity. Now however, they are old maids. Family lore has it thus: if you are a single woman entering the company’ work force then you will leave a single woman. It’s the company curse, and a notably sexist one at that. Men who work at the company will eventually find themselves happily married to wonderful wives who bear even more wonderful children (case in point: me). This is precisely what happened to my grandpa, uncles and father and a smattering of other men who have come and gone. Women however, risk an eternity of spinsterhood. 

Doomed.

Of the six women who have begun their careers with us, only one is married, and this occurred prior to her employment. The other five have given up looking for love, it seems, though I can’t say for sure. I doubt women ever stop looking. They dress up to come to work, though there are no men to impress but my two married uncles, one of whom is almost hermit-like. The company’s one man financial analyst, he closes the office door each morning, hiding behind four giant computer screens until lunchtime, when he steams his home-packed lunch, inhales it, then settles in for a nap. He rarely speaks to anyone, bidding only good morning and good night to the office ladies.

An artist at work.

 My other uncle, my father’s youngest brother, is a bit of a workaholic. When he is kind he is very kind, but when he is angry, the entire office cowers beneath his oppressive anger. The women fear him, but they also cannot leave him. It is a strange dynamic, one that puzzles me to no end.

The only photograph in Second Uncle Kwang-Hwa’s office: a somewhat cruel reminder to all the office ladies who enter that while they may not like him very much, there is someone at home who does, very much.

But I have written it off as one of those karmic enigmas – perhaps in another life these women betrayed my uncle in some way so that now, they’re repaying him with their allegiance.

Speaking of Karma, the company has its own altar room. Perhaps the office ladies don’t use it enough.

Every time I visit the office and see these women, some still quite young looking (though I feel this has more to do with a mental projection of their reluctance to leave a certain stage of life than with any skincare regime), I wonder, “Why don’t they leave? Why don’t they quit?” It’s a depressing sight, but I can only keep this to myself or speak in whispers, to my cousin who feels the same way.

We can fear them right now because we are young.

But who knows, one day we may know exactly how they feel when a young woman on the cusp of career or love or both, walks into the room. Or perhaps it’s just my superstitions talking. In companies all over the world (though it seems most visibly in Asia) women are trading job security for marriage. They work late hours, making it hard to socialize after work, and when the weekends come, they have barely any energy leftover to meet new people not to mention spend time with friends and family. Men go through the same thing too, but the alarmingly imbalanced ratio of women to men (the article is for Hong Kong, but Taiwan’s numbers are not too different) means that men can be far less proactive and still, some grateful young woman is likely to fall in his lap.

Regardless, I’ve vowed to never seek employment in the family business. In medical equipment and real estate, the company has made a comfortable living for all those associated. Where it has no business is Love. At least not for the office ladies.

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