The Dynamics of Motherhood Performance: Hong Kong's Middle Class Working Mothers On- and Off-Line

by Annie Hau-nung Chan
Lingnan University

Sociological Research Online 13(4)4

Received: 13 Mar 2008     Accepted: 24 Jun 2008    Published: 31 Jul 2008


This paper examines the on- and off-line identity performance of a group of Hong Kong middle-class working mothers who are users of an internet based community. The development of my involvement in this community from lurker to participant and then to virtual ethnographer provides a unique opportunity to compare the on- and off-line interactions of an Internet based community. By examining the relationship between the dominant discourse of motherhood and these women's motherhood performances on- and off-line, three modes of performativity are identified and discussed. I argue that although there is considerable pressure within this community to uphold the dominant motherhood discourse, users' reflexivity and subversion regarding this performance are evident in both on-line and off-line contexts. In particular, users' performativity in what I call the 'Si Nais behaving badly' mode can be read as a reaction towards, though not necessarily subversive of, society's prevailing conception of motherhood. My findings throw light on how the structure of internet chat frames these women's presentation of self, and how internet chat exposes aspects of their self-hood, which portray a much more varied identity than the literature on motherhood currently suggests.

Keywords: Motherhood, Internet, Chatroom, Performativity, Virtual Ethnography


1.1 Mothering refers to activities that enable the preservation, growth and social acceptability of children (Held 1993:153). Although it has been powerfully argued that mothering should involve not just individuals (i.e. family and relatives) but also the community (Waller 2000), mothering demands time and effort from women regardless of their employment status. Motherhood is still very much regarded as a private and gendered affair in Hong Kong. Research has found that Hong Kong's working mothers face considerable pressure in coping with the demands of work and family life (Aryee & Luk 1996; Tam, 2001; Ng et al. 2002; Luk & Shaffer 2005). Much of this pressure stems from incongruence between changes in the opportunity structures for women's educational and occupational attainment on the one hand, and the normative expectations regarding motherhood on the other. For instance, even though most Hong Kong people agreed there should be gender equity in the family, 'mothering tasks' were predominantly considered women's responsibilities (Lee 1991, 1995, 2003; Chu & Leung 1995;Chu 1997; Lau et al. 2006). Tellingly, while 64 percent of respondents in a recent survey acknowledged the financial benefit of working mothers to the family, 40 percent believed only stay-home mums can establish a warm and secure relationship with their children (Lee 2003: 301). Compared to Britain, Ireland and the USA, more Hong Kong people agreed that it is undesirable for women with small children to work (ibid.:303). In another survey, women claimed that the main reason they stayed in paid work after marriage was to improve family finances and a majority of them said they would rather be full-time homemakers if they could (Lau et al. 2006). Family and relatives, baby sitters, childcare centres and foreign domestic helpers were variously used by working mothers of different backgrounds to cope with childcare and domestic work, but these substitutes were at best used with reluctance (Tam 2001). The large and ever increasing number of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong does enable more married women to enter paid work (Chan 2006), but the effects of foreign domestic workers as substitutes for women's domestic labour are often exaggerated (Chan 2005). In short, as is the case in other Asian societies, although many Hong Kong women participate in paid work, demands on their 'motherhood' are still strong and deeply rooted as part of their identities (Bulbeck 2005).

1.2 There is a substantive body of literature on how work-family conflict affects women more than men (e.g. Glass & Fujimoto 1995; Livingston et al. 1996; Glass & Estes 1997; Perry-Jenkins et al. 2000; Estes 2005), but there are relatively fewer studies on how working mothers actually cope with the demands of work and family (Spain & Bianchi 1996; Bianchi 2000; Guendouzi 2006). Using material collected from an ethnographic study of an internet-based community, I contribute to the literature by examining how a group of Hong Kong middle-class working mothers express and perform their motherhood both on- and off-line. I explore aspects of their self-presentation and the dynamics of group interaction in both on-line and off-line contexts, and tease out the complications which are expressed as part of their motherhood identities. My findings throw light on how the structure of internet chat frames these women's presentation of self, and how internet chat exposes aspects of their self-hood which portray a much more varied identity than the literature on motherhood currently suggests.

The (Dis)Contents of Motherhood in Hong Kong

2.1 Much feminist literature regards the dominant discourse of motherhood as an ideological structure which affects women negatively (Arendell 2000). This dominant discourse constructs motherhood as an integral part of women's identity, and insists on the interdependence between mothers and their children (Oakley 1974; Chodorow 1978). Various aspects of this motherhood discourse, from pregnancy and childbirth to care giving and emotional work, are seen to keep women away from centres of power and autonomy (Firestone 1970; Rich 1976). More recently, scholars point out that this discourse on motherhood is largely based on the white, middle-class experience, and that alternative normativity and subjectivities of motherhood need to be acknowledged (Phoenix et al. 1991; Glenn et al.1994; O'Barr et al.1990; Gustafson 2005; Maher 2005). Others stress the socially and culturally constructed nature of motherhood (Thurer 1994; McMahon 1995; Hays 1996; Gustafson 2005), the positive aspects of motherhood and its benefits to those who practice it (Ruddick 1984; Rich 1976). The study of motherhood diversities is important from a feminist standpoint and from a broader sociological perspective. Just as the incongruities of gender can underscore that which is dominant and resisted (Butler 1990), incongruities in motherhood practices can also throw light on the state of the dominant discourse.

2.2 Traditional Chinese culture designates that the women's place is in the home, and studies on family life in post-war Hong Kong show that at this time gender division of labour was very much the norm (Wong 1979, 1981). In the early post-war years, the labour market did not provide as many opportunities for women as it does today, but many married women were economically active due to financial necessity. Out work (i.e. out-sourced factory work) and unpaid work for the family business, in particular, were common choices for mothers with children (Lui 1991). Many parents were refugees from mainland China who had fled political turmoil and economic hardship in search of stability and economic opportunities in the then British colony. Having received little formal education, most of them had neither the ability nor time to closely monitor their children's academic careers. Given this, parenting was very much about providing daily necessities and pooling resources to improve the family's standards of living was a prerogative for many families (Lui 2007). It has been argued that the middle class family and its associated values did not properly come into existence until as late as the 1970s (Rosen 1976; Salaff 1981).

2.3 While previous generations largely defined the role of parents in terms of provision, today, parenting has become an industry where experts and professionals capitalise on the increasing need for parents to pamper, monitor, and develop their children's potential. As parents increasingly hold themselves accountable for the well-being and future of their children (Eyer 1996; Reay 1998; McLaren & Dyck 2004), the pressure is greater than ever for mothers, in particular, to provide 'intensive parenting', where 'good parents' are those who willingly spend a lot of physical, emotional, cognitive and financial resources on their children (Hays 1996). But how can intensive parenting be achieved when both parents are in full-time paid work? This aspect of the cultural contradictions of motherhood has received much attention in the West, but there is very little research on how Hong Kong mothers cope with the pressures of paid work and this relatively new hegemonic parenting ideology. How do Hong Kong's middle-class working women make sense of their roles as mothers? To what extent do they experience the discontents so vividly described in the western literature? Do they resist the dominant discourse of motherhood?

The Internet Chatroom Performativity, Discourse, Narrative and Identity

3.1 In this paper the internet chatroom is primarily seen as a site where identities are performed. The performativity enacted in chatrooms resonates with the understanding of gender as performance (West & Zimmerman 1987; Butler 1990). As observed by Walter Benjamin, when social interactions take place via a new medium, new possibilities for alternative subjectivities also emerge (Benjamin 1973: 216); as with any new technology, the direction and nature of such new possibilities are necessarily emergent (Williams 1967). The potentially fruitful nature of the Internet as a site for sociological research has been discussed elsewhere and I do not wish to repeat this here (Hine 2000; Robinson 2001; Mautner 2005; Beer & Burrows 2007). However, I would like to elaborate on the particular relevance of the Internet chatroom for the study of identity performance.

3.2 Internet chat is a necessarily performative form of narrative discourse and narratives are important elements in how the self and relations with others are constituted (Lawler 2000: 12-13). Islam (2006), paraphrasing Clifford Geertz, describes the chatroom as 'a metasocial commentary a story they tell themselves about themselves [which] can be seen as a reproduction of the collective life of the group, a self-enacted story with its users as narrators' (Islam 2006: 82). Several features of Internet chat differentiate it from conventional social interactions. Firstly, it enables greater anonymity and therefore provides more room for users to manoeuvre their self-presentation (Cerny & Weise 1996; O'Farrell & Vallore 1999; Green 2001; Kendall 2002). Secondly, unlike face-to-face and telephone chat, real-time Internet chat is visibly objectified in the tangible form of text and emoticons, where users can immediately see their own and others' chat on the computer display, can refer to earlier chat by scrolling up and down the screen and can also save chat messages as files. Thirdly, the typing process allows users to edit, delete and ponder before hitting the return key. Taking more than a few seconds to consider a response may be socially awkward in face-to-face or telephone conversations, but in Internet chat such behaviour is acceptable as there could be any number of reasons for delayed responses (e.g. answering the phone, going to the bathroom, making a cup of tea, the boss walking by, server problems). Likewise, the choice of avatars and emoticons, numerous and often animated, allow users to project a considered, exaggerated and yet standardised way of presenting the self to an audience. In short, chatroom interactions can heighten users' awareness of their own performances, by possibly allowing for more immediate opportunities for reflexivity to occur. Finally, this self-presentation in online chat is further complicated by the fact that many on-line communities also have an off-line existence. Users who need to manage their on-line persona in a way that is compatible with their off-line selves face quite different challenges compared to those who never mingle the two.

3.3 Although Internet chat offers new narrative possibilities, users do not have a free rein in orchestrating their self-presentation in chatrooms, as computer-mediated communication (CMC) of this kind is structured by contextual factors such as the layout and interface, moderation policies and practices and server functioning of particular website. In addition, the thematic nature of most chatrooms influences how identities can be performed and presented therein. For example, sites on gaming or baking assume their chatrom users to be interested in these topics. Even general chatrooms (e.g. UKchatterbox) are usually sub-divided by basic socio-demographic or geographical features such as age and location. This basic feature determines to a considerable extent what users' 'masterstatuses' are (Becker 1963), which in turn shapes users' mutual expectations and how they manage their self-presentation. Maintenance of this masterstatus is important as losing sight of it during chat could threaten the user's legitimacy in that context (Goffman 1959); his or her sincerity will be questioned and membership may also be jeopardised. In short, although chatroom communication allows users more time to consider what they say and thereby greater opportunities for reflexivity, at the same time they are necessarily limited to certain masterstatuses by virtue of the way websites and chatrooms are set up and operate.

A Virtual Ethnography

Background to the Study from Lurker to Researcher

4.1 In 2002, I started visiting parenting websites in Hong Kong to conduct background research on how local parents viewed educational reforms. As a mother of two young children I found these sites interesting from a parents' point of view. Amongst these sites was Happy Land, whose features include forums, a 24-hour chatroom and a private message service (i.e. intranet email). Users can also post longer essays, links and photographs.[1] Two features distinguished Happy Land from other Hong Kong parenting sites. Firstly, unlike other popular parenting sites. This was because Happy Land was solely user-driven with no specialists or professionals to offer parenting advice or to answer questions. Secondly, the site was relatively free from individuals trying to promote products and services disguised as genuine users again a common feature in other popular parenting sites - as Happy Land moderators took a tough stance in removing postings which were suspected to be covert advertising. As such, it was a platform for users to share information and experiences rather than a place to look for definitive answers to parenting issues or discount coupons. This is an important feature which encouraged a sense of community where users were able to see themselves as interacting on a more or less equal footing. As a result of this there were also far fewer incidents of 'flaming' (i.e. verbal attacks on the Internet) compared to more popular sites.

4.2 Having no previous experience with internet-based communities and no initial intention to study them, I started as a cautious 'lurker' (i.e. someone who browses but does not participate in postings or chat). As I became more familiar with the site, I began to participate in discussions on parenting topics which were of personal interest to me. I also started visiting the chatroom, as postings in the forums often referred to talk in the chatroom. The chatroom was a very welcoming place and regular users often went out of their way to make 'newbies' feel at ease. Soon, visiting Happy Land at the start of my workday had become part of my daily routine. I was often logged on to the chatroom throughout the working day as well as in the evening when I was at home. A few months after I started chatting in the chatroom, I was invited to my first dinner 'meet' with a dozen other web-friends when myself and a few other 'newbies' met other users for the first time. The idea of writing a paper on this community occurred after visiting the site more or less on a daily basis for a year, and after having socialised with a core group of users and their families dozens of times. I started saving chat logs and keeping a file on individual users and incidents from on-line and off-line interactions.[2] According to my estimation, there were between fifty and sixty active members in Happy Land during my period of study, all of whom were women. I met twenty-three of them in person and saw around ten regularly (about once a month). The quotes in this paper are based on a sample of thirty-six days of chat saved randomly between September 2005 and February 2008 (averaging around 2,000 lines of chat per day).[3]

4.3 It was a difficult decision to keep the research covert and my reasons for doing so are as follows. Firstly, I was interested in how users 'do' motherhood online. Revealing my identity as a researcher might have compromised the 'naturalistic' nature of the on-line environment (Buchanan 2003; Pittenger 2003). I did not want users to reveal any more or less, or behave any differently, knowing that they were being 'studied'. Maintaining my online identity as a user rather than a researcher allowed me to sidestep a few methodological problems which may have arisen from directly or indirectly prompting subjects about their identities (e.g. Lewis 2007). Secondly, as I had already established a relationship with many users prior to my decision to study them, revealing my new identity as a researcher might have jeopardised our friendship. The culture of Happy Land was such that personal information was only ever disclosed voluntarily, and often on a general level at that (e.g. 'I work in advertising', 'I live in Wanchai area'). It was considered bad form to directly ask someone what they did for a living, where they lived or what their real names were. As a working mother I had many things in common with most users, but I was the only person with a PhD. Most users placed a high value on education and had high hopes for their children to do well academically (see section on 'Performing Motherhood: Conventional Mode'), and this caused me to have concerns about how revealing my educational credentials might have create a wedge between us or changed the way we interacted. Nevertheless, there were a few users who pieced together enough information to guess that I worked at a university.[4] I did notice a slight change in the way these people behaved whenever I was present; for instance, they became more hesitant in professing their opinions about higher education, perhaps because in their eyes I was the 'expert' in this area.

4.4 Having decided to study Happy Land, I reduced my forum postings and participation in the chatroom as I did not what to take advantage of my status as a regular user to elicit information which would not otherwise have been available. I still logged on to the chatroom daily and regularly socialised with users off-line, but I was conscious of my role as a participant observer and the potential problems that could arise. I tried to keep my role as researcher strictly for write-up times only, which was made somewhat easier by the fact that I had spent a year on the site purely as a participant. Conducting covert research in this manner posed obvious ethical challenges. In my case, it was not a straight-forward matter of deception as I had not deliberately set out to study this community. The issue of not having obtained consent prior to the study was also an ambiguous one as forum postings and chat are in theory made public by virtue of them being on the Internet. Although I have changed the women's usernames, which were already pseudonyms to begin with, I have also included in my analysis information based on face-to-face interactions and such information had obviously not been intended for the public domain. After reflection on the ethical issues of my study, I decided that I needed to 'come out'. On 3 May 2008 I posted a message on Happy Land's forum using the subject line 'Announcement!' announcing that I had written a paper about the Happy Land community. I described it as an academic paper about 'how mothers "do" motherhood on-line'. I told users to contact me via the website's private message function if they wished to know more about the project or to read the paper. As some of the information contained in the paper concerned the private lives of individual users, I emailed them individually prior to sending off the papers to other users, telling them that I was prepared to change details or to delete those accounts if they preferred greater anonymity or if they would rather those accounts not be published altogether. Only one woman asked in some detail about the readership of the paper and then asked me to exclude her story from the version that I send to other users. However, she did not object to the inclusion of her story in the actual publication. Within one week there were over 700 hits on this topic, eleven replies, and sixteen requests for the paper (all from regular users) which I duly sent off. Some users were surprised to find out that I am an academic, others said they enjoyed reading my analysis (but not the literature review), a few asked where this might be published and whether there would be a Chinese version and many gave suggestions (albeit half-jokingly) for further study.[5]

Naming and the Mother Identity

4.5 Happy Land users entered this virtual community primarily as mothers of young children. Firstly, the site advertised itself as a parenting site. Secondly, it is evident from the choice of usernames that most users identified themselves as mothers.[6] Many women adopted a username beginning with the initials or abbreviations of their children's names and ending with 'ma' (meaning 'mother' in Cantonese e.g. Chunma, shahanma), or beginning with 'bb' to indicate 'baby' (e.g. the name of bbjade's daughter is Jade). One user called herself 'most pious mother' (24haomama), signifying her dedication to her child, whilst others used their children's nicknames as their usernames (e.g. goodboy). One called herself 'Mrs Yeung' (Yeungtai tai meaning 'Mrs') even though 'Yeung' is a Chinese surname, it was not her husband's surname nor her maiden name. 'Yeung' sounds the same as the word for 'sheep' in Cantonese, and in popular parlance Yeungtai refers to unsophisticated married women ('si nai') who, like sheep, blindly follow what others do and say. Users also regularly referred to themselves and one another as 'si nais'. This is a Cantonese term referring to middle aged housewives who are usually overweight, unkempt, petty and ignorant, which again affirms the domestic orientation in how they present themselves in the chatroom. There were also users who used their English names or variations of it (e.g. MicMic's English name is Michelle). This shows that many users had a strong identification with their family gender role as mothers and wives, whilst others, by choosing a username which was not too different from their real names, did not try too hard to create a persona that was radically different from their off-line selves.

Performing Motherhood: Conventional Mode

4.6 I first visited Happy Land when the website had only been in operation for about a year, and there was a sense of freshness and enthusiasm about it, evident from forum postings and replies, where many users said that Happy Land was the first internet community they had participated in, and how wonderful it was that such a platform existed for them to discuss parenting issues. This sentiment was still evident in the way users interacted with newcomers to the chatroom, who were invariably greeted with these questions: 'Are you a working mum or a stay-home mum?' 'How many kids do you have?' 'How old are they?'. This early exchange defined users' primary status as mothers and shaped their subsequent chat. Indeed, daily chat was heavily structured around users' identities as mothers chatting to other mothers. The staples of daily chat were children's school work, discipline and extra-curricular activities. A calculation of my sample shows that around 67 percent of all chat messages were children-related.[7] In particular, the lives and activities of the children were being appropriated by the users in representing themselves in the chatroom. For example, a user said 'we revised till midnight ' when referring to preparation for her daughter's test, or in the example below[8], where yingying prayed to the gods for blessings:

4.7 Mothering cannot be disengaged from class (Duncan 2005; Armstrong 2006; Ball et al. 2004), for it is through mothering and other everyday life practices that class gets 'done'. Parenting issues which were of greatest concern to Happy Land users reflected their middle-class-ness, such as their considerable anxiety in trying to maintain a competitive edge for their children's future. Not getting into the right kind of schools, not having the right kind of exposure or experiences (e.g. joining the air cadet and summer camps overseas) and thereby not ending up with the right kind of life was their greatest worry (Wong 2003). It was common for users to complain about not having enough time to prepare their children for tests and exams; to thoroughly research and plan extra-curricular activities; to attend school outings ;and to communicate with teachers. Lamenting the lack of time as a hurdle in trying to achieve tasks which they believed were beneficial for their children reflected the constraints that paid work placed upon this aspect of intensive mothering.

4.8 In an analysis of lone mothers' written narratives, May (2004) examines how women coped with various aspects of lone motherhood, but found that none of them seemed able to escape from the dominant discourse of 'the available cultural representations of lone motherhood', which they experienced 'as a straitjacket' (May 2004: 186). Garey's study on nurses working night-shifts describes how these mothers 'confront these cultural norms from varying social locations, and they respond by adopting, modifying, or reinterpreting them' (Garey 1995: 416); in other words 'they are managing their conduct in interaction with dominant culture conceptions of mother-appropriate attitudes and activities' (ibid. 417). The nurses in Garey's study emphasised the importance of the night shift in allowing them to be at home in the daytime just like 'normal' mothers could (Garey 1995:417). In both studies, women worked themselves around the dominant discourse of motherhood. Similarly, the Happy Land chatroom allowed users to appear to be doing mothering despite being physically in the workplace (Chan 2008). The dominant motherhood discourse seems inescapable, and unsurprisingly, Happy Land users spend a lot of time reiterating various aspects of the discourse of 'good mothering' by chatting about domestic tasks and concerns (e.g. What kind of soup to make for a coughing boy? What kind of lotion can help my daughter's eczema?).

Motherhood in Discontent Mode

4.9 It has been found that many women are reluctant to talk about the negative emotional and physical impacts of motherhood on their lives (Elliot 1990; Brown et al. 1994), as this would mark them as deviating from the prescriptions of 'good motherhood' (Chodorow 1978; Hays 1996). Expressing frustration and anger towards children, husbands and other family members was not uncommon in Happy Land, but users were often quick to police such outbursts I never saw users openly encourage one another to indulge in this kind of 'negativity'. As the following quotes demonstrate, when Walnut talked about her 'very naughty' three-year-old son, other users were quick to offer comfort and support:

4.10 Users often responded to those who were distressed, disappointed or frustrated about motherhood by encouraging them to persevere, to look at 'the big picture' and to 'think positively'. This attitude coincides with the government's official stance on the issue of women's work-family conflict, which encourages women to cope rather than offer any practical support.[9] The use of co-complaints or matching accounts were also common in Happy Land, and these types of discursive interactions have been found amongst working mothers elsewhere (Guendouzi 2006) and are acknowledged to be discursive responses which increase solidarity (Coates 1996).

4.11 If Internet chat is seen as narratives and Happy Land users as agents actively writing their own scripts, how did reflexivity feature in these women's chat? Were they merely reiterating and reproducing aspects of the dominant motherhood discourse? In reappraising Bourdieu's argument that the habitus is the link between structure and practice and reflexivity occurs when agents find themselves in crisis situations, Mouzelis argues that reflexivity does not only occur in crisis situations but also in everyday life situations (Mouzelis 2007). He distinguishes between a field's 'positional/institutional structures and its figurational structures. The former are the roles and statues, the later are relations between actual players' (Mouzelis 2007: para.4.1). In chatrooms, perceived relations between users play an important role in their reflexivity. What they do or do not say is shaped in part by a consideration of what a particular utterance might mean for the audience and how this may affect their relationship. Tongues are (metaphorically) held, eyes are rolled (only when not in view), but all executed with great care and purpose Zerubarvel 2006).

4.12 Soliloquies chat which is not directed at anyone in particular are signs of such reflexivity. It was not unusual for Happy Land users to question the sacrifices they made in the name of motherhood or to express anger at the lack of support from husbands and relatives in a 'thinking-out-loud' manner. Reflexivity was visible in the chatroom, but even more apparent in off-line interactions. While few users openly encouraged discontent mothers to dwell in their negativity or to demand/act for change, it was not unusual for them to talk about other users' mothering behaviours during 'private talk' (PT)[10] or when they chatted off-line. I will give three examples to illustrate.

4.13 Example 1: LingLing, a working mother of two, had plenty of problems with her daughter and husband. In the chatroom, she was one of the few people who would say and do things that do not sit comfortably with the ideology of good motherhood, such as not letting her daughter (then aged six) go to bed until she has finished all her homework and revisions, sometimes as late as 2 a.m. It was not unusual for her children to stay up till past midnight on weekdays, as she worked domestic life around her schedule, not the other way round. She also frequently complained of her husband as being lazy and unhelpful, so much so that she wanted to take the kids and leave him. In the chatroom, most users would pacify her and encourage her to persevere and look at the bright side. However, on one occasion whilst chatting over dinner, two women (there were five of us altogether) said they would leave their husbands too if they were in LingLing's shoes. Towards the end of the evening a consensus was reached that her behaviour towards her children very politely empathised with in the chatroom - was unacceptable.

4.14 Example 2: Grace, another working mother of two, had for many months expressed dissatisfaction with her husband. Her laments were met with as many co-complaints from other users ('All men are like that! My husband is worse!') as words of comfort and sympathy ('This is what marriage is about, love is about tolerance and understanding'). Through PT, Grace had revealed to me and JJma that she was on the verge of having an extra-marital affair. During PT, I had encouraged Grace to go and see a marriage counsellor and JJma had encouraged her to see a fortune teller before doing anything she might later regret (JJma PTed the above information to me as she was PTing to Grace). Later, at a lunch gathering with JJma and Creamy, we were talking about Grace's situation and both JJma and Creamy said if they were Grace they would look for romance elsewhere. JJma even said she envied Grace for having this opportunity of an affair as her own relationship with her husband was less than satisfactory.

4.15 Example 3: bbj gave up her job three years ago as a systems manager in a big company to become an insurance agent. Her decision was prompted by a desire to spend more time with her daughter and the fact that one summer their live-in Filipinio domestic worker went home for a holiday and failed to return. She was fed up with having to rely on other people for childcare. At the time, her decision to embrace the trials of full-time motherhood was enthusiastically applauded by other users in the chatroom. Although bjj had expressed how having no domestic worker at home had cramped her style somewhat (e.g. she had to pick up her child from school and take her to extra-curricular activities, thereby having to work her daily schedule around these tasks), her complaints and regrets were most evident when there were only three or four of us at a gathering. On more than one occasion she had told me how she felt 'trapped', 'regretful' and doubted her suitability for motherhood. Our nights out would inevitably end up with her reminiscing about the 'good old days' when she was husband- and child-free. She told me that she did not feel she could freely unleash these sentiments in the chatroom and gave the following example to illustrate. She once complained in the chatroom about the amount of housework she needed to do despite having a cleaner coming in for three hours per day. In response another user (a stay-home mum) reacted strongly and said: 'Don't complain in front of me! I don't even have a cleaner!'.

4.16 These examples illustrate how the Happy Land chatroom was very much a site for the performance of the dominant discourse of good motherhood. These were performances because what was said publicly was not always what users really thought. In PT and off-line conversations a different side of their thoughts could be heard.

Motherhood in (somewhat) subversive mode: 'Si Nais' behaving badly

4.17Last but not least is a type of performance which can be considered somewhat subversive to the dominant motherhood discourse. I consider these to be only 'somewhat' subversive, since they contradicted but did not directly challenge the existing prescriptions. This category of chat and off-line behaviour typically involved low-level sexual banter, swearing and mutual ridicule, which are not considered acceptable behaviour for good Chinese mothers. Unlike the reactions towards discontent mothers described in the previous section, where women would say one thing on-line and another off-line, the performativity in this final category was consistent both on- and off-line. In the instances described below, the carnivalesque atmosphere in both virtual and actual space suggests that the Happy Land community offered a kind of licensed transgression where these women occasionally felt they did not need to act in accordance with the prescriptions of good motherhood. There is no apparent association between this type of behaviour and their own 'happiness' as described in Elvin-Novak and Thomsson's study of Swedish mothers' narratives, where mothers interpret their individual happiness - understood as 'wellness' to be necessary for the well-being of their children (Elvin-Novak & Thomsson 2001). Instead, this brand of 'happiness' in Happy Land manifested itself in a much more hysterical and somewhat camp style. A favourite recurring theme was breast size:

4.18 Even though these women were conservative in many regards, sexual appetite was a recurring theme that could sometimes carry on for hours in the chatroom. The following quote follows from a conversation about ghost stories. The background was that Goodboy supposedly had a crush on Mammamia's teenage son, and Mammamia supposedly had a ravenous sexual appetite:

4.19Such banter could be found in nearly all of my chat samples. During off-line interactions behaviour of this category was also evident. I will describe three such incidences. Incident one: Around twelve users were at a lunch 'dim-sum' gathering at the staff restaurant of a user's workplace, which was famous for its steamed custard buns. On this occasion, a total of twenty-seven bamboo steamers of buns were ordered (three buns per steamer). Not all were for immediate consumption; many women ordered them to take-away for colleagues or family to eat later. It was quite a sight when all twenty-seven steamers arrived on the table. Each bun had a tiny dollop of custard on top, and the women were laughing and joking about how they resembled breasts. 'Eat like to supplement like!' they shouted and giggled loudly. A nearby table of five men kept looking our way because of the noise we were generating. 'He is checking you out!', 'No, checking out our "buns" only!', 'Yes, we are the si-nais with the hot steamy buns!'.

4.20 Incident two: In a busy hot-pot restaurant, we were a party of ten, being served by a waitress who was bombarded with questions about the various set meals and the prices of drinks and so on. A lot of noise was generated and it was difficult for the waitress to take our orders. Julie giggled and said to the waitress: 'Ask your manager to come explain this to us!'. The manager arrived after a few minutes, and Sammie talked to him about the menu. The rest of us were giggling and making rude remarks about how Sammie was wearing a low cut top (it was not really that low cut) and how the manager was blushing next to her (I was there, and the manager was not blushing). This was before anyone had any beers to drink.

4.21 Incident three: Other users told me about this incident at a lunch gathering. Cinma's son had been studying abroad and was back in Hong Kong for vacation. Cinma brought him along to a lunch gathering with other Happy Land users. Jolie was introduced to this boy for the first time, and was reportedly making comments to his face about how cute he was. Jolie asked to sit next to him and took out her phone camera to take a picture of him and said 'Do you mind if I put your picture on my desktop?'. This story was retold with plenty of laughter. Jolie was described as 'hungry like a wolf' and 'dribbling all over him', so much that 'the poor boy' had since vowed never to tag along with mum to see any of her on-line si nai friends.

4.22 The above examples illustrate how Happy Land users appropriated the identity of si nai as a license for bad behaviour. Given that most users were only in their mid-thirties to mid-forties and most of them had full-time jobs, wore make up, went to the gym and were interested in fashion, they did not fit in with the typical definition of a si nai (Ho 2007). Rather than rejecting the si nai label as Ho's interviewees had, Happy Land users actively and selectively identified themselves with aspects of the si nai persona (married, petty, ignorant, loud, and unattractive) and used that to justify 'bad behaviours' which were incompatible with how a good mother is supposed to be. Si nai is a masterstatus (Becker 1963) which contains enough fluidity for its meaning to be constantly negotiated. By taking from the available cultural repertoire of the si nai and making it their own, these women had endowed si nai behaviours with kudos in Happy Land. These 'somewhat' subversive behaviours are unlikely to directly challenge the dominant motherhood discourse, but are certainly enough to demonstrate that these women did relish opportunities to break away from this discourse every now and then.


5.1 Chatroom discourse follows rules which are similar to those governing face-to-face communication (Islam 2006). The nature of the website, the setup and structure of the chatroom, and the identity and relationship amongst users explain why Happy Land chat revolves primarily around users' presentation of themselves as mothers. As described in the first two sections of this paper, even though Hong Kong people see working mothers as a necessary evil, this co-exists with increasing demands for 'intensive parenting'. Facing this aspect of the cultural contradictions of motherhood, working mothers are under considerable pressure. The Happy Land chatroom provided a place for working mothers to share social and emotional support. Most of this was in accordance with the requirements of good mothering practices; this performance of good motherhood was the default mode in Happy Land.

5.2 However, it is clear from my PT and my off-line interactions with other users that these women were reflexive about their identities and self-presentation as mothers. They did not blindly work towards achieving the prescriptions of the dominant motherhood discourse and they enjoyed moments when they collectively wring themselves free from this 'straightjacket'. When no longer in the 'frontstage' space of the Happy Land community, which was defined as a community of mothers working themselves around the dominant motherhood discourse, the discontent and somewhat subversive mode of motherhood emerges. It is through the reflexive, dynamic and interactive process of Internet chat, that aspects of Happy Land users' selfhood which deviated from the dominant discourse of motherhood could be seen. Their chat on sex-related topics were often highly charged but at the same time presented under the guise of 'harmless gibberish'. When comparing different categories of chat, it is clear that while they found it acceptable to publicly make fun of someone's sex life, it was not acceptable to criticise one another's parenting behaviours. Other misdemeanors of the working mother include the use of (sometimes but not always disguised) swear words and other somewhat juvenile behaviours both in and out of the chatroom (having fun with emoticons, salivating over younger men, boisterous behaviour in public). It is this side of the motherhood subjectivity that we do not often read about. In my discussion of si nais behaving badly, I qualified this performativity as 'somewhat' subversive. Of course, the dominant discourse of motherhood has no place for the gluttonous, horny, loud-mouthed swearing woman. But is it subversive? Is such behaviour intended to challenge the dominant discourse or instigate changes in actual mothering practices? My conclusion is that this type of performance is extremely limited; outside of the chatroom it was seen only when these women were in a large group (never when there were only three of us), and is likely to function more as a kind of release and 'escape' than subversion.

5.3 These findings show that a covert virtual ethnography can reveals aspects of the motherhood identity which may otherwise be difficult to access. Although there are studies on motherhood which also involved using the Internet, it was more often used as a medium for contacting mothers and collecting interview data (e.g. Collett 2005; Madge & O'Connor 2005). Studies based on in-depth interviews (e.g. 'oral histories') alone, whether face-to-face or via CMC, can only provide a partial view of respondents' identity performances (Association for the Advancement of Feminism 1998, 2002). In an interview situation, where the audience of the interviewee's narrative of him or herself is an 'other' (i.e. the interviewer), the presentation of the self is likely to differ from that presented in a chatroom context where the audience is not only 'others' (i.e. other working mothers) but also the self. When chat is immediately objectified on the computer screen as one hits the 'return' key, the presentation of the self thus articulated and emerged is the product of a much more reflexive, dynamic and interactive process. Like many on-line communities, the Happy Land virtual community has over the years developed a parallel off-line existence. It is this separate but related presence, as well as my involvement in it over a period of years, in particular as a covert researcher, which provides added depth and richness to my analysis of their on-line chat and to their motherhood performances. One problem regarding much Internet research is the authenticity of the users' identities (Hine, 2000:22), therefore, a participatory virtual ethnography where the researcher has been immersed in the community for a prolonged period of time, and who also engages in social interaction with users off-line, certainly enables verification of the users' identities (Turkle 1995). However, it remains that the only PT I have access to are those addressed to me and those which other users voluntarily revealed to me; even though users were not aware of my status as a researcher, there are still aspects of their chat that I have no access to whatsoever. Finally, despite its many advantages, concealing my identity as a researcher posed ethical challenges. I am fortunate that users' response to my 'outing' of myself was overwhelmingly positive. Nevertheless, this remains an important issue that researchers need to consider and handle with great care.

5.4 It is interesting that nearly all regular Happy Land users maintained a strong on-line presence. Chatroom situations users tend to start chatting in a large group and then split into smaller groups and eventually develop into private dyadic conversations. In Happy Land, users seemed to value the 'comfort' of chatting in large groups - there are four different 'rooms' available for chat, but only one is ever used. Although PT was also used, most users maintained their public chat whilst carrying on PT simultaneously rather than abandoning group chat. This suggests that users' preference for group or dyadic chat is far from a generic feature of internet chat as such, but is one to be determined by the nature of the users despite the development of their off-line friendships. While it is more common that people who are friends to begin with add to their relationships via CMC, it is unclear how common the reverse scenario is. Happy Land users who have grown to become very familiar with one another and maintained regular off-line interaction still continue to chat online daily. In other words, Happy Land is far from an inferior second to 'real' face-to-face relationships. In contrast to Zhao (2005) and Islam (2006), who both argued that in chatroom situations users tend to start chatting in a large group and then split into smaller groups and eventually develop into private dyadic conversations. In Happy Land, users seem to value the 'comfort' of chatting in large groups - there are four different 'rooms' available for chat, but only one is ever used. Although PT is also used, most users maintain their public chat whilst carrying on PT simultaneously, rather than abandoning group chat. This suggests that users' preference for group or dyadic chat is far from a generic feature of internet chat as such, but is one to be determined by the nature of the users.

5.5 As Hong Kong women's fertility rate continues to drop (0.9 in 2007 way below the replacement level of 2.1) and women's educational and occupational attainment continues to improve, there is bound to be increasing pressure on the dominant discourse of motherhood. Young women are getting married later, having fewer children and having them later, working longer hours and getting into higher positions in organisations. How are these changes going to impact on the prevailing prescriptions of good motherhood? What room is there for this discourse to be adjusted or adapted to? My discussion on the three types of motherhood performativity identified in the Happy Land community helps to throw some light on these questions by allowing us to take a glimpse at the extent to which working mothers are coping with the demands of 'good motherhood'.


1 Happy Land's URL The website changed its name to Hong Kong Farm in 2006, but its URL remained unchanged. Apart from the forums which can be viewed by anyone, posting in the forums and all other functions are opened to registered users only.

2 I compiled profiles of regular users (including a wide range of information from basic socio-demographic data, personal interests and history, to information about their families and work), cross-referencing them to saved chat logs. I also took field notes after face-to-face gatherings, noting in particular what struck me as consistent or otherwise with these women's on-line personas.

3 In Happy Land, chat messages were often a mix of Chinese, Cantonese, and English. I have translated the quotes in this paper into English.

4 However, in line with Happy Land netiquette, as far as I know they did not broadcast this information to other users.

5 I find that my relationship with other users has changed somewhat after having 'outed' myself, but that would be the subject of a different paper.

6 Usernames have been changed to protect anonymity.

7 Each chat message is coded thematically.

8 Where possible I have kept the icons used in the original chat most of these icons were animated in their original display.

9 In a recent advertisement, produced by the Women's Commission of Hong Kong, dramatised images of women under stress from family and work demands were shown. A male voiceover tells the audience that family members need to be more supportive and understanding of the mother's difficulties, while the women themselves need to learn how to de-stress (Hong Kong Women's Commission The message encourages women to manage both the best they can, preferably with the help and understanding of family members.

10 Also known as 'whisper' in some chatrooms, PT is a function where users can chat in private to multiple users on a one-to-one basis. Chat between those in PT mode will not be visible to others. My information on PT comes from other users' PT to me or other users PTing me about the PTing between themselves and other users.


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