The rights of the concubine have thrown Hong Kong's courts into confusion as lawyers try to resolve a battle between an ageing property tycoon and his partner of 46 years.
Lim Por-yen, 90, claims he lent around ?41 million (US$74 million)to his former concubine Koo Siu-ying, 66, in a series of 60 payments between 1994 and 2001. Now he wants it back, plus an extra ?32 million (US$57.5 million) in interest charged on the loans.
Koo claims the money -- used for a Shanghai property project -- was a gift, and she was his "third wife."
Concubinage -- where men were entitled to have more than one wife -- was not abolished until 1971 in Hong Kong. Concubines in an established relationship before that are still ac-knowledged, although the extent of their legal rights has not been tested until now.
At the center of the Lim and Koo case is whether a concubine should be treated as a wife, acceptable under Chinese tradition but alien to the former colony's British legal system, which is based on monogamous marriage.
Koo says the couple were married in 1956 when Lim announced at a dinner that she was his "third wife." Lim already had one wife and one concubine at the time.
The couple had two children and lived together for 46 years until they separated in 2002. Koo claims Lim's family accepted her and that they were widely recognized as husband and wife. Therefore money given to her by Lim is a gift -- the same presumption existing in law for marriage.
Koo says that in the 1990s she wanted to emigrate to the US or Europe but Lim persuaded her to stay by giving her the money to invest in the Shanghai property project. Lim disagrees that the couple were ever married and took further legal action to try and prevent Koo's lawyers from describing her as his "third wife."
In December he scored a victory when the court ruled the couple's status was irrelevant to the case. The real issue was whether the money was a loan or a gift under contract law, said Justice Muttrie, adding: "There are men who, having vowed in a Church of England marriage ceremony `With all my worldly goods I thee endow,' or its modern equivalent, will not give their wives a cent. There are men who will give their mistresses a fortune and never expect it back. No doubt the same applies in all cultures and religions."
But last week an appeal court overruled that judgment, putting the legal status of concubines back on the agenda and allowing Koo her "third wife" status.
Appeal court judge Anthony Rogers said: "The question of whether a husband should look after a concubine ... is obviously a matter which needs to be finally determined."
Koo's Shanghai company was taken to court by a Hong Kong bank to order the repayment of the firm's overdraft, while in 1999 Lim was sentenced to three years in jail after being found guilty of bribing Taiwanese officials over a multi-million dollar land deal. He is appealing against the verdict and has yet to serve time behind bars.