The Love Hospital that separates spouses from their lovers
A new industry has emerged in China, helping husbands and wives to separate their unfaithful spouses from their lovers. It's called mistress dispelling, in which clients often pay tens of thousands of dollars to see off unwanted love rivals.
A middle-aged woman wearing a funereal black lace dress and large, incongruous sunglasses is ushered into the dimly lit office. She wants her name to remain secret so I will call her Mrs X, but she is happy to talk about her experiences as a client of the Weiqing Love Hospital, Shanghai's best-known Mistress Dispeller service.
In a quiet, quavering voice she tells me that her relationship with her husband has emerged from a crisis stronger than it was in the past. "I thought it was marriage before, but I see now something better, this is real living," she enthuses, though her eyes remain resolutely cast down.
What she's describing is the many weeks of marriage counselling she has received, a lesson in positivity and how to be a better, more dutiful wife. Ming Li, a co-founder of Weiqing, counsels women like her (it's overwhelmingly women who seek help) about the secrets of successful wedlock, and how to prevent a husband's attentions from wandering. In many cases, though, it's too late and his attentions have already wandered.
"When I discovered the affair, I confronted my husband," Mrs X says. "We fought bitterly and I kept on asking him, 'Why - why, when I have followed you so many years?' At first he expressed guilt. But after all the fighting, he just didn't want to talk to me any more. That's when I sought help."
She opted to pay Weiqing to have the mistress "dispelled". In this case, that involved having operatives persuade the 24-year-old secretary that she could do better than hang around with a man twice her age. Despite costing thousands of dollars, Mrs X is convinced this was a better option than divorcing her cheating spouse.
"We've been through a lot together," she says. "I don't want to give all this up. Separation has never been a concept I have ever thought about. And also I am approaching 50 years old, there's just not a market out there for a woman like me."
Ming Li and co-founder, Shu Xin, have been running their Love Hospital for 17 years, seeing more than a million clients, they say. Both put on an effervescent display, keen to describe the joyful possibilities of their brand of marriage guidance, and also the secret weapon - mistress dispelling.
Find out more
- Listen to Ed Butler's Crossing Continents report, 33 ways to dispel a Chinese Mistress, on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 on Thursday 21 December
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"We have 33 ways to dispel a mistress," Shu Xin explains. "In marriage there are all kinds of problems. And one is having an affair. It's very serious, bad for the family and bad for the stability of society".
He goes on to itemise his four main techniques, all of which seem to involve varying degrees of subterfuge: persuading the mistress to fall in love with someone else, getting the husband's boss to relocate him to a different city, getting parents or friends to intervene, and attempting to disgust the mistress by describing the husband's rotten character and nasty hereditary diseases.
I point out this leaves a full 29 other methods.
"Yes but those are a business secret," Shu Xin tells me. "We can't talk about them in the media."
The Chinese media are nonetheless full of stories about alleged coercion and bribery, and threats of violence. But the Love Hospital insists it never engages in anything illegal.
Another dispeller, Dai Peng Jun, was more forthcoming. He runs his own service in Shanghai as part of a conventional private detective agency. A plain-spoken character, he runs a team of undercover operatives who travel the country helping women separate their menfolk from unwanted "little thirds", as mistresses in China are colloquially known.
"There's one ultimate way of dispelling mistresses," he says. "We befriend them, we get intimate pictures or videos and then we give them to the clients."
In other words: honeytraps. When the husband is shown that his mistress is not being faithful to him, he will most often leave her and return to the bosom of the family.
Dai argues this represents an important public service, since most wealthy men in China consider it natural to have "a kept woman" on the side. Under Chairman Mao Tse Tung, the age-old Chinese tradition among wealthy men of keeping a concubine was declared degenerate and illegal and the equal rights of women were enshrined in marriage law. But since Chairman Mao's death in 1976, and the immense wealth that subsequent market reforms have brought, rich and powerful Chinese men, including many party officials, seem to have been reverting to the old ways.
According to one survey published in the official media, 95% of officials convicted under President Xi Jinping's latest anti-corruption drive, have been found to be keeping one or more mistresses. Three years ago, The People's Daily published "an adultery map", charting where the highest concentrations of philanderers were based.
Dai Peng-Jun introduces me to one of his operatives, a specialist "mistress-seducer". He's also called Dai, and he has a sombre manner and reassuringly deep, gravelly voice. He describes his work as a surgeon might a medical procedure.
"I act as the bait myself, and the whole team is there on hand to offer expert support," he explains. "I have to understand the different angles needed to please the woman, what she wants. For example if she fancies a luxurious lifestyle, wants luxury products, nice restaurants, we will satisfy her. In my experience most of the mistresses are after financial rewards."
Apparently throwing money at the problem works 90% of the time, allowing Dai to manouevre himself into a compromising position with the woman. Once his mission has been completed, he takes the necessary pictures and leaves.
I wonder how he feels about deceiving women for a living.
"We take the measures that are needed," he says. "We represent the rights of the original couple. The client asks us to do what we are doing. And mistresses are the ones who break those standards."
It's hard to measure how widespread these dispelling operations have become. In 17 years, Weiqing claims to have carried out more than 100,000. The company is hoping soon to list on the Shanghai stock exchange. Author and social commentator, Zhang Lijia believes the phenomenon can be partly explained by China's divorce laws. Since 2011, any wealth that a divorcing man can show he has brought with him into a marriage does not have to be shared with his ex-wife. Courts will also grant the man's family sole custody of the children, especially in rural areas.
"They say that the divorce laws were written to make men laugh and women cry," Zhang says. "Also, outside of the cities it's seen as shameful for a woman to divorce."
Mrs X is certainly convinced dispelling her husband's mistress was the only option for her, worth every penny of the thousands of dollars it has cost. Does she still love him, I ask. And isn't it possible that another mistress will come along to replace the one that was dispelled?
"Of course I still love him. There are many things I still love about him. And now I know what the problem is with our marriage. I know how to manage marriage."
It's hard to challenge such optimism, and the Weiqing Love Hospital sees no reason to. Co-founder Ming Li reassures me her guidance will see them through.
"A mistress is a tumour, so the first thing to do is to get rid of the tumour. After this the relationship between the couple is healthier. It's like learning to drive. It's tough to get a driver's licence, but any 18-year-old can get married. We teach them the right path to go down the road with safety."