"Silver Spoon, Sterling Shackles" is really an appropriate name for this show. The "silver spoon" refers to the wealthy Chung family in 1920s Hong Kong. Patriarch Arthur Chung (Damian Lau) was the first ethnic Chinese barrister in Hong Kong, educated in England. He runs his own chambers as well as several family businesses, and lives in a mansion around the Peak.
The "sterling shackles" refer to the wives of Arthur. Despite socialising with English officials and leading an English lifestyle, he is still a traditional chauvinistic man who had no qualms fooling around and having many wives, and expected all his wives to do his bidding, no questions asked. Whenever any of them dared to talk back to him, he would punish her by not spending the night with her, grounding her and even putting her under house arrest.
Arthur's first wife Sum Lan (Mary Hon) was an arranged marriage. She is the mother of his eldest son Charles (Kenneth Ma), who is also educated in England and a barrister like his father and shares chambers with him. However, unlike his father, Charles holds more modern views and Westernised outlook towards marriage, slavery and the status of women. Sum Lan and Arthur also have a younger daughter Ho Yee (Sire Ma).
Arthur's second son Jimmy (Vincent Wong) was the result of an affair with a Chinese lady in England. Jimmy never knew who his father was and got into lots of trouble in Chinatown of London, until his mother died when he was twelve and Arthur brought him home to stay. Jimmy is in charge of running his father's businesses.
Arthur's second wife Yee Yin (Idy Chan) was a former princess of the Manchu dynasty. She never forgot her first love, Yat Fai (Ben Wong). After seeing him again, she felt awkward and uncomfortable. Arthur accused her of having an affair with Yat Fai when there was actually nothing going on between the two of them, and she started a cold war with him, resulting in him having her grounded and put under house arrest, until she almost attempted suicide.
Arthur's third wife Yvonne (Elena Kong) came from a family of prominent bankers, where she was still a shareholder in one of the banks. She has two young children with Arthur. However Arthur never really favoured her, and she was left neglected, lonely and depressed and took to drinking.
What I like about this show is that it does not follow the typical cliché plotline. For instance, in many shows where I have watched where the man has more than one wife, there would always be in-fighting amongst the wives and children. Case in point – Rosy Business, where the first wife and the eldest son were always plotting against the rest of the family.
But in this show, there was none. Even though the wives can be petty and jealous, that is just natural reaction from having to share a husband. The wives are genuinely able to get along pretty well, despite the sarcasm and bantering. The children all love their mothers and respect them all, and the wives all treat the children as their own, even Jimmy when he was brought back by Arthur, Sum Lan took him in and treated him as her own son, and did not ill-treat him.
There is also no in-fighting amongst the children. In a typical plot, someone like Jimmy who is the illegitimate son, would always be outcasted by the rest of the family, and he would then want to backstab his siblings and fight for the family fortune. But in this show, there is no such fighting. The siblings genuinely love and respect each other. Charles and Jimmy are as close as brothers can be, and their sister Ho Yee idolised both of them. Never have they made Jimmy feel as if he was an outcast. Even though Jimmy did do some stupid things, in the end, he still showed remorse and respect to his father and mothers. In any case he did not do anything too bad or evil.
Hence, in another way, this seems to be a really wholesome family, despite the complications of having more than one wife. To many others, it would be a "perfect" close knit family.
The plot thickens when in steps Hong Tze Kwan, aka Choi Feng Huang, a Peking Opera singer (Tavia Yeung). She fell in love with Arthur and later gave up her stage career to marry him as his fourth wife. Even though the first and third wives objected initially, in the end, they all accepted her and she became pretty close to everyone in the family.
Another reason why this is not a typical plotline is because Tze Kwan and Charles went back a long way. She was a runaway slave, and stumbled upon the Chung household when she was young. She met the young Charles, who took pity on her and gave her some sweet potato to eat. Later on she went to China to take up opera.
When she came back to Hong Kong, she and Charles recognised each other. When her former employer wanted to take her back as his slave, Charles fought for her and freed her from her indenture, with some help from his father. Now, typically, in a scene like that, Charles and Tze Kwan would fall in love right? Or else be embroiled in some love triangle or love square right? But none of such happened. In fact, throughout the show, they are only good friends. There was never anything romantic between them, and he helped her only because he wanted to seek justice and help the poor. This part I find really refreshing, that men and women can be shown as being close friends throughout instead of the usual plotline of falling in love or being in a complicated love relationship.
Tze Kwan went on to fall in love with his father and when she was about to become the fourth wife, Charles gave his complete blessings, even though she is a few years younger than him. Even after she left Arthur because she could not stand being married to him any longer since she found herself losing her own independent identity, she and Charles still remain close friends and he would still seek her out to talk about problems.
But of course, being a TVB drama, there will always be a love triangle. In this show, the love triangle is in the form of Charles, Kwai Siu Yau (Rebecca Zhu) and Kam Muk Shui (Ron Ng). Siu Yau and Muk Shui were childhood sweethearts, and Muk Shui would do anything and everything for her, even though he is stubborn, hot-headed and impulsive. Come to think of it, Ron Ng seems to be in many of these impulsive and hot-headed roles.
Charles met Siu Yau by chance, and went to help her and Muk Shui out when they were in trouble. Later on he found out that his father indirectly caused Siu Yau's father to be put to death innocently, and started to feel guilty towards her. He started being nice and attentive to her to atone, but later found out that he really fell in love with her, and started to see her as more than just a friend.
Muk Shui was accused of murdering a Caucasian, and upon escaping from prison, he was shot and fell into the sea. Siu Yau was devastated as she thought he died. Charles wanted to help her out, but she refused. So he sent his sister Ho Yee to Siu Yau's place to help her younger sister Siu Yu. Initially the whole family was quite resistant to her, but later on appreciated her help, including the rude police officer Tat Chi. He later fell in love with Ho Yee, who in turn gave up her family riches to marry him and moved in with him in his small house, and became a full time housewife for him.
Charles found out that in order to make ends meet, Siu Yau have decided to marry an old man. So he proposed marriage, saying that since it did not matter who she marry anyway, may as well marry him as he loves her. Siu Yau agreed because she was really grateful to him for all he had done. However, shortly after the wedding, Muk Shui came back alive, and he started to create some trouble in the Chung household.
Another thing I like about this show is that there is no real antagonist. I do not see anyone really evil in this show. As mentioned earlier, the family is pretty wholesome. Even Muk Shui, the troublemaker, he is not bad by nature, just bullheaded and think whatever he thought was right, plus he was spurred on by his love for Siu Yau and was really angry she married Charles.
Arthur had some business rivals, but they were just business rivals with a bit of personal vendetta, but again, they are not all that bad as there was no real harm done.
As for Jimmy, he is impulsive and did not think of consequences, but he is also not bad by nature and he really listens and respects his father and mothers. So there is not a single real villain in this show, which I find pretty refreshing!
The last few episodes are the most touching parts. Sum Lan suffered a stroke and died. Arthur was with her at her last moments, and when she passed away, he realised that she was the only wife who had been giving so much and doing so much, yet getting nothing in return. He then cried over her body. Despite all the petty trivials, all the wives visited Sum Lan on her deathbed and cried during her funeral.
Arthur divorced Yee Yin as he realised her heart was not with him, and she went to England with Yat Fai to start a new life. Tze Kwan left Arthur as she did not wish to be under his control any longer, but she still visited the family from time to time. Yvonne and Arthur divorced, as she had an affair with Muk Shui as she felt so unhappy and neglected, taking her two children with her, but she too, would still visit the family from time to time.
Arthur realised that he had hurt too many women and that his women were actually happier without him. That made him reflect really hard and he started to push for the bill that allowed equal status of marriage and divorce, and that both parties (instead of only the husband) can ask for divorce if the marriage is not working out. Women need not be the chattels of their husbands anymore. He met Tze Kwan again, this time pregnant with his child, and proposed to her again, and promised her this time round she would be his one and only wife until the end.
Jimmy too had a happy ending. He married one of the family maids (Charmaine Lee) and they were expecting a child at the end of the show. The only one I feel pity for is Charles. Kenneth Ma is always in this too-good-to-be-true perfect guy kind of roles, but this time he did not have a happy ending.
Siu Yau found out about her father's death and blamed Charles for not telling her the truth. He said he could not bring himself to do so as he was afraid she would not marry him if she knew, and he really did not wish to lose her. When Muk Shui came back, she could not control herself and had an affair with him. Even though in the end she broke off with Muk Shui, after all the trouble he caused to the Chung family, she felt that she could not stay in there anymore, even though both Charles and Arthur wanted her to stay. Hence, she and Charles divorced, and she left to start her own life, bringing her sister along with her.
The main plot is about the rise of feminism, changing values of traditional Chinese marriages, and on love and relationships. Some of the most memorable and touching scenes are:
1. Charles continuing to find out the true murderer of the British guy even when Muk Shui was presumed dead. He managed to do so and caught the real murderer. That was when Siu Yau got so touched that she declared she loved him for the very first time.
2. Charles crying his heart out to his mother, requesting her to allow him to marry Siu Yau, as he said he did not want his first wife to suffer like his mother did, and he wanted to put a stop to polygamy, so he would only marry the girl he loves as his only wife for life. That was one of the most heart wrenching scenes in the whole show!
3. The letters Yat Fai wrote to Yee Yin, under the guise of an "old lady", to wish her well. That is one lesson of love – to love a person does not mean possession, but wishing her all the best and as long as she is happy that is all that matters.
4. Siu Yau telling Muk Shui to leave her alone forever, after Muk Shui wanted to shoot her and Charles took the bullet for her. She told Muk Shui that Charles is a much more noble man than he is, and that she learned what is true love from Charles – if you love a person, let her go and stop giving her pressure. Finally Muk Shui understood and decided to let her go.
5. The love story between Ho Yee and Tat Chi. This is the relationship that I like the best as I find the love they have for each other the sweetest and purest. He is an upright cop who is prejudiced against the rich as he deem the wealthy as snobbish, arrogant and bad. So when he and Ho Yee started dating, he never wanted to meet her parents. When she asked why was he even with her, he said, "I can't help falling for you", and that because their time together was so limited and they had so many difficulties to go through, he "would treasure their time together even more because of all these trials". Is that not just so sweet?
6. Because Tat Chi truly loves Ho Yee, he was willing to bypass his own stubbornness of not stepping into the Chung family as he had some unpleasant incident with Yvonne and Jimmy, and specially went to her house to ask for her hand in marriage. When her parents asked her what she sees in him, she said, "He is a morally upright person who does not bow down to the rich nor belittle the poor". When her father said, "He does not even take bribes, how is he even going to support you with his meagre income?", she answered, "That is why I love him." I really went "awwwww" after seeing that!
7. Arthur was willing to let his daughter marry Tat Chi, and willing to give them some money, find him a position in his company and give them a house, but Tat Chi refused it all. He said he would pay for everything and support Ho Yee with his own ability and did not wish to take a single cent from her parents. In the end Ho Yee was also willing to bear a more frugal life with him. That is true love indeed!
8. When Yvonne was moving out of the Chung household with her children, she told Arthur, "I know you fell for me, but you did not love me." When he asked her, "Doesn't that mean the same?", she answered, "No. You fell for me, so you were willing to bed me, impregnate me and marry me. But you did not love me. You loved 2nd sister even though you knew her heart did not belong to you completely, you still tolerated it. You loved Chi Kwan even though she talked back to you and did not listen to everything you said, you still treated her well. Me? You married me out of responsibility, but you did not love me." That was a real intense scene that got Arthur really thinking, and got me really thinking too.
9. When Yee Yin went on one of her visits to her mother, her mother, upon knowing she quarreled with Arthur over Yat Fai, told her to know her own place. Yee Yin then cried, "Why do I have to bear with this? He can have more wives after me, yet I cannot even show care and concern to my old friend! There is nothing going on between Yat Fai and me, yet he does not believe me, but he can go fooling around and expects me not to say anything!" To which the mother replied, "Because we are women, we have to bear this." Yee Yin then said, "That is so unfair". And the mother said, "Life has never been fair to us women". That is a real touching scene indeed, and from there I am glad to see how far women have come in just a few decades!
There is nothing I really dislike about this show. Even though it is 40 episodes, the pace is not draggy and the story is well scripted. Although I would prefer if Siu Yau decide to stay with Charles because I feel he deserves his beloved girl the most after everything he has done for her. But on the other hand, it is by her leaving that shows how much he loves her – that loving her is to wish for her happiness and let her make her own choice. Truly in my opinion, this is one of the best serials in 2012!