The label "3S women" - white-collar females born in the "seventies", "single" and "stuck" - has become such a sensitive term that its mere mention makes every unmarried or "unpartnered" woman over the age of 30 uncomfortable.
According to Hong Kong government statistics, the number of single women aged between 30 and 39 has risen 14 per cent from 135,800 in 2001 to 155,000 last year, while the number of unmarried men in the same age range has remained relatively constant.
The phenomenon can partly be attributed to long working hours that are killing off chances of romance for young female professionals who have little time to date, according to experts.
In a survey of 562 women, by the Hong Kong Clerical and Professional Employees General Union, more than 10 per cent of respondents said they worked more than 60 hours a week. Those in banking had to work 11 or 12 hours a day.
Ninety-seven per cent of the respondents, whose average age is 34, said long working hours were hurting their social and family life.
"It is difficult to have dinner plans with friends because I never know when I can call it a day," says Angela Wong, a solicitor in her early 30s who works at least 12 hours a day.
Neither is it easy for her to find "Mr Right" because few men could tolerate her work schedule. "It is very difficult, unless the man is very understanding or if he is [in] a [profession that is as demanding in terms of hours], such as being an investment banker or an auditor."
Petula Ho Sik-ying, associate professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, says men have more dating options. "They can find a partner in Hong Kong or on the mainland, and their options are not limited by age." Hong Kong women are burdened by social norms and conventions, she adds. "For instance, can they stand marrying a man from the rural mainland? Also, [the social norm is such that] it's not right for them to marry somebody who earns less money than they do," Ho says.
Timothy Leung Yuk-ki, a professional consultant with the department of social work at Chinese University, says many women look out for would-be husbands with the best possible prospects without knowing what they really want from life. "Choosing to remain single when you can't find someone you really like is a kind of lifestyle," Leung says. "It is about choosing a way of life that best leads to one's happiness and it is an expression of self-respect.
"You can have a relationship with a cat or with nature. The problem is there are few alternative lifestyles [for women] in Hong Kong."
Vee Lai, a financial planning manager in her late 30s, says that as a churchgoer and daughter, she is enjoying life as best as she could. "At least I have more time for my family and friends. Nowadays, professional women are more independent and confident so they have higher expectations [of a romantic relationship]. At this stage, I feel I am better off being single."
Women in their 30s, single and happy . . .
"Because of my outgoing character, I have made plenty of commitments - to church, friends and colleagues. I have trained myself to juggle all these flexibly between work, so I guess my social life is okay. Of course, I do so at the expense of sleep."
A public relations officer
"I am taking [my life] easy, working hard in the office and helping others by doing charity work in my spare time. I have sponsored two children in Southeast Asia and I also help out on a local organic farm."
A sales and marketing officer
"I like water sports, such as wakeboarding. I am also a wine lover, and there's nothing better than tasting Italian and Hungarian wine. Enjoying good food and wine by the sea - that's what I call living."