Hong Kong's Living Room

April 29, 2010 — Last week was the end of classes at my host university and final exams begin on Friday. The semester has seemed to fly by and it is hard to believe that it is nearly over. I very much enjoyed the opportunity this spring to teach Hong Kong undergraduates and to learn a bit about this city and its history from their perspective. After our exam review session on Monday my students presented me with a lovely thank you card that contained a collage of photos from the class and was signed by all of them. It was a wonderful gesture and the card will be one of my most prized souvenirs of my time here. The end of classes has also reminded me, sadly, that the end of my year in Hong Kong is not far away. I am certain that my remaining days here will pass quickly. Once I give my final exam on Friday I will leave for ten days in Vietnam. I return in mid-May to more administrative work and then a consultation visit in South India in mid-June. The end of my Fulbright assignment is on June 30th but I plan to do a bit more traveling in Asia before finally returning to the US in August.

On Sunday, the benefactor of the HK Fulbright program in general education, Po Chung, hosted a special dinner for our group of Fulbright scholars. Po is the retired CEO and co-founder of DHL Asia Pacific and is deeply committed to education in Hong Kong. He has given generously from his personal fortune to support educational projects like ours. His goal is to broaden the intellectual experience of undergraduates through a liberal arts curriculum in order to create a new generation of Hong Kong youth able to think critically and imaginatively. This is what business leaders here desire in their junior managers but often achieve only by hiring people educated overseas. Po is eager to turn Hong Kong into nothing less than the education hub of Asia, one to match its profile as a center of international finance. This is an ambitious goal but one that seems possible given this city’s many other achievements. Hong Kong definitely punches above its weight in the world arena.

Po’s dinner was held at a seafood restaurant on Lamma Island and so we had to take his boat from HK Island to get there. Our group met at the posh Aberdeen Marina Club to board the boat, but since I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to Aberdeen from Sha Tin I gave myself too much time and arrived early. On my way there I got off the MTR in Admiralty to transfer to the Aberdeen bus line. I noticed a sight that by now I have seen many times and which I realize is as distinctive to the Hong Kong experience as anything else here: namely, the presence on Sundays of thousands of women sitting outside in small groups throughout the city’s public spaces.

Every Sunday Hong Kong’s domestic helpers take over the city. Tens of thousands of women spend the afternoon sitting outside in the parks and sidewalks and along the pedestrian overpasses and subways. The most public spaces in the city are suddenly domesticated and transformed into thousands of private social clubs. These women sit together in small clusters—often inside makeshift cubicles assembled from oversized cardboard boxes—chatting, playing cards, doing each other’s hair and nails, and eating their picnic lunches (see below). It is a remarkable sight and one that the many guests who have visited me never fail to comment upon.

Domestic helpers (maids, nannies, cooks, etc.) comprise a substantial demographic subgroup in Hong Kong but one that is rarely seen in public, except on Sundays. Many middle class Hong Kong families maintain a live-in housekeeper who cleans house, prepares meals, shops for food, and tends to children (including dropping them off and picking them up at school). Most of these women are from the Philippines, but many are from Indonesia and Malaysia as well. A recent news article placed their numbers in Hong Kong at 271,000. A family can employ one of these women on monthly basis for a one-time fee of US $1200 and then $500 per month after that. This rate is set by law and for many Hong Kong families it is well within their budgets. To a family in which both parents work this is a low cost to keep a full-time housekeeper for an entire month. And while it may not seem like much of a salary in Hong Kong, it is substantially more than what many educated Filipinos, like teachers and nurses, can earn in month working in their own country.

So these women come to Hong Kong in search of better economic opportunities—indeed, that has always been the main motivation for most people who have come to HK throughout its history. Years ago, I first encountered contract laborers from the Philippines when I was in the navy and saw them working in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They are in Hong Kong too, but things are better for them here than in Saudi and some of the other Gulf States where their employers can shamefully exploit and abuse them with impunity. In Hong Kong they are well organized and keenly aware of their minimum pay rates and legal protections. They have networked among themselves extremely well and their proximity to Manila (less than two hours by plane and a relatively cheap airfare) helps them stay linked to their families.

In conversations with them one frequently hears heartbreaking stories of family separation. These young women are often the main earners for their families back in the Philippines and most of their wages are sent home as remittances. Some of them have small children living back home with grandparents or aunts and uncles. These mothers go without seeing their little ones for months at a time. Hong Kong law requires employers to give them extended leave during the Christmas holiday and many are able to go back more frequently, but only for short visits. Some of the women have husbands who, like them, are contract laborers in the Middle East (in Hong Kong much of the “men’s labor” like construction and road work is often done by mainland Chinese). It is a testament to the strength and endurance of Filipino family values—a phrase that admittedly is often more trite and hypocritical in its American usage—that they are able to carry on like this for years, albeit at great personal cost. Yet the prosperity and opportunity of Hong Kong is too good to pass up, and what appears merely to be cheap labor and, perhaps, exploitation here is often the best path to financial security somewhere else. Of course this is a story a million times told and one that resonates throughout history. It is the story of Irish laundresses in England, Bengali plantation hands in Fiji and Guyana, Chinese railroad workers and Mexican fruit pickers in the US, and Sikh policemen in Hong Kong and Singapore: well-worn paths of migration and globalization—before that latter word became a cliché—with all the attendant hope, sweat, and sacrifice.

I often see these women at the English-language Sunday mass at St. Benedict’s. Alas, Catholic parishes in Hong Kong sometimes reinforce the soft segregation between employer and servant that characterizes the rest of daily life. This is not intentional but rather a natural consequence of the language dynamic in this society. My parish has five masses during the weekend: four in Cantonese and one in English. The Cantonese masses are attended entirely by Chinese families while the congregation at the English mass is comprised mostly of Filipina maids along with a random assortment of Western and African expats. Since they are away from their loved ones in the Philippines, the maids use their parishes as a natural support system and a good place to network and socialize in addition to nourishing their spiritual lives.

The ubiquity of live-in servants in Hong Kong is such that many houses and apartments here (mine included) are even designed with the hired help in mind. Behind the kitchen one will usually find a small room the size of a walk-in closet with an even smaller (airline-sized) bathroom adjoining it. These spaces are the servant’s quarters and are meant only for sleeping and storage of a modest amount of personal effects. I use this space in my apartment for storage and it remains an uninhabited corner in a remote part of the house. I honestly can’t image anyone living in there. On Sunday, their day off, the women leave the house since they generally are not allowed guests and even if they were their rooms are too cramped to entertain visitors. Away from their employers’ homes they have nowhere of their own in which to meet. They could rent social halls or meet in restaurants but these expenses would dip into the remittances they send home and they are keen to economize in every way possible. So en masse they make Hong Kong’s streets and parks their temporary homes.

To describe these Sunday outings as an invasion is not too much of an exaggeration. The parks and promenades in the residential areas fill up quickly and soon the business districts—only a few MTR stops away—take up the overflow. In no time at all the sidewalks, atria, and pedestrian overpasses in Central and Wan Chai become as crowded on a Sunday afternoon as during the weekday rush hour; only instead of harried cubicle slaves rushing to and from work one sees the same spaces given over to people lounging around and enjoying the most relaxed and leisurely activities. This would be unimaginable in other financial epicenters, like Exchange Place in New York City or Canary Wharf in London, which become veritable ghost towns on the weekend. Yet in Hong Kong the maids descend on the public spaces almost like a force of nature. If it was only a handful of them they might be asked to leave, but who can enforce this upon 100,000 people all over town? They even set up camp inside the colonnades of the main courthouse and at other government buildings. The “no loitering” signs in English and Tagalog have no effect and, in any event, are never enforced. I must admit that nowhere in America have I seen the right to free assembly exercised in such a meaningful and regular way. In some sense this phenomenon seems to be the opposite of what occurs in many US towns and cities where suburban sprawl has done away with public spaces. In cases where urban planners create public gathering places in a deliberate attempt to build a sense of community, these projects often fall flat and the places remain unused by an increasingly individualistic and atomized American society.

Hong Kong, in stark contrast, witnesses those who spend the week cleaning other people’s homes suddenly transform the city center on Sunday into their very own living room, turning the most public of locations into their intimate and personal spaces. On this day one sees an entire community of people who normally toil in obscurity determined to enjoy their time off in public and to grasp the best quality of life that their limited circumstances can offer. Actually, the sight of the walkways of Central and the parks of Sha Tin on a Sunday afternoon makes more sense to me now that I have spent some time in the Philippines. These crowded spaces are no different than the waterfront promenade along Roxas Boulevard in Manila or the town squares that I walked through in Malapascua and Coron. It seems like every family in the Philippines goes out on the town for a weekend picnic and the Sunday outings in Hong Kong are meant to replicate this practice. The only difference is that here one only sees young women; there are no children, men, or elderly people. Sometimes Filipino pop-stars come to HK to give free open air-concerts (these events are usually sponsored by cell phone services with cheap rates to the Philippines). In fact, so demographically significant is this Filipino contingent that politicians in the old country actively court the HK expat voters since their absentee ballots can tip the balance in close elections. The dynamics of this community would be a wonderful topic for a study by a sociologist or geographer and would make for an interesting documentary: such a strong and vibrant community forming to liberate hundreds of thousands of young women from the otherwise sad and solitary life of a housekeeper living in a foreign country far away from her family and friends.

 Filipina maids enjoying their Sunday off in Central