30 June 2011

Maid in Hong Kong - Part 1 女傭在港-上卷


Few symbols of colonialism are more universally recognized than the live-in maid. From the British trading post in Bombay to the cotton plantation in Mississippi, images abound of the olive-skinned domestic worker buzzing around the house, cooking, cleaning, ironing and bringing ice cold lemonade to her masters who keep grumbling about the summer heat. It is ironic that, for a city that cowered under colonial rule for a century and a half, Hong Kong should have the highest number of maids per capita in Asia. In our city of contradictions, neither a modest income nor a shoebox apartment is an obstacle for local families to hire a domestic helper and to free themselves from chores and errands.

"Yes, mistress?"



On any given Sunday or public holiday, migrant domestic workers carpet every inch of open space in Central and Causeway Bay. They turn parks and footbridges into camping sites with cardboard boxes as their walls and opened umbrellas as their roofs. They play cards, cut hair, sell handicraft and practice complicated dance routines for upcoming talent contests. It is one of those Hong Kong phenomena that charms tourists and fascinates newcomers. Local citizens, on the other hand, have grown so used to the weekly nuisance that they no longer see it or hear it...
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Read the rest of this article in No City for Slow Men, published by Blacksmith Books, available at major bookstores in in Hong Kong and at Blacksmith Books.


45 comments:

  1. Couldnt agree more.... its certainly a by-product of a capitalism society... and yet very few people had tried to understand how these domestic helpers are feeling. Reminded me of 謝安琪's song 菲情歌...

    SC

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  2. Jason,

    Thanks for writing: Maid in Hong Kong - Part 1. Already looking forward to Part 2.

    Many years before the influx of first batch of migrant workers from Philippines to work as maids ( domestic helpers ) in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong expat and affluent local Chinese families had already kept local Chinese live-in maids (Amah).

    Unlike their first overseas foreign Filipino counterparts, who were usually young to middle-age, they were usually senior or aged Chinese spinsters ( Ma Chae ) who kept a well groomed and combed drop-down long plaited hair and wore traditional Chinese dress uniforms provided by their employers - of white blouse and black trousers. Besides daily household chores, some were tasked as child carers only called Nai Ma - literally means a breast feeding mother ( although most do not provide the services of actual breast milk feeding any longer ). These so-called household nannies were looked upon as members of family who would voluntarily spend and dedicate their life-long service to bring up the employers' children whom they fondly called them as young masters ( tai Koon, tai siu chae etc. ). Their employers, in return, would also take full care of them till death. Such is the trust and good relationships between master and servant. An example is - late Hong Kong Canto Pop singer Leslie Cheung who was brought up by such a Chinese nanny whom he had expressed his open affection for her at concerts. With time past, these icons of local maid have almost vanished in the local scene, while most are now replaced by foreign ones from Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, India and Srilanka.

    Maids are precious in Hong Kong society, especially when our population is ageing; and for families who need to work and could not spend time to take care of their young children.

    I had kept two Filipino maids and one Indonesia maid in the past for almost 15 years - as caregivers to my aged mother who left us over one and the half years ago.

    One correction to your article that foreign domestic maids are entitled to home leave with paid return flights to their home country of origin after completion of their standard work contracts with employers for three years and not after one year.

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  3. Hi Jason,

    Just want to let you know that the second comment posting came from your usual blog follower, Martie. Sorry that I forgot to pen my name on the comment.

    Martie

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  4. Thanks, Martie, for the very informative comment. I thought about including in the article a comparison with "Amah" but I figured that would detract from the article rather than enrich it. It would, however, be an interesting topic for another day.

    Cheers,

    Jason

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  5. I like this piece. Its true, we never pay attention to the maids and never question what they have to endure in working for us. Its definitely a big social study.

    K.C.

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  6. Thanks, SC and K.C., I am very exciting about writing Part 2!!

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  7. Very interesting article and I think you could do a whole chapter and verse on the gong hai (港孩) phenomenon - I could help you with some fantastic examples witnessed as a teacher, especially from working in Kowloon and now on the Island - the difference is very marked. Sometims feel like I am solely responsible for teaching the children of HK some basic manners!

    Lisa

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  8. Hi Jason,
    There is a whole book on this topic called "Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers by Nicole Constable (Nov 2007)." It documents the plethora of abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, verbal etc) that these women face daily but of course they say " they are like family." I personally disagree "It is one of those Hong Kong phenomena that charm tourists and fascinate newcomers." I was personally deeply disgusted by the maid inequality and I likened it to the Jim Crow South/modern day slavery. My academic friends actually hate HK for the maid issue alone! I volunteered to visit the indigent elderly in HK and there were was this one Indonesian maid that worked 7 days a week and only got 3 hours off on Sunday. If that isn't slavery- what is?
    Many of the Filipino maids have BAs actually and fight back which is why they are recruiting the more "docile" Indonesian workers.
    I totally agree that many HK kids are simply brats that treat everyone like their servants. Also I think cheating is a pretty rampant thing for the HK students since they go to these educational institutes that often check and do their essays for them. I do think HK students are "book smart" via tutors though. My husband often told me that the HK students are really not smart, just "trained" well to get good grades on local and international tests.
    I often wonder do HK parents do any parenting at all? They work all day, send their kids to educational institutes and do not even do basic housework in their matchbox sized apt. This in turn sets the HK kids up as lazy academic students and when they come to the US ; many of them get caught plagiarizing wikipedia. In general I would say that Hong Kong and Chinese students have one of the WORST reputations on american college campus's for 1) over aggressiveness/competitiveness 2) group cheating 3) plagiarizing and 4) disrespectful/elitist. Their sense of entitlement is so funny but again it links back to the domestic workers.
    JB

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  9. As i was reading it, it gives me a glimpse of my experience. Its so true, some employers are very generous and some are really mean to the extent they'll hurt their helper.

    Len

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  10. Thanks, JB, for the book recommendation. I will keep an eye out for it.

    The "Hong Kong phenomenon" I referred to was the fact that domestic helpers take over Central and Causeway Bay every Sunday and turn the areas into street carnivals. That's what tourists and newcomers find charming and fascinating.

    Based on Lisa's comment as well as yours, it does look like the topic of "gong hai" will make an interesting article in the future!

    Cheers,

    Jason

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  11. When I first arrived to HK, I was indeed fascinated by the Sunday crowds, unique phenomenon, and honestly it's for the spirit to see how happy they can be simply to have the day off and spend time with their friends.

    My second though was how smart the 'helper' concept is in Hong Kong. Coming from North America, we see (tens of?) thousands of Mexicans serving Americans the same way, but they are forced to enter the country illegally, without basic rights or entitlements, not documented or controlled, and living in fear.

    The Hong Kong way allows for basic human rights as well as diplomacy between the countries.

    I don't know if this comment reflects the strength of HK law or weakness of US policy, but it is the same concept, just managed very differently.

    -SM

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  12. http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/Hong-Xia/135325939874906

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  13. Thanks Jason,
    I really enjoy your writing. I hope one day you can write about the educational system in HK including the "star tutors," institutes and local/international school students. I am curious do you think there can be true creativity in a route system of learning? That could be your next book!
    happy July 4,
    JB

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  14. Dear Jason,

    First off, Wow. I have to say this was quite a powerful piece on the whole issue with maids in HK. I think your data was quite useful and helpful in putting things into perspective. Having a dark complexion myself, I often get mistaken as a Filipino, and sometimes I experience some of the mistreatment that these maids must experience on a regular basis.

    I do agree with you on the social effect of having maids in almost every household. And so I am left wondering if the benefit of having maids in HK outweighs the cost of having one… guess we will find out soon when these dysfunctional, and over reliant kids in HK grows up in few years.

    Thanks again for the lovely article!

    AB

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  15. Thanks, AB. Stay tuned for Part 2!

    Jason

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  16. Jason,

    Awesome writing from you as usual. But brilliant as it is, I think it is a very sad story. Are you going to capture more of their emotional plight in your Part 2?

    Your description is literally a photo taken at the scene. It is so very true, and sad, if you witness their conditions during the weekends, their weathering everything including the scorching sun or the battling rain, and, worst of all, the populace’s callous and almost despising gaze (those viewers are despicable themselves). When all they are doing is to help and serve our society / families and to earn the bread for their own families. It is little wonder that so many have “rebelled” in recent days by maltreating the babies / kids of Chinese families (not that I am condoning those acts). Are we bringing our own retribution upon ourselves?

    As for the return ticket, do they get it once a year or only once every 3 years? I think to a lot of them, and certainly to the ones I’ve seen, having to leave their family is the most painful of all. This is probably the only thing in Hong Kong which is under-priced. Grossly mispriced as you said certainly, but we are talking grossly uneven bargaining power here. You description is hilarious, and I nearly burst out laughing much as I don’t want to, “hold a fellow human being in captivity”. And the wage differential between what they get in HK and Philippines is abysmal. The helper who helped our family certainly isn’t earning millions, but at least a decent pay for a domestic helper, which was absolutely necessary at one stage as her mom was critically ill. It would break her bank to get adequate treatment and she would never be able to afford it had she been working in Philippines. Apart from the monthly pay, my dad and I gave her extra money to help her with the medical expenses. You know I understand the meaning of hospitalization and medical bills far too well. And it was just earlier on this year when she herself has taken terribly ill and has to be hospitalized in HK. Eventually she wanted so badly to go back to Philippines for treatment and my family released her for that period of time. Thought my parents footed part or all of her bill as she was so close to our family. She was there in Sydney to help look after me when I was sick myself.

    [To be cont'd]

    Christine

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  17. And I dearly hope that by forcing a ridiculous law through Legco is not going to licence the people to work their maids harder to make up for the difference as you penned.

    As for the “gong hai”, they are absolute brats. I have seen enough of them, but sometimes I question myself, am I one of them? I certainly hope not though for a long time after my illness in Sydney I had to rely on my helper and my family to attend to the most basic errands for me because I just couldn’t manage. Not because I don’t want to.

    Your closing paragraph is a “beautiful”, and far too accurate, portrayal of our society. We certainly should look into that mirror often to alert us to do better, and that hopefully one day we can eradicate the arrogance and selfishness beaming back at us from the mirror.

    Christine

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  18. Thanks, Christine.

    It is heart-warming to hear that your family treated your helper with kindness and dignity. With rampant corruption at all levels of society in the Philippines, no doubt a big chunk of her "medical bills" has gone to bribe doctors and hospital staff to get priority in treatment. And there wasn't much anyone could do about it. It is a sad fact of life in the Philippines. But I do help that your (ex-)helper is doing better these days.

    Thanks also for picking up on the conclusion. It really did capture how I felt and I was quite happy with it.

    Cheers,

    Jason

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  19. I just happened to stumble across your blog.

    Brilliantly written article Jason. Very well observed and interesting topic.

    Looking forward to reading more of your articles.

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  20. Thanks, Kat, and welcome. Do check back in often!

    Jason

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  21. rita veronica leungJuly 16, 2011 at 1:59 AM

    shameful of those who dont want to pay the extra $160 which is only enough for 2 tickets to the cinema or 12 to 15 packs of condoms
    PS: not 3D for tickets
    May God bless their "GREED"

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  22. Thanks for writing such an insightful article. Please do consider expanding on the gong hai topic.
    As a child growing up in HK, our family also hired a Filipino maid. But with grandparents playing an active role, I never felt that I was "raised" by the maid.
    As most of our friends(both in HK and the US) have started families in recent years, we are seeing that most of our HK friends have "one maid per child". I find myself wondering how the kids are faring when they spend the majority of their waking hours with a paid caregiver instead of with a parent or even a grandparent. Having become a mother myself, I now realize that "quantity" time is often just as important as "quality time". My son asks me moral and philosophical questions at the oddest moments during the day and I certainly wouldn't want a paid caregiver answering him, no matter how loving and responsible she is!

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  23. Thanks, Elaine. Its good to hear from an employers point of view. Read Part 2 and let me know what you think.

    Jason

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  24. Well done for writing this Jason. The rights of the domestic worker in Hong Kong is disgracefully under valued.

    I grew up as a 'spoiled' child in this type of household. As a child from a young age i battled with early depression because of this living arrangement. The child suffers as they do not understand the value of simple tasks and a sense of achievement in doing your chores and being rewarded for it. When you are given everything in life it leaves no room for appreciation. Furthermore, the maid culture has led to parents assuming an active social life to the detriment of their children.

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  25. Even I am a professor in one of the top Universities of Hong Kong, I feel I am treated like a slave. That is the life in Hong Kong, interesting?

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  26. The topmost pic of the maid offering the owner of the house something is like so good. Work should be done like irrespective of what the work is about.

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  27. It's very interesting that there are a few posts here that start bashing Hong Kong/ Chinese students, and tie it back to the live-in maids as a reason. And it's also interesting that quite a few people here commented as Westerners and insult Hong Kong as being backward or whatnot.

    As a Hong Kong/ Chinese student, I personally feel quite offended by these comments, though I think the article is an excellent piece of writing

    Perhaps, the only thing I would like to add right now, is that some of you might like to consider all of this from an Oriental perspective, or at least try to be open-minded about it.

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    Replies
    1. Well...who cares about your perspective? Nobody should be open minded about slavery and spoiled Chinese kids. My fiancee was a domestic helper in HK and what I heard about the treatment of Filipinas over there really surprised me.I live in the U.S. and we are always puzzled when people from HK come here and their kids cannot even come close to doing the things American kids can do. It is very strange.

      Delete
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    ReplyDelete
  29. No one demands or forces any Philippine person to come to Hong Kong to work as a maid, the decision is entirely their own and a result of their own governments inability to provide them work within their own country. When they come here, they enter into another families life and in MANY cases work well with a single family for many years; my own maids have been with me for almost 10 years. HOWEVER, there is another side to this story, in recent years Filipino maids have become sneaky and demanding and the amount of lying is ridiculous; I recently hired a new maid to replace one who is leaving the house, within two weeks she was lying to my face and completely lazy - so much so the other two maids reported her to me; she was fired. Hong Kong families provide a job to these people, but it is not a free service - maids need to work, they need to be trustworthy and they need to be honest; another friends maid of 19 years was recently imprisoned for stealing alnost USD100k worth of watches from the elderly father (87yrs); this maid lied until the end and is now serving 2 years in prison. The endless stories of maids abusing their position, of lying and cheating has become rampant recently. I completely agree we can all clean our own homes, but when we provide a job and security, then we expect to get what we pay for. Filipino maids seem to want to be paid for doing nothing ... other than lie!

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    Replies
    1. Wait for my reply until I finish my article about your comment!

      Delete
    2. I'm both sad and happy reading all these. Being one of the Filipino maids here in Hong Kong I get to experience all of the above. When you say some are demanding maybe because we get a little education to know whats our rights. When you say we lied maybe because when we say the truth you wouldnt believe it or rather you wouldnt accept our explanation. Yes we do a lil white lies sometimes to protect us from being shouted and you for being judgemental. I always say that no matter how bad the person is and how badly they treated me I still always find good in them and give my sweetest smile that sometimes they almost hate me just because I still smiled back at them. I always believe that no matter how low you look at us being a maid and a Filipino I always think we Filipinos are leaving something you dont have and that is sharing our smiles, laugher and some love. Try to always look at the positive side. Some hate us maybe because they are frustrated of being not married to one of us. We are all the same in the eyes of GOD. Why not try be a lil nice sometimes and Im sure that sometimes will become often and turn u into human again. Remember that sometimes they way you treated us will always comes back to you maybe not us (helper) but some other people u been hating too. Treat us they way you expecting us to treat you. One more advice please dont let your maids starve because thats when they can think of something you wouldnt like us to do.

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    3. Its really sad reading your comment about generalizing that the Filipino maid being paid doing nothing at all.They came here to work and earn income and they doing just that..Think..for a moment ...what you want others do to you,you must do to them also ..you know the golden rule?...If you treat your maid well,they will treat you 3x more better..

      Delete
  30. Most Maid Country nationals just wanna do nothing except for non stop lying to get pays (and citizenship, too)!!!

    Benni

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    Replies
    1. Benni, your statement will be more agreeable by replacing the words "most" with "many... in Hong Kong".

      Delete
  31. I like YOUR (Jason's) article and agree with it 100%. It's really close to my heart. And I feel saddened, or disgusted by Benni above and Peaker-On-Line.

    Tiki

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  32. Eventually there's someone brave enough to speak up for us and tell the truth to the world! Bravo Peaker On-Line and Benni!!!

    There are nothing more disgusting than liars and cheaters like them! oh... maybe the hypocrites too.

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  33. Peaker On-Line has issues!!!

    Lisa

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  34. Sobs. Has this arrogant chap had a bad experience with a maid? Feel sorry for anyone who works for him, and particularly if he pays his girls the shameful, low going rate.

    Dom

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  35. Absolutely agree Jason. Take it from someone who lives in the Philippines

    Marlyn

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  36. There's a lot of barely hidden racism in Hong Kong. It's very sad.

    Stephen

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  37. Disgusting racism in Hong Kong.

    TMN

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  38. Mr Peaker, by the same token, nobody forces you to hire a domestic worker from the Philippines or elsewhere. Go wash your own dirty linen and maybe that would teach you humility and respect for your fellow human beings. You are a sad person.

    Daisy

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  39. That would be a great chance for them, seems they have enjoyed a lot there.

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  40. Hi Jason. I was researching on my paper discussing how foreign domestic workers are being systematically exploited and discriminated against in Hong Kong, then I came across you online article. I have to say I am really really impressed by your work and your keen observation on the issues that are happening in this lovely home of ours.

    I was so surprised when I found out you are a practicing lawyer, because there are so many lawyers that are totally disconnected with the real world and living in their own wonderland, and you are not one of them. I myself is also a law student, though I am more interested in socio-legal study and social justice than practicing as lawyer, and making an impact and raising awareness like what you are doing now is exactly what I want to do in the future.

    Thank you for the inspiration, hope I can talk to you again.

    Cheers,
    Kathleen.

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