The morning before the tear gas

My Layover in Hong Kong on 9.28.2014


When we think about the events in Hong Kong on September 28 and after, these images immediately come to mind. The tear gas, the young people, the fight for democracy in the former British colony. The Umbrella Revolution.

What you probably didn't know about that day, however, is that it was a Sunday. And for me, this was very significant.

If you live or ever been to Hong Kong, then you know that Hong Kong is home to well over 300,000 domestic workers — mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Sundays are their days off, a day where you can see them in the streets eating and spending time with each other.

I was there that morning, on a 20-hour layover from Southeast Asia. My two friends and I decided to explore Hong Kong before our flight back to New York later that day. We arrived from Thailand the night before, and were too tired to walk in the urban heat. So we decided to explore the town via taxi.

There were two items on our list for our little excursion. First, we wanted to visit the area where the overseas Filipino workers gather every Sunday after church. I’ve had an interest in Filipino migration for quite some time for both work (as a graduate student) and for personal interest (as a Filipino American). If you're interested, some enlightening books on the topic include Rhacel Salazar Parrenas’ Servants of Globalization (2001) and Nicole Constable’s Maid to Order in Hong Kong (1997).

The second, was to see the protest that was being covered by the local and international news that week. We went out of general curiosity — it’s not everyday you can witness a global event happening in real time.

Without knowing it, however, we were going to see a different side of Hong Kong’s biggest news story of the week, one that didn't center on the politics between Hong Kong and mainland China. But rather, Hong Kong’s problematic relationship with its domestic worker population.

And this was an aspect of Hong Kong’s protests not widely covered in U.S. news.

If you’ve heard anything about domestic workers in Hong Kong, then you might be familiar with the cases of abuse, the bad working conditions, and long hours that domestic workers are forced to endure in Hong Kong. Like Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, the Indonesian domestic worker who was beaten and starved by her employer.

That is why it was refreshing to visit Statue Square and the HSBC Building that day, as I was able to see a different take on this narrative. There was a festival going on that day, and we saw performances by Filipina workers. It was nice seeing them have some fun.

Here’s a youtube clip I found of this stage:

But the reason why I bring this all up, is to show this photo when we arrived in Central to see the protest:

Although it is difficult to see, we saw a group of Filipinas potlucking outside, watching the protest from afar. You can see the police gathering in the back of the picture.

Here is a better picture of the police mobilizing:

As you can see, it was pretty calm when we got there. The police officers were blockading protesters from going inside the square. For obvious reasons, we weren't allowed to get closer.

In any case, I talked with this group of Filipinas for a bit, and as it turns out, they were just like any other Filipina aunties you would meet anywhere in the world. They were really nice, and even offered me some food.

I asked whether they would be participating in the protest, and they replied no — and later joked they would make sure to watch me if I decided to go in.

There was a reason why they responded to me this way, and it wasn’t because they didn’t know what was going on. Whether or not these protests lead to free elections in Hong Kong means very little to the Philippine and Indonesian domestic workers. They have no rights, can’t become permanent residents, and don’t have an official voice in a city that places discriminatory policies against them.

If it was any other day besides Sunday, I wouldn’t have met this group of ladies, and this issue wouldn’t have been brought to my attention.

Eventually we left the area, and then left Hong Kong that afternoon. It was only when we landed in Newark when we learned that the Umbrella Revolution was in full sway.

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