The Humble Sunday Homes Lining Asia’s Most Expensive Streets: Where Hong Kong’s domestic helpers reside on their day off.
On Sundays in Hong Kong, in the upscale Central district, the population seems to double in the streets as thousands of Filipino and Indonesian “helpers” as they are often called, set up camp, quite literally, on the streets, sidewalks, raised bridges, and other public spaces. It is the one day each week that over 350,000 foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, are free to spend as they please.
The women lay out lots made of deconstructed cardboard boxes and leave their shoes at the makeshift room’s edge. Others set up brightly colored tents for more privacy and extra shade. They bring salted pan-fried fish and rice, hot dogs, juice, boiled peanuts, and other snacks. One group lights birthday candles atop a sizable chocolate cake. Only some helpers are allowed to prepare these meals at their homes, so they make enough for the group and the others chip in.
Some of these women work 16 hour days in their employer’s home, six days a week. Sundays, in these cardboard and nylon cities, are their sanctuary — where women who share hometowns in the Philippines, an affinity for pop music, or a penchant for the same board game, become each other’s replacement families. Helpers from Indonesia tend to favor congregating in Causeway Bay, as opposed to Central, where Filipino helpers set up after church.
In front of the International Finance Center known as IFC 1, a group of domestic helpers begin unpacking a suitcase filled with high heels. The shoes are identical apart from half of them being a shinier silver and the other half, a muted gold. Around a dozen women proceed to select their size and slide into their new four-inch stilettos, and a street fashion show proceeds.
The enormous white traffic arrows painted underfoot are the runway, with designated spots for turns, poses and intersecting points. Youtube videos of New York City fashion shows are the guides, and smartphones are the camera of choice. The setting feels strangely appropriate, with a glamorous yet gritty cityscape for a background and a wide, carless street lined with signage for Tiffany & Co., Cartier, and Giorgio Armani - none of which are being showcased today.
On the same city block another group in cut-off shorts and pink and red T-shirts perfects their makeup before taking their urban stage. These ladies are performing a choreographed dance, as are numerous other groups downtown today. The pink crew is dancing to 90’s Pop, while the slightly edgier crew up the street moves in sync to Rihanna’s “Rude Boy”. One noticeably modest crew wearing matching long sleeve T’s and ankle length black skirts performs a traditional Filipino dance.
There seem to be designated stretches of road for those who would simply like to socialize, play cards, and potluck and those who want a bit of alcohol in their Fanta. Some industrious women sell home-made Filipino snacks or set up services like make-shift nail salons. Now and then male immigrants, predominantly young Indian men, come by with goods for sale — anything from jewelry to a pack of cigarettes to smartphone cables.
Some women, like Desiree Olez, age 41, prefer to use Sundays to learn new skills. The Philippine Consulate offers three hours of free courses on Sunday mornings, things like English classes, weaving, personal accounting, etc. meant to help domestic workers with alternative employment options when they return to the Philippines.
Desiree, who is spending her afternoon weaving plastic fabric into a belt, says she is anxious to return to her 12-year-old daughter at home in the Philippines.
“I am happy to learn these skills so that when I go home to the Philippines I can make belts, bags, and other handmade things. I will go home as soon as I have saved enough money to start my own business. That is my dream, it’s why I came to work abroad.”
An older helper named Jody has been working for Hong Kong Families since 1992, and unlike Desiree, Jody’s pull towards home has weakened some over the years.
“I still have family in the Philippines, but I have been a widow for 12 years now and we didn’t have kids, so I don’t have much of a reason to go back, but I probably will someday, hopefully. I still feel homesick some days.” I ask Jody if she now feels that she has a family here in Hong Kong, “Yes, I do” she replies, “only on Sundays”.
Florelee Viro has been in Hong Kong for two years now. She left the Philippines when her son was four and her daughter was only two.
“It is sometimes painful to be away from them,” says Viro, “but it helps that I am able to see them on the internet.” Viro and other helpers say that being able to communicate so frequently is what makes the distance bearable.
Jody, who has been in Hong Kong for over two decades, relied on letters for many years until Skype was available to her. Whatsapp, Facebook, and Facetime are among other favorites.
The urge to work abroad is propelled by the substantial salary gap. The minimum monthly salary for domestic helpers in Hong Kong is 4,310 Hong Kong dollars (555 USD), whereas in the Philippines, similar employment earns around 500 Hong Kong dollars (65 USD) per month.
Groups like Amnesty International have criticized agencies that bring women to Hong Kong for implementing hefty arrangement and often questionable “training” fees that sometimes take months to pay back. In Hong Kong, the fee is limited to half a month’s salary, but workers say this law is still circumvented by some agencies. Most of the younger women I spoke with came to Hong Kong via a connection: godmothers, sisters, cousins, etc. who are employed domestic helpers.
In Hong Kong, foreign domestic helpers are required by law to live with their employer. Most of the women I speak to do not have their own rooms, rather a pull-out or trundle bed that does not take up valuable space during the day.
“I have no personal space,” says a young helper named Sheng who just arrived a month prior, “here in my tent on the street I am able to zip the door, which I like.”
Domestic helpers have been fighting to change the live-in rule since it was implemented in 2003, arguing that it enables abuse, as was the case with Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, whose severe abuse made international headlines in 2014. Hong Kong courts maintain that the rule keeps domestic helpers from attempting to take part-time work from permanent residents.
Until the women fighting to change this law make headway, Hong Kong’s most expensive and convenient streets, covered walkways, and parks will remain the Sunday dwellings of the women who clean the homes, and care for the children, of Hong Kong’s elite.