Of books and stories

A mobile library for Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong

Of books and stories: A mobile library for Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong

Lulu set up a mobile library in 2012 to provide books for Indonesian domestic workers because the Hong Kong library doesn’t cater for their needs.

Towering above Victoria park sits the Hong Kong Central Library, Hong Kong’s largest and main library was built at a cost of HK$690 million. The Library’s collections count up to one fifth of the Hong Kong Public Libraries System, which is 2.3 million items out of the total 12.1 million items.

The arch-shaped doorway at the facade altitude of the Hong Kong Central Library symbolizes the “Gate to Knowledge”.

These gates to knowledge are only welcoming to English and Chinese speaking Hong Kongers. If you wish to rent out a book in Tagalog or Bahasa, you won’t be able to do so.

Lulu sits under the flyover just across the road, where two years ago she set up the “Bai Perpustakaan” a mobile library to provide books for those looking to read in Bahasa Indonesian.

Lulu alongside her mobile library, with the Hong Kong Central library visible in the background

Books can be rented for free and people are allowed to keep their books for up to two weeks. Donations are accepted and funds received to purchase new books. The most popular generes in Lulu’s library are motivation and religion.

“I set this up last year as many helpers weren’t able to get a library card and the library doesn’t have many books in Bahasa. My employer doesn’t live in Hong Kong so I wasn’t able to get (my employer) to sign permission for me to attain a library card.” This story isn’t uncommon. Many domestic workers have been unable to get library cards because some employers have refused to allow their to use their apartment as a proof of address, or employers are not available to sign the application form. The rules are different for other foreign workers in Hong Kong, who don’t need their employers to sign their application forms.

The enormous Hong Kong library houses millions of books, but few are accessible to domestic workers in Hong Kong.

Domestic workers are trying to improve their education but Hong Kong is failing to support them. The Hong Kong Central library has over 2.3 million titles, 750,000 of these are in English with the rest primarily in Chinese (out of the total 12.1 million items in the whole library system). The library doesn’t provide books in other languages, other than language learning material.

According to a library representative:

“We only serve Hong Kong’s two official languages: English and Chinese. We have language learning materials for international languages such as Spanish and French, but we wouldn’t have Spanish fiction, for example. We do have a few (7) books on reserve in Bahasa Indonesian, these can be requested but cannot be removed from the library. “

For Spanish and French speakers there thousands of options available, but for Bahasa Indonesian and Tagalog (Filipino) there are 53 and 7 titles respectively. Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers make up 98% of the city’s migrant domestic workforce of over 320,000. While there are just over 10,000 French migrant workers in Hong Kong, the numbers of Spanish migrant workers are even less than this. On top of the low number of Bahasa and Tagalog books, the available books are not available to take out of the library; making the HK library practically functionless for the city’s domestic workers.

Our thirst for knowledge isn’t quenched by what our passport says. On any given Sunday you will find at least 10 other mobile libraries like Lulu’s in the surrounds of Victoria park. The Hong Kong Public Libraries is “committed to promoting reading and encouraging the public to develop an interest in reading”. Are domestic workers not members of the Hong Kong public? This discrimination based on language is a shining example of how the Hong Kong government firmly keeps the domestic worker community as third class citizens. Education is one means in which a person can change the hand they are given in life. Deny workers that, and the status quo will remain. Hong Kong needs to do better and change the policy approach to domestic workers.

Lulu and friends busy working at their mobile library in Victoria Park

A Stories Beyond Borders story