Band of brooders

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 May, 2006, 12:00am

WHAT IF THE writers of Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee had set their stories in Hong Kong? Chances are it would be a very different woman who comes to the aid of those families in distress. One who arrives by plane, speaks a foreign language in addition to English or Cantonese, has an army of dependents back home in her native country and juggles the childcare along with every other chore in the home from cooking and cleaning to nursing and housekeeping - and all without magical powers.

Poppins and McPhee would probably be out of a job in Hong Kong, out-numbered and undercut by the thousands of domestic helpers who work for little more than a tenth of the $32,000 monthly salary commanded by the modern-day nanny.

But the nanny does exist in Hong Kong, although in small numbers and in the homes of the rich and elite. Edith Lemardelee has been a nanny in Hong Kong for 12 years, arriving here with a French family after finishing university and spending a year as an au pair in England. She has so far worked for five families: expatriate Europeans and Americans and two wealthy local Chinese families. Most of her employers have been high-earning investment bankers. Lemardelee's present charge is an 11-year-old-girl whom she has been looking after for five years.

But Lemardelee isn't the stereotypical nanny: she lives in her own apartment, rather than the family home, and doesn't wear a uniform. And she earns far more than nannies of the past and can expect her salary to continue rising fast. 'I've seen salaries multiply by four in the past 10 years,' she says. 'A lot of girls come here with crazy ideas money-wise. They know people are on big salaries and they want a part of it.

'I think I'm worth the salary. I know exactly what I'm doing with a child. I will do everything for their well-being and development. I'm trained just for that. But I don't think it's fair when I look at the salaries of locals.

'Girls who come here have to be careful not to get too greedy or they'll put us out of jobs. People will look at the salary and say, 'Hold on. I could have a nanny, but it's not worth me going back to work if I pay this much.''

The big money is just one of the things Hongkongers can't understand, says Lemardelee. People also find it difficult to accept that someone would employ a nanny in Hong Kong. 'People are quite surprised when they meet me,' she says. 'They think I should be in banking or the service industry like hotels. The nanny is the last thing on their mind because it's so much cheaper [here] to get a helper.'

Lemardelee says she's one of about 30 nannies working in Hong Kong, most of whom know each other. The job here is easier than in many other places in the world because, like the Victorian families of old England, most employers who can afford a nanny also employ other help. This leaves Lemardelee to concentrate on the part of the job she likes: the childcare.

But she has had to overcome some obstacles. 'If you go to school, you're not a mum and you're not a helper. You don't know where to stand in Hong Kong because there are so few of us. It's a strange situation. The helpers don't understand how someone with no children like me can take care of children. But this is what I'm trained to do.'

Shirley Robinson of Rent-a-Mum, a Hong Kong nanny and babysitter agency, agrees that $32,000 a month for a 50-60-hour week is expensive, especially when compared to a domestic helper's wage, but she says the benefits are worth it. 'You get what you pay for,' says Robinson. 'It's quality not quantity that's important. It boils down to absolute peace of mind for the parents, the total assurance you're leaving your child in the best possible care with someone who knows what to do if something goes wrong.'

A nanny should be able to do everything a parent can, from organising the wardrobe to buying clothes, planning meals and charting the development milestones of a child, she says.

'More importantly, a nanny is trained to handle and talk to parents - parents who are stressed, controlling parents, nervous parents, parents who disagree with the way the nanny does things. Anyone can look after children, but to take care of children 12 hours a day and deal with parents is a different job.'

The idea of a nanny agency may seem out of place in modern post-handover Hong Kong - like a throwback to the colonial days. Rent-a-Mum was founded about 40 years ago to cater for families who wanted good English-speaking childcare.

Robinson took it over in the 1990s and now has about 70 to 80 employees on her books, many of whom are babysitters. She says she places about five nannies a year, mostly with expat families, although current clients include two Hong Kong actors and a tycoon.

Robinson says it's better to employ a part-time nanny than settle for a domestic helper - or even several helpers.

'I'd love all families to have nannies,' she says. 'Don't get me wrong. There are great domestic helpers who do their job very well, but they're not able to do the job of a professional nanny.'

Former teacher Debbie Mierczak says that's all very well, but the cost makes it prohibitive for most families. She says parents should take the responsibility of training helpers so that they become better educators of their children.

'I don't think a lot of parents realise the impact the helper has on their children,' Mierczak says. 'They're role models. They affect language skills, they affect a child's attitude towards and ability to communicate with adults. You wouldn't give a helper the keys to your brand new car if they'd never driven before. Yet you leave your most precious belongings in their care without training.'

Mierczak and her friend Julie McGuire, also a former teacher, are the women behind Hands On Training Workshops for Domestic Helpers - a company that teaches helpers how to play creatively, communicate with and understand children, and to enhance children's learning potential and develop their life skills.

'Nannies are great if you can afford them,' Mierczak says. 'But if you choose the right helper, she can become like an aunty, like the ones in the lovely extended families you get in Europe. It's lovely seeing families build up a relationship with this special person, making them part of the family.'

Lemardelee says nannies also get attached to the families and one of the hardest parts of the job is moving on and leaving the children - something she knows is inevitable. That time will come soon when her employer relocates to the US.

'It's the most difficult part of the job because you don't just leave a job, you leave the children,' she says.

No doubt Poppins and McPhee felt the same when their work was done. As for her future, Lemardelee says she doesn't plan to be a nanny all her life. Unlike the nanny in fiction or the past, the modern nanny doesn't stay unmarried, working with the same family for generations.

'I want to go back to France and run a bed and breakfast. Hopefully, I will have children. If I do, I won't be paying someone else to look after them. I'll do it myself. I just don't trust anyone else to do it. I have seen too many things go wrong.

'Also, I have seen the guilt women feel in leaving their children with someone else,' she says. 'I see things they don't see. I see their child's first step. I want to be there and see it with my own children.'