United in fear
At last, something that binds us. Ask anyone - pro-China, pro-democracy, pro-business, pro-whatever - whether foreign domestic helpers should become citizens and you'll get an angry 'no'. I can't remember another issue that has so united the people, except maybe the Manila hostage crisis. That too involved Filipinos. A twist of fate, or does God indeed work in mysterious ways?
Unity through shared animosity. Who's to say how such unity should reflect itself in the mirror. But one thing is certain: Hongkongers are not ashamed. Ask anyone if prejudice or inequality is involved and you'll get that same angry 'no'.
I don't have a helper; I live alone, am self-employed, rent a flat, don't use public hospitals and have no children in Hong Kong schools. That means I cannot share Hongkongers' dread of the city being suddenly swamped by hordes of foreign maids: vanishing jobs, hospital beds and school places. I also cannot know what it feels like to harbour animosity towards someone who raises your children, cooks your food, walks your dog and cleans your toilet.
At the time of the hostage killings - when emotions ran high against Manila's bungling of the crisis - I wondered whether families felt awkward facing their Filipino maids, and vice versa. I now wonder how families co-exist with maids amid such an 'us against them' mentality on both sides.
The woman who cut my hair last week asked whose side I was on. I replied neither since my maid-less status made me a bystander. But I did recount to her the xenophobic views of a friend who described Filipinos as cockroaches. I had explained to this friend that a tsunami of invading maids was a myth because the maids were already here and bringing in families was a cumbersome exercise. But have you ever tried to prise open a clammed-up mind?
Maybe the Filipino maid who took the right of abode case to court should have been more mindful of local sensitivities. With public ill-will over the Manila killings still festering, maybe she should have given up her legal right to poke the people in the eye. Her first-round court victory, and that of another Filipino helper last week, has deepened the 'us against them' divide.
As passionate rule-of-law believers, Hongkongers should be championing the right of maids to have their day in court. But they are not. Civic Party leaders, who lent only half-hearted support to the maids, still found themselves being brutally punished by the people. Latest polls show their popularity has sunk. The Democratic Party, which brands itself as a defender of rights, shrewdly kept its mouth shut.
How should I react when an old friend - an otherwise reasonable man - says the judge who twice ruled in favour of foreign helpers should be fired? What should we make of Hongkongers - who otherwise detest mainland meddling in our affairs - clamouring for Beijing to override our highest court should it also rule in favour of the helpers?
No one knows if it's just mass hysteria or if we really do face an invasion of maids should they legally triumph. All we have is anecdotal evidence, not data. But if a community collectively backs something, rights and wrong are rendered meaningless.
Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV host. firstname.lastname@example.org