As I see it

Maid in Hong Kong - Part 2

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 August, 2012, 6:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 September, 2012, 11:54am


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(This is a repost of Jason's popular original blog entry dated July 13, 2011)

When Loretta left the Philippines in the 90s, she didn’t have any training in cooking or house-keeping. But what she did have was an eight-year-old son she had to feed back in Quezon City.

Loretta got pregnant when she was 17 and soon thereafter her boyfriend disappeared. Left with no other choice, the single mother – a title she carried in her home town for eight years like a scarlet letter – turned her child over to his grandmother and headed to Hong Kong in 1986. In the past 25 years, she has served twelve local Chinese families across the city. The Chans, the Wongs and the Leungs, Loretta has seen it all. For a quarter of a century, she clean their apartments, eat in the kitchen and listen to the radio by herself in the maid’s quarter. Most of her employers treat her well enough, though none of them ever considers her one of their own. Not once do they invite her to eat with them, watch television with them, or simply have a chat with them. Loretta has heard that back in the days those Chinese maids with their signature queues – "amah" (媽姐) as they were called – often became their employers’ best friends and confidants. When it comes to Filipinas, however, a maid is always just a maid. She wonders if the complexion of her skin has something to do with it. Or is it a trust issue? She was told that Chinese people, especially the Cantonese, have problems trusting people, especially those who look and sound different from them.

Speaking of trust, she remembers the Kos. She worked for them for only nine months in the late 1980s. Mrs. Ko wouldn’t believe a word her maid said; she never did. That’s why Loretta kept Mr. Ko's little secret all to herself. Until that moment she had only heard about these “incidents” at church gatherings; they were merely urban legends that swirled around within the community. But that one Saturday afternoon in 1989 changed all that. While Mrs. Ko was out, her husband summoned Loretta to his bedroom. He patted gently on the bed and signaled her to get closer. The 20-year-old pretended that nothing happened and went back to her ironing in the kitchen. In all, it happened three more times before Mr. Ko finally gave up. Each time he warned her not to say anything to his wife or else he would terminate her contract. The incidents frightened Loretta, for she no longer felt safe sharing an apartment with a man she didn’t trust, and with a woman who didn’t trust her. But more so the incidents angered her. She wasn’t so much angry with Mr. Ko – he was just a sad, sexually frustrated man – as she was angry with herself and her country, the Maid Capital of the World whose citizens were to be humiliated and taken advantage of at will.

Loretta now works for an expat family. The Harrises treat their 50-year-old helper like an aunt and pay her $6,500 a month – the most she has made all this time in Hong Kong – plus a plane ticket and pocket money every year to visit her son in Manila. These days when Loretta is home alone, she would read a book or make small handicraft that she sells to other churchgoers on Sundays. She still chuckles when she thinks about some of the silly things that young maids would do to kill time when their bosses aren’t around: trying on their name brand clothes, putting on their expensive make-up and taking naps in their beds. The more daring ones would bring men home – men they meet in those sleazy bars on Lockhart Road – and have a jolly good time. All that, and so much more, observed by the veteran maid day after day for 25 years. New recruits who just arrived in the city would come to see Loretta, and the reigning matriarch would dispense the same advice: be patient. “If you let every little thing get to you, you won’t last a month in Hong Kong,” she would tell them before giving them a motherly hug.

Whenever Loretta looks in the mirror she is reminded of the long way she has come since her wayward teenage years. Three decades of hardship and loneliness chisel her face. Despite all the years she has spent in the city, Hong Kong people are still a mystery to her. Why is it that they have everything in life but none of them seem very happy? Back in the Philippines, people live from hand to mouth and yet she hears more laugher there than anywhere in Hong Kong. But Loretta adores Hong Kong, and above all she admires its inexhaustible energy and the people’s endless desire to live a better life. By contrast, Filipinos are all too quick to accept the status quo, like her son, now 33, who is barely scraping by in Manila and still requires his mother’s constant reminder to ask for more from life. If only the two peoples can balance each other out.

*                   *                    *

Anna hasn’t been in Hong Kong very long. The 23-year-old moved to the city less than two years ago. The bustling metropolis is a far cry from Aguso, the sleepy farming village in the province of Tarlac that she left behind, along with her father, two brothers and a fiancé named James. The young couple got engaged just weeks before she left the country. They knew the perils of a long-distance relationship, but they did it anyway. Nothing has to change, they thought. But everything did.

The spirited, college-educated Filipina remembers her first day in the city like it was just last week. Her mother, also a domestic helper in Hong Kong, picked her up from the airport – a blinding stadium of marble floor and steel beams – and took her to the employer’s home where they would both work. Anna was luckier than other Filipinas. Most of her friends, or “sisters” as they call each other, arrived in the dizzying city all by themselves, only to be greeted by some stranger sent by the agency. And the unlucky ones would get placed with a “terror employer” – that’s what they call abusive Chinese families that work their helpers like slaves. But not Anna; she was with her mom. As the Airport Express train quietly zoomed through the jungle of high rise apartment buildings, she actually felt lucky to be a second generation maid.

Every Filipina who becomes a foreign domestic worker does it for a reason. For Anna’s mother, it was a necessity after her husband lost his mobility – and his job as a tricycle driver – to a polio affliction. For young Anna, it was an opportunity to re-acquaint herself with a mother who left home when her daughter was just six years old. Anna had planned to stay in Hong Kong for only two years (the term of an employment contract), just long enough to get to know her mother and make a few extra bucks before she went home to James. And that’s how mother and daughter ended up working side-by-side, sharing a small air-conditionless room in a Midlevels apartment. Though it is good to have mom around, it isn’t always easy to be in each other’s face every day and be treated like a child all over again.

But Anna’s plans were shattered six months into her new job. Back home, James got into a motorcycle accident and went through multiple surgeries. After months of recuperation, he suddenly broke off the engagement. His change of heart might have something to do with his head injuries, the doctor said. Or was it another woman? Anna would never know, for she was thousands of miles away and couldn’t leave the city during the first 18 months of employment. But it doesn’t matter now. It is all in the past. “Life goes on and you must do something for yourself, Anna,” her mother would nag. “Anna, make as much money as you can and pay back your loans,” her mother would nag some more.

Yes, the loans – always the loans. Before moving to Hong Kong, Anna borrowed money to pay for her trip to Manila to get a work visa. All the people she had to pay just to get a piece of paper. She also bought new clothes and shoes for the move – even a maid ought to look good in Hong Kong, her friends told her. After James’ accident Anna took out a loan many times her monthly salary to pay for his surgeries and medication. Even now, every few months her cousins would need money for school and her uncle’s tricycle would require a repair. And so she takes out more loans. That’s why she doesn’t like going back home: too many relatives expecting too much handout. She wonders how they all got by before she had this job.

Anna now plans to renew her contract when it expires in the summer. There is no reason to go back to Aguso any more. There, people would pull her down like a ton of bricks, both financially and emotionally. “Life goes on and I must do something for myself,” she remembers her mother’s words. She wants to move to Hawaii one day and go back to school. “To do that, I need to make as much money as I can and pay back my loans,” she remembers those other words too. All that happened has made Anna realize what a wise woman her mother is. In time she also realizes that her mother has enormous grit, because wisdom alone is not enough to get through all those years working away from home, all by herself. Anna feels she has done what she came to Hong Kong to do. She finally knows her mother.

*                   *                    *

The profiles featured above are based on my interviews with two Filipinas who graciously agreed to have their stories told. During our conversations, their soft voices beat out detailed accounts of their hard lives. The stories are unique to Loretta and Anna, but they are also the stories of the 140,000 Filipinas working in Hong Kong. As such while each story is a portrait of one, it is a celebration of everyone. Their struggles, their dreams and their cheerful nature give the people unity, the sort of unity that makes them smile to each other on the streets and turns perfect strangers into instant friends. Their spirit is, and always will be, their greatest strength and most admirable quality.