• Fri
  • Sep 19, 2014
  • Updated: 6:53am
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 2:38am

Hong Kong hooked on helpers

Michael Chugani says the shock of the latest maid abuse case will soon fade, but Hong Kong's addiction to helpers will continue

Shake my head in shocked disbelief - that was all I could do as the sickening details unfolded in court about how a couple so abused their Indonesian helper over a two-year period that she had multiple scars on her body.

Hot irons, bicycle chains and a paper cutter were some of the weapons Tai Chi-wai and wife Catherine Au Yuk-shan used to mutilate Kartika Puspitasari. The judge described the attacks as cruel and vicious and slapped the couple with lengthy jail terms.

How anyone aside from trained torturers and psychopaths can put a hot iron on another person, I don't know. But I do know that we'll soon forget about Tai and Au - dubbed Mr and Mrs Evil by some - until the next cruelty case hits the headlines.

It'll sting our conscience for a day or two but we'll again convince ourselves that such horrific cases are rare. It won't make us stop and ask ourselves why we have become such a maid-dependent society. Why can't we clean our own toilets, cook our own food and look after our children instead of dumping them into the arms of helpers?

Maybe I am not qualified to ask this question since I live alone in a serviced flat. But when I lived in the US, my ex-wife and I cleaned our two-storey house, cut the grass, shovelled the snow, cleared the roof gutters and cooked our meals by ourselves. And we both had full-time jobs. I still make my own meals and didn't have a maid even when I was not in a serviced flat.

But it seems every family in Hong Kong, whether they live in luxury homes or tiny cubicles, has a maid. Hong Kong has so many that all I see in Central on Sundays are foreign domestic helpers and mainland tourists. Often, these helpers have to sleep on the floor or share beds with the children they look after. I am waiting for a story to break that a family in a subdivided flat has hired a maid.

Having a maid enables couples to work. So goes the argument. But unless the woman has a high-paying job, why sacrifice the family life you can give your children for a measly salary that you must share with your helper?

I once received a reader e-mail from an Indonesian maid who told me the husband and wife she worked for so preferred playing with their mobile phones than with their child when they got home from work that the child took to her instead. This made the couple so jealous that they constantly scolded her.

Parents reading newspapers, talking on the phone or chatting with friends in restaurants while maids tend to their children are a common sight here.

It is bizarre that, every Sunday, the city is so visibly swamped with helpers, as if they have been let out of their cages for a day so that tourists can take pictures.

After the cruel couple was jailed this week, I heard a representative of a helpers' group reminding bosses on the radio that they had hired maids, not slaves. Is it even normal for a city of seven million to have nearly 300,000 foreign maids? That's about 4 per cent of our population.

We're hooked on maids. It's time we tried to wean ourselves off.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. mickchug@gmail.com

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stellapenasy
"But unless the woman has a high-paying job, why sacrifice the family life you can give your children for a measly salary that you must share with your helper?"
I really can't tell if this statement is intended to be a joke, but if not then I trust that you would gladly surrender your career to become a house husband if your woman earned more than you?
mercedes2233
Surely HK isn't the only society to have maids. Don't Filipinas work in the Middle East? And if possible, in Canada? Don't US citizens have Mexican or other Hispanic maids? The UK 'upstairs /downstairs' serving staff system is well-known although this is less prevalent now. Domestic help is a universal thing, so why should HK alone stop using them, regardless of what the parents do while the maids work?
If HK employers are consistently dreadful, the Filipinas and Indonesian young women should stop coming, and that could lead employers to think again about their attitudes. The prevalence of maids on Sundays may be proof that employment in HK isn't altogether bad.
johnyuan
You are misinformed on maids in US and likewise I doubt what you said about maids in all other countries as well. For US and Hong Kong employment of maids, you are comparing apple with orange. You have missed some important points as raised by the comments including mine.
......
In a free world, anybody can employ a maid but it needs to be done correctly to be right.
oasis
- its not that expensive versus the salary of the 2nd parent to hire a maid, especially if both are in professional services etc.
- once you have someone reporting into you its easy to abuse the help (incremental cost of asking for more work is very low). many people are used to squeezing every last drop of value from their maids (although working for a local firm might be like that, culturally....)
- although I must say I don't understand why some families are super strict / treat their helpers more harshly than they would a non-south east asian person (e.g. an ah-ma)
- many parents forget what an example it is for kids to see how you behave around the house. having a helper that gets reasonable down time = you help out = kid sees that they should help out too
bcghk
xps
TNC2013
I think there are many reasons for the addiction to having maids, with the author correctly pointing out several. I will add one or two more here.
One potential reason is that Chinese society for centuries had servants, and this desire has not died out. In fact, with more people entering the middle and upper classes, it has meant one thing: more people having the ability to also hire a maid, a privilege reserved for centuries by an exclusive, elite upper class.
Another potential reason for the "maid addiction" is that it allows people in Asian cities like Hong Kong and Taipei to feel even wealthier than they perhaps are. It must feel good to be able to cart one's maid out when they go to a restaurant with their kids, asking for an extra seat for the "help". I am sure in a restaurant or movie theater, those who have their maids with them are making a clear message that they are in a higher income bracket than those who are grabbing the menu themselves for themselves and their kids.
I am not sure if this tradition will continue or not. I expect it will for the foreseeable future. However, with China's middle class growing, it is possible that other Chinese societies in the region will see that families in mainland China are not joining in the maid-craze and therefore realize that a family can survive without hiring a person to cook and clean for them in their 2-room flat.
oasis
I don't think its a status symbol (it might have been...), and drawing connection w/ times long past is irrelevant, especially for this generation. But agree that growing up in a family w/ a helper makes you predisposed to having one yourself.
I think its largely the cost of living mismatch that makes maids seem soo inexpensive to HK'ers, and the salaries seem attractive to the helpers. If the cost of a helper starts at HKD 10k, you'll quickly see families weaning themselves off this help.
So its economics driving this.
oasis
Given w/ the region's fixation on real estate & how quickly this has become priced up, families might feel they can't do anything but to work as hard as possible. Makes for a society of unhappy people (who might take it out on their maids)
An expensive real estate policy (lets be real - if HK interest rates were ~7-8% you'd quickly find there's no shortage of housing - the shortage is sentiment) is not socially ideal.
johnyuan
A letter I received:
The greed for materialism is a major problem, and secondly, I believe the majority concept of doing domestic work is inferior, but whatever the reason causes this importing foreign maids to take over this job is definitely not the best care for the children.
Don´t we hear often enough, children are our future, what future? Whose future? All and all, people in general should start paying more respect to women staying home and run the household, take care of the family, the children, the job they do is not affordable to figure out in payment, they have been doing it for the love of their family, it is unconditional. Is it too much to ask, just a little more respect and express your appreciation? A bunch of flower on mother´s day, do they need it as a form of payment if it´s not from the heart?
blue
PCC really comes off as an out of touch moron in the comments today. No wonder he doesn't like Ed Snowden.

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