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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

Domestic helpers clean up Hong Kong’s countryside on their days off, one trail at a time

Sacrificing Sunday, their only weekly day off, for the good of Hong Kong, helpers - joined by some residents - walk the city’s trails, picking up litter as they go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 December, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 5:50pm

Just like any domestic helper in Hong Kong, Armeni Sujayani gets only one day off a week. But you won’t find her putting her feet up on this precious day of rest or heading into the city’s urban heart as many of her compatriots do.

Sujayani, a 38-year-old from Indonesia, spends her Sundays hiking for hours on Hong Kong’s extensive network of trails. Recently, she made her weekly outing even harder work: by picking up litter left on the trails by others.

She is part of a group of more than 60 people – mostly domestic helpers, but also locals and expats – who call themselves “Clean Up Hong Kong’s Trails” . Formed at the end of October, the volunteers have cleaned the entire 100 kilometre MacLehose Trail from Sai Kung to Yuen Long over three Sundays, picking up a total of about 150 plastic bags of rubbish.

“I want to set an example to my fellow hikers to keep the trail clean and pick up whatever litter they can,” says Sujayani, who has been working in Hong Kong since 2006 and last year completed her first Oxfam Trailwalker. “You don’t have to be super fit – everyone can join the trail cleanup.”

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The initiative was started by Rob Hayes, a hiking enthusiast and resident of O Tau Village in Sai Kung. Hayes, an Australian native who moved to Hong Kong nine years ago, had been thinking for a while about cleaning up the MacLehose Trail in one day.

“I love the outdoors and spend as much time as possible hiking on our beautiful local trails. One of the things that spoils this experience is rubbish left on the trails,” says Hayes, who develops ePaper technology products for a multinational company and was formerly a professor at South China Normal University in Guangzhou. “It irritates me that something that’s close to perfection isn’t as good as it could be.”

His initial idea was to get 20 like-minded people, split into 10 pairs, each cleaning up one of the MacLehose’s 10 stages. He posted the idea on social media hoping to recruit volunteers.

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“I had a lot of encouragement but very few people saying, ‘yes, I’m definitely in’,” says Hayes. “I’d almost given up on the idea as there was no real interest from people.”

Then, Hayes’ daughter, a university student, connected him with her friend Liza Avelino, a regular hiker. Avelino thought Hayes’ idea was “really cool” and said she would have about 50 or 60 friends who would like to participate.

“At that point I almost fell over because I went from thinking, ‘I’m not going to get the 20 people I need’, to ‘What am I going to do with all these people’?” Hayes says.

It turns out every single person was needed for the inaugural cleanup on October 23 that started at 8.30am. A total of 68 people (including a three-year-old) divided themselves into seven teams and cleaned up eight MacLehose stages: three (Pak Tam Au, Sai Kung Country Park) to 10 (Po Leung Kuk Jockey Club Tai Tong Campsite, Yuen Long). (Stage one is actually just road, and stage two was being cleaned up by a hiking group the day before.) Each group took about nine hours to complete their assigned stage.

“These women are really quite inspirational. I had no idea until this cleanup that there are a lot of domestic helpers who are actually really keen and passionate trail walkers, and on Sundays, their day off, that’s what they do – just like other Hong Kong people who are into trail walking,” Hayes says.

“They are really into the trail cleanup; really thorough in the way they clean. They really want to do something for Hong Kong. And the camaraderie between them when they’re doing it is really humbling to watch.”

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Avelino, 45, is a seasoned hiker herself, having completed two Trailwalkers, summited the 3,180-metre Mount Yarigatake in Japan and Mount Kinabalu (4,095m) in Malaysia, and trekked to an elevation of more than 5,300m in the Himalayas. She has been working as a domestic helper in Hong Kong for 20 years and took up hiking in 2006 following encouragement from her then-employer, who told her hanging out at Statue Square in Central on Sundays was “degrading”.

Impressed by Hayes’ cleanup idea, Avelino easily rounded up volunteers through domestic helper friends, many of whom led their own hiking groups, such as Filipina Extreme Hikers and Eggstremers.

Plastic bottles and wet tissues were the most commonly picked up litter, most often thrown into the greenery on either side of the trail. Avelino and friends painstakingly retrieved these with their hands. The women tie a few bin bags in a row along a long bamboo stick and balanced the stick on their shoulders to carry them out of there. About every 500 metres they would stop and rest. They took turns to carry the load until they found a dustbin to empty the rubbish into.

Was it very hard work? “When you’re happy to do what you do, it isn’t,” Avelino says. “Everyone was happy to volunteer for the cleanup. And for us Filipinas, we love walking; it’s part of our childhood. Once you hit the trails and see the beautiful scenery, it motivates you and you forget that you’re tired.”

On November 27, the group had their second cleanup event. About 10 people cleaned up a 6km stretch from the East Dam to Sai Wan in Sai Kung Country Park, part of MacLehose Trail stage two.

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The next cleanup event is planned for December 18, from Pak Tam Au (end of MacLehose Trail stage two) to Sai Wan Pavilion.

Avelino says the group plans to do one cleanup event a month. “We want to clean all the major trails,” she says.

Hikers can help keep the trails clean on their own, Avelino says, by taking a rubbish bag along while hiking and picking up any litter along the way. Also, reduce the use of disposable plastic bottles by using a reusable hydration bladder to carry water, and take a wet towel instead of using wet tissues to freshen up.

If you would like to join Hayes, Avelino and friends, you are more than welcome to. Details can be found at cleanuphktrails.org, through the Facebook group (search for “Clean Up Hong Kong Trails”) or by e-mailing Hayes at hayes.rob04@gmail.com.