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Then & now: paradise found

Indifferent Hong Kong gives migrant workers a taste of personal freedom that is unthinkable in their home nation, writes Jason Wordie

 

Almost unknown before 1997-98, the Indonesian migrant worker community has merged into the local landscape over the past 15 years. Now it's significantly larger than its Filipino equivalent.

Indonesian women moved to Hong Kong in droves after the collapse of Suharto's dictatorship in 1998. As in the Philippines, overseas remittances are a significant support system to sections of the Indonesian economy.

Obvious to any casual observer, numerous lesbian couples exist among their ranks and Hong Kong has become increasingly portrayed as a paradise for that community. But this situation should surprise no-one. All the factors that make for greater openness to "different" sexual relationships are present among Hong Kong's migrant worker communities. For many migrants, a new start is part of the motivation for leaving home in the first place. Constraints imposed by increasingly strict Muslim influences are removed, which means the societal brakes on acceptable behaviour in rural Java or Sumatra are released. Migrants also have more money, which offers increased personal freedom. And, as they are socially marginalised outsiders within the broader society, local norms matter little.

Millennia-old Chinese attitudes to homosexuality all come into play here. Historically, as long as males reproduced one's sexual proclivities mattered little. Silence and hypocrisy dictated the rest - and still largely do in that part of contemporary Hong Kong Chinese society not systemically infected by American-influenced Christian fundamentalist beliefs.

Similar historical trends existed among female Chinese migrant workers. For several decades, women from the Pearl River Delta moved to Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya in search of employment. On arrival, they formed themselves into sororities for mutual support.

Two distinct groups migrated. The Samshui women (from the area of the same name, at the confluence of the West, North and Pearl rivers) went to Singapore and Malaya as construction coolies: known as the "red head towels" due to their distinctive head-gear, these tough cookies lived frugal, now mostly forgotten lives on society's fringes. Many were lesbians for whom conventional marriage was abhorrent, and so they chose to get away and create new lives for themselves. The other group, generally from Shun Tak, mostly ended up as mah-jeh ("mother-sisters"), the famed "black-and-white" amahs who featured prominently in middle-class life in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya for decades.

While not all these women were lesbians, many were. From a Confucian perspective, a non-familial employee's personal life was of little concern, as long as it had no negative impact on her employers. And if the amahs were lesbians, then so much the better for their female employers: there was no chance that a husband might choose one as a concubine, or that teenage sons might get her pregnant.

The situation remains much the same today. The broader local culture remains largely indifferent to female Indonesian or Filipino migrant workers as individuals, except as sources of cheap domestic labour.

 

 

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