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Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

British director seeks funding for film about choir of Hong Kong domestic helpers who will perform at Clockenflap

Project will follow choir of domestic helpers' journey to Clockenflap show

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 September, 2016, 3:25pm

A choir of Hong Kong domestic helpers who get together to sing about the anguish of leaving their children behind in their home countries could take their songs to the world, if a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign hits the right note.

Those involved hope to raise US$80,000 from the online campaign, which launches on Monday. It will go towards the US$250,000 needed to produce The Helper, a feature-length film director Joanna Bowers and producer Tony Verb hope to have submitted to festivals such as Sundance and Toronto next year.

Members of the Unsung Heroes choir, who captured the public's hearts last year with viral video performance of original song I Wish I Could Kiss You Goodnight, will be shown in the film preparing for their performance at this year's Clockenflap, the city's premiere music festival.

"I want to show the public that these people aren't just household appliances," said British filmmaker Bowers.

Watch: Unsung Heroes' song I Wish I could Kiss You Goodnight, viewed over 5,000 times

The conviction earlier this year of the employer of an abused Indonesian maid, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, brought global attention to the vulnerable existence of migrant women in Hong Kong.

Around 300,000 domestic helpers work here, of whom 64 per cent are mothers who left their children back home to raise money for their schooling.

The choir was set up last year by a music teacher and single mother, Jane Engelmann, who will lead the choir at Clockenflap alongside Grammy award winning musician Sid Sidwell.

"The love and the loyalty domestic helpers have shown me when they've had to give up so much themselves inspired me to write the song," Engelmann said.

DON'T MISS: Multimedia - A maid’s journey to becoming a domestic helper

What started off as a project with six shy Filipino women swelled to a 30-strong choir posting a short video in which the singers shared their feelings of what it is like to leave their children behind.

"I wish I could kiss you every night, and it is always my wish, and it makes me so sad, every night, since your first year that I was not around," says one singer, addressing her own child, as her eyes well up in front of the camera.

Bowers found the video online and contacted Engelmann about documenting the choir, which hopes to expand to 100 members. They hope migrant workers from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Nepal will join. She has wanted to tell the story of Hong Kong's migrant women since she arrived four years ago.

"I was stunned by the spectacle of domestic workers sitting in the walkways; it is such an arresting visual spectacle," she said.

Domestic helpers are entitled to one day off a week, though their small salaries mean they can rarely afford to integrate into society. Public spaces, especially in Central and Causeway Bay, teem with women sitting and sharing food on cardboard boxes.

But it was Bowers' relationship with her own maid, Janai Abad, a bright 26-year-old psychology graduate, that really piqued her curiosity in the complex lives of Hong Kong's maids.

"Janai is incredibly well educated but she realised that the salary as a domestic worker is so much more than what she could earn if she was in the Philippines," said Bowers, adding that Abad was saving to continue her studies.

Abad came to Hong Kong to reunite with her mother - who has worked as a helper in the city since her daughter was an infant.

"When I grew up I was jealous of my friends who had their whole families with them. I told myself, someday I will be with my mum," said Abad, who will feature in the documentary as a new member of the choir.