Hong Kong's domestic helpers express themselves in Unsung Heroes choir

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 January, 2015, 6:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 February, 2015, 5:50pm

When not working with children in her day job as head of performing arts at Peak School, Jane Engelmann helps the grown-ups of Discovery Bay express themselves through DB Glee, the community choir she started four years ago.

Four months ago, she created another choir - Unsung Heroes - made up entirely of foreign domestic helpers, and wrote a song just for them.

Titled I Wish I Could Kiss You Goodnight, it pays tribute to the many women from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and elsewhere, "who are putting other people's children to bed instead of their own".

A single parent, Engelmann says the song and choir are a way of expressing gratitude for the support of helpers who have been with her through difficult years.

The choir got off to an inauspicious start in September. Anticipating a big turnout, Engelmann printed out a great stack of enrolment forms and secured a huge venue through Paul Tough, headmaster of the Discovery Bay International School. But no one showed.

"My assumptions were far out and I felt deflated. I wondered if it was a silly idea, why nobody was coming. My friend even went down to the plaza to try to round people up. Around 4.30 a few ladies turned up and by 5pm we had six. They were nervous and quiet and I realised that I wasn't dealing with budding superstars but humble and rather shy ladies."

News spread, however, and Engelmann soon found herself in a quandary. Many helpers who wanted to join couldn't afford the ferry ride to Discovery Bay, so Engelmann set up another choir on Hong Kong Island and took on two choir sessions each Sunday, as numbers grew to 50.

But when Unsung Heroes was granted a performance slot at Picnic in the Park, the annual music event in Discovery Bay, the initial response was panic. "Most of the singers went pale and said they couldn't do it."

Still, the Unsung Heroes finally mustered the courage to take to the stage, in collaboration with some members of DB Glee.

"It was wonderful to see them up there, enjoying themselves and singing their hearts out. There was an amazing sense of achievement," says Engelmann, describing it as a defining moment.

It helps that she has an infectious passion for singing.

"I strongly believe that everybody who has a set of lungs and vocal chords can sing.

"We're not all opera or pop stars, our pitch might not be perfect, we might find it difficult to harmonise, but we can all make a sound and it can be fun for everybody."

Donations from friends in Discovery Bay and colleagues allowed her to supply each choir member a T-shirt for the event.

A video of the performance was posted on Facebook - "It wasn't great sound quality," says Engelmann - and attracted more than 4,000 views in three days.

They were soon featured on the Pinoy Fuse radio show.

Analyn Regulacion has been a part of the choir since its inception. "My employer encouraged me to join; she knows I love to sing. I said I don't have a good voice but my employer said I was wrong."

Regulacion went to the initial meeting with a friend out of curiosity, but she also wanted to make her Sundays more productive. "I wanted to use my time better; to stay busy on my day off."

Like so many of the choir members, Regulacion is a mother living away from her family - her young daughter, Leigh, remains in the Philippines - so Engelmann's song really resonates.

"The first time I saw the lyrics to the song, I knew I needed to be a part of the choir," she says. "I was very impressed."

Inspired, one of Engelmann's colleagues offered to make a mini documentary about the Unsung Heroes project, inviting the singers to share their personal stories.

The first time I saw the lyrics to the song, I knew I needed to be a part of the choir. I was very impressed
Analyn Regulacion, Unsung Heroes choir member


"While we intended to go with the angle of their qualifications, abilities and dreams as opposed to their status as maids in Hong Kong, as each began to talk, it developed into a far deeper and emotional transcript," Engelmann recalls.

"When they began to talk about their families, the cheerful facade crumbled and tears began to flow.

"There were heart-wrenching moments when they described how their children didn't recognise them when they returned home after two years, or the guilt they felt at not being there for the children."

For some choir members, this was a multigenerational experience.

There were other common problems related to long-distance families, Engelmann says: "There are stories of how the husbands find other women and don't work, so the ladies here are trapped in a never-ending cycle of having to provide and send money home to support the extended family.

"Stories of how they cry in secret when they see other children running around and their heart aches for their own children. Stories of how they are sometimes not allowed to go back to the Philippines for special family occasions."

But what struck Engelmann the most about the women's stories was their lack of bitterness and the love and responsibility they felt for the families they left behind.

"They will do anything to provide for their families even if it means having to leave them in order to do so.

"It's emotional viewing, especially when combined with the song and their family photos."

The documentary, which is funded by a benefactor in Discovery Bay, will be released soon. And the new year promises to be an exciting one for Unsung Heroes. The choir will be performing later this month at Discovery Bay's annual Recycling Day.

Looking ahead, Engelmann hopes Unsung Heroes can expand further, find a sponsor or even secure endorsement by the Philippine Consulate.

"Perhaps when new domestic workers arrive, they could be told about the choir as a free activity for them on Sundays - a way to relieve stress, get to meet others, get a chance to sing and enjoy themselves.

"I want to raise awareness, give our truly unsung heroes a voice and acknowledge the work they do for us here and the work they are doing for the economy back home, too."

She has since been approached about a book deal but for now Engelmann's priorities lie with the choir.

"My dream is that we will eventually have such a huge choir, that we can fill the pitch and rock the stadium at the Rugby Sevens."