How Filipino helpers in Hong Kong spend Christmas, a time tinged with sadness

  • Church, food and – where possible – family are the most important things for three Hong Kong-based domestic helpers we talked to
  • But it is also a time of year that can remind them of what they left behind
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 8:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 8:45am

Christmas in the Philippines is a big deal.

The country has 86 million Catholics and the world’s longest Christmas season, with decorations going on sale in August and carols sung as early as September.

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Various ethnic groups in the country observe different traditions during the festive season, from Simbang Gabi – a series of dawn masses from December 16 to 24 that can start as early as 3am – to Niños Inocentes, or Holy Innocents’ Day, on December 28.

On December 31, families gather for Media Noche, a lavish midnight feast that symbolises hope for the coming year. The Feast of the Santo Niño (Christ Child), meanwhile, is held on the third Sunday of January.

But for Hong Kong’s 200,000 Filipino domestic helpers, celebrating Christmas is a very different affair, although church remains the common thread.

According to a 2017 survey by HelperChoice, almost half of Hong Kong’s helpers go to church for Christmas. Twenty-one per cent celebrate it with their employer’s family, and 20 per cent with friends.

The survey also found that 16 per cent will have to work over Christmas, even though helpers in Hong Kong are entitled to statutory holidays irrespective of their length of service. According to the Hong Kong Labour Department, employers can choose when that statutory holiday falls: either on December 22, the day of the Winter Solstice Festival in China, or Christmas Day.

Teresita Lauang, who has lived in Hong Kong for 36 years, remembers the simple Christmas celebrations she used to enjoy on her family’s farm in Nueva Vizcaya province in Luzon, the country’s largest and most populous island.

“I was from a very simple family, a poor family,” Lauang, now 65, says. “We didn’t have lights or lanterns or other decorations growing up – we were too poor.”

Ornamental lanterns – or parols – are traditionally made with bamboo and paper. While they come in various shapes and sizes, the basic star pattern, evoking the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three wise men to Jesus’ manger, is the most popular design.

“Even though we didn’t have decorations, we had our farm where we raised animals like chickens and pigs,” Lauang says. “We enjoyed this family time with food from the farm, with food that we grew and raised.”

Lauang has returned to her home for Christmas three times since arriving in Hong Kong to work as a domestic helper in 1983.

Her Hong Kong helper story is more unusual than most. She has become a bit of a celebrity after being featured in a 30-minute documentary, Yaya, which was released earlier this year.

The film was made by Justin Cheung, who is the son of her employer – the Hong Kong film director Alfred Cheung Kin-ting. Justin was concerned about how some of the city’s 300,000 domestic workers were treated and wanted to pay tribute to Lauang, who spent decades away from her family to raise his (yaya in Tagalog means a woman employed by a family to look after a child or elderly person).

“I left my parents, my husband and my son, aged 11, and my daughter, aged nine, [to come to Hong Kong],” Lauang says. “I really sacrificed a lot for a better future for my children and grandchildren, a better education for my family.”

She says she feels blessed to have worked for such a caring family as the Cheungs.

“I picked the lucky lottery ticket. Many helpers are not happy so I feel very blessed.”

Food plays a big role in her Hong Kong Christmases. “I always make sticky rice desserts and cakes like bibingka [a traditional cake made with sweet rice flour and coconut cream] for my employer’s kids – and not just at Christmas but throughout the year,” she says.

Religion is important too, especially on Christmas Day.

“I have family in Hong Kong – a daughter, a sister and a cousin. So we will celebrate together,” Lauang says. “I’ll go to the Universal Church [of the Kingdom of God] in Central on December 25. We talk about God and faith. The pastor is Brazilian and I feel very connected there. The next day I’ll go to Malaysia with my Hong Kong family – Mr and Mrs Cheung treat me very well.”

But for domestic helper Melani Repollo, her plans for Christmas Day were up in the air when we spoke in early December.

The 46-year-old recently started a new job, having previously spent nine years with a “very generous” family in Kowloon who would give her time off over Christmas, as well as cash.

“My previous employers were away from Hong Kong over Christmas, so I would stay home and relax and enjoy Christmas with friends,” she says.

Repollo has two grown-up children in the Philippines – her son is 24 and her daughter 20.

“My son was 12 and my daughter was seven when I left Quezon for Hong Kong,” she says, referring to her hometown on the island of Luzon. “My mother looked after my children, but she has since passed away.”

A tasty traditional treat Repollo makes during the festive season is kalamay, a sticky sweet delicacy made with coconut milk, brown sugar and glutinous rice that is popular in the Philippines.

Repollo says that in the Philippines, different days focus on different people over Christmas.

“This is how I would sum up Christmas in the Philippines: on December 25 it’s for the children, the second day [December 26] is for the singles, and the third day is for the older people and couples.”

The second year I went home, my children were upset with me and asked me who I was. It was very hard
Dolly Britos, Filipino helper in Hong Kong

Dolly Britos, 58, came to Hong Kong from Davao City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, at the age of 33, leaving behind five children aged between one and nine.

“My daughter was only one when I left,” says Britos, who has worked for a family in Shek O Village on the south side of Hong Kong Island for 19 years. “Erika was two, Gigi, who now lives in Hong Kong, was two, Emma was five. RJ, who also now lives in Hong Kong, was seven, and the eldest, Rafy, was nine.

“We were poor and rented a small place. I had to sacrifice a lot so my children got an education. The first few years away from my children were very tough.

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“The second year I went home, my children were upset with me and asked me who I was. It was very hard. We didn’t have a telephone so I was only writing letters. They could not see me. It was tough. I did not get to take them to school or attend their graduation. I get very teary talking about it.

“Sending five children to college and school is not easy. But I’m proud of them. My son is a nurse in the UK. I cry when I tell my story.”

This Christmas, Britos will eat roast pork and salad with the family members she has in Hong Kong.

“We will eat at midnight on December 24. We have socks on the door and presents under a tree, much like Westerners celebrate Christmas. We have a ‘Merry Christmas’ banner hanging in the house.

“Some Shek O kids go carolling from door-to-door, which is nice because this reminds me of Christmas in the Philippines. I’ve spent many Christmases in Hong Kong but it’s hard to get my family together at that time because they are spread out.

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“Of course I miss celebrating Christmas in the Philippines – it’s such a happy time. You must visit at that time and feel the spirit.”