Today, I headed to the southern shore of Hong Kong to explore Aberdeen, a former fishing village that was virtually the only sign of life when the British colonized the place some 160 years ago.
Approaching the central bus station, I was stunned by what I saw: a sea of Filipina women, swarming about (all of them two heads shorter than me). Thousands sat in circles, some on cardboard boxes, fanning themselves in the humidity, chatting, reading, writing.
They looked like groupies, camping out for concert tickets. I figured they were waiting for buses. Then I learned: these were the Filipina maids, the lifeblood of HK housekeeping.
The ratio is staggering: 7 million Hong Kongers employ some 140,000 live-in maids and nannies. It’s so commonplace, the government has legalized their conditions: minimally US$460 per month, a room to sleep, Sundays off, a plane ticket to visit the Philippines for one two-week trip every two years. Still, these women are vulnerable to employer violence or sexual exploitation, like their Filipina counterparts in the Middle East.
The risk is worth it, apparently: most of the women are university-educated, English-speaking, trained as teachers or social workers, yet the pay is poor and jobs scarce. So they leave husbands and children behind, sending money home. Entire villages are reportedly empty of women, as they’ve become a leading Philippine export.
So, on precious Sundays like today – and every Sunday for the past 30 years, in fact – they flock to the city center … to spend time with each other.
On my short subway ride home, I found myself standing next to two Filipinas. I couldn’t help but strike up a brief conversation.
“We’re lucky, because our employer is good to us,” said one.
Both had children back home. Said the other woman, “This is our sacrifice.”
They asked if I was visiting. I told them about teaching for the semester, having also left behind a wife and kids. “My sacrifice,” I said, smiling.
They laughed. I laughed. But we all knew it wasn’t quite the same.