Chancing upon Hong Kong’s Domestic Workers
I heard them long before I saw them; the twittering of voices, so happy, so light, but growing to a deafening crescendo as I came closer. Walking back from the Star Ferry to Central I went via a series of raised walkways. These connect the high-rise malls and expensive hotels while providing safe access over the road. Indeed, a day can pass in Hong Kong without ever descending to street level.
Hong Kong is a city for walking. In a place perennially crowded and which I have visited so many times, it’s amazing what I still discover, whether it be in a side street, or even in full view. It’s so tempting to always revisit old favourites, yet in a place which has survived by always reinventing itself, there is always something new – or very old – to find.
The Star Ferry is a classic example of how Hong Kong continually re-invents herself. These iconic ferries used to run from the pier at Edinburgh Place, Central, where the clock tower making the white building a classic landmark. Built in 1957 on land reclaimed from the harbour, it was itself demolished in 2006-7 for yet more land reclamation. It was reached by a vast tunnel running underneath the main roads of Central. As a child we always stayed in the Hilton (now long gone. I still wonder what became of the gorgeous bell-hops in their white uniforms, little older than myself.
Then there was the Cat St Cafe. I loved looking at the photos of this world long gone – only to discover years later it still existed. As a child I only saw the Anglo-Saxon version of Hong Kong.)
My parents would lead me down through Admiralty past the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, with its stone lions out the front. To me these lions seemed the essence of Hong Kong Island: the building was classic stone, respectable, reliable, but the lions hinted at a culture and philosophy I could only guess at. A way of life thriving while adapting to the customs of so many lands. It was outside the bank I saw my first ATM (yes, I am that old), with queues of people waiting patiently in the morning light to withdraw their cash. (My sceptical parents thought it would prove a fad.)
Then came the tunnel, running underneath the multi-lane thoroughfare. Some rickshaws always waited at the entrance, pulled by these tiny, wiry men a third the size of the tourists clambering aboard. The tunnel both fascinated and scared me. Whatever the hour there was always a sea of people walking, walking, either towards the ferry or away from it. On the sidelines were hawkers, maimed beggars, performers, newspaper vendors, shoeshine men. Added to the smell which comes from a mass of humanity was the unmistakable odour wafting in from the public urinal.
Now, with ever more of the harbour being reclaimed, the Star Ferry has moved to the Central Ferry Piers. From here it is but a 10 minute ride across the harbour to Kowloon. A glance at a map shows how much land Hong Kong has reclaimed; Possession Street is where the English first landed. A plaque on the Landmark Hotel, Peddar Street marks the original waterline, with Queen’s Rd once running along the waterfront.
Consequently, reaching the Star Ferry now involves a series of aerial walkways running above the roads and through all the high-rises of Central.
And this is how I found them. A cluster of these walkways were filled with ‘sparrows,’ as I came to call them; hundreds of domestic maids flocking together on their one day off, sitting on these walkways to exchange news, have a picnic and spend the day together. (By law, domestics must live in the house of their employer.) Many used broken cardboard boxes to build barricades, marking a bit of space from the hordes of passers-by. This was especially true of the ‘sparrows’ sitting down below, at street level, where the cardboard gave some protection from the traffic fumes.
I came across these ‘sparrows’ on many parts of the Island: the walkways of Central, the parks of Admiralty, even in small forgotten lanes opening off a main thoroughfare, where often their numbers were reduced to a mere few dozen. I found them down the other end of the island, around Causeway Bay and beyond, where they seemed to be mainly muslim, as they were on Kowloon. Nearly half of the foreign domestics are from the Philippines, another 49% from Indonesia, and they gathered together with their fellow countrywomen (they were all women) in distinct areas of Hong Kong.
These ‘sparrows’ form an unseen part of Hong Kong life: many households rely on cheap foreign labour, who work long hours far away from family to send money back home. In fact, current estimates are that some 3% of the population are foreign domestic workers. With only one day a week off, they happily gather together amongst cardboard boxes and traffic; what is their life like back home, that they are so happy to do this. I also wonder: could I do the same?
The Literary Traveller
Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life Shelley, Sonnet
Although Somerset Maugham wrote The Painted Veil in 1925, anyone who visits Hong Kong will immediately recognise the streets and buildings he so loving describes.
Opening in England, the novel follows the spiritual and emotional awaking of Kitty. After making a desperate marriage to Walter Fane, she accompanies her husband to Hong Kong, where he works as a bacteriologist.
Maugham brilliantly captures the dual world of Hong Kong: the wealth of the expats with their homes in Happy Valley, The Midlands and The Peak, with their life of tennis and country clubs and endless parties, as well as the business district of Central. Then there is the Hong Kong of the Chinese, a world removed from the one Kitty inhabits.
Kitty accompanies her husband to a cholera infected province of China. Cholera was a major killer at the time, and the word Kitty enters is ravaged by the disease. The dying are everywhere. When she returns to Hong Kong a reluctant heroine, Kitty realises how shallow she was in accepting that Expat world.