Where Filipinas Hold Up Half the Colony

Jun Ilagan, Jan 03, 2007

HONG KONG – In the last three of her six years working and living in this former British colony, Maggie has spent her Sunday time off from work running her manicure-pedicure business at Statue Square in Central Hong Kong.

Business is brisk, as usual, at her “nail salon,” which occupies no more than two square feet of concrete amid the sea of Filipina OFWs scurrying to and fro or enjoying fun time huddled with friends on the pavement. Maggie’s shop is big enough to accommodate her nail care kit and the stool on which she sat from across her customer perched on the edge of the concrete plant box.

Nearly a dozen more businesswomen to her left and right are in position, too, all tending to the fingernails or toenails of their kababayan. Like Maggie, they are unmindful of the cacophony of songs, blaring radios, guitar music, animated chatter, and guffaws that are all but dull for the estimated 80,000 to 90,000 Filipina domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

“They all look forward to Sundays, and it is this anticipation that keeps them charged with energy throughout the week at their workplace,” says Amor Servanda, the smiling, ever-friendly Filipino doorman at the nearby Mandarin Oriental Hotel, who volunteered his after-work hours for two nights to guide this Philippine News reporter through the random interviews with OFWs. “It is as if they want to pull the hands of time toward Sunday. For most of them, it is the day of fun. But for many, too, Sunday is extra-pay day.”

The other sections of the square, true enough, are abuzz with enterprising Pinays hawking their wares of ‘kakanin,’ Philippine-made chips and snacks, wearables, OPM (Original Pilipino Music) cassettes and CDs, and Pinoy movies in VCDs, among other things. Although not in commercial quantities, the goods rack up enough profits that buy such little luxuries as extra phone cards to call loved ones back home.

Others are detestably daring. “Be wary of your wallet because there are plenty of pickpockets here in Hongkong,” cautions Ador as we wend our way through the thick crowd.

According to Ador, who has logged 30 years working in Hong Kong initially as a musician, pickpocketing has become part of the Filipinos’ Sunday carnival in the last decade or so. “It was started by Pinoys, victimizing their fellow OFWs. But now, even the locals and people of other nationalities are fast catching up. Hong Kong is now very different compared to, say, 10 years ago.”

Many would beg to disagree with the gentleman. For those who, like Ador, have seen Hong Kong’s transformation into Asia’s World City, very little has changed of life here for Filipina domestic helpers. Despite the decreasing trend in deployment of OFWs in Hong Kong since 1998, stories of illegal recruitment, maltreatment, white slavery, substance abuse, discrimination, and infidelity, to name a few of the misfortunes that threaten OFWs, still abound.

Ador himself tells of how he rescued a 19-year-old from the clutches of a prostitution ring several years ago and brought her to the Philippine consular office for repatriation. “I found her dazed, bruised, and trembling on the sidewalk, obviously in need of help,” he recalls. “Her story was horrible. As a victim of illegal recruitment, she ended up in a sex den where, she said, she serviced as many as 50 customers during the 18- to 20-hour work shifts. She did not have to wear any panties anymore while at work, according to her.”

Yet there are just as many, if not more, stories of triumph and achievement, decent employers and work conditions, savings and investments in the Philippines, and even of successful inter-racial marriages.

Lorna, a beautiful single mother of a 15-year-old in the Philippines, for instance, mans the small store that her Chinese husband has put up to serve OFW needs, particularly phone cards and Pinoy snacks. She married the local sometime back, and has lived in Hong Kong the last 13 years.

“He is a very nice man, and his family has accepted me as one of their own despite my working here in Hong Kong for many years as a domestic helper before I married him,” she confides to Philippine News, intermittently cutting her narration to attend to the continuous stream of customers.

“I’m sorry if I can’t devote my full attention to your questions,” Lorna apologizes, adding that business has expectedly picked up pace as Christmas Day approaches.

Lorna’s corner bazaar is located on the second floor of Worldwide Plaza, a shopping center a block away from Statue Square. It is, one would dare say, a 100 percent Filipino turf on Sundays.

Here, rows and blocks of shops and stores – carrying anything from cell phones and call cards, to garlic-coated peanuts and pinipig – are raking it in throughout the day as thousands of OFW shoppers come and go. Nevertheless, the shops are Chinese-owned and run by Filipina salesladies.

Meanwhile, money change hands at an overseas branch of a Filipino bank, Western Union remittance centers, and numerous currency exchange shops.

“This is Hong Kong’s Divisoria,” says Lorna, “where the retail business is fast-paced and goods move quickly.”

A thought emerges with that declaration: here is a very large group of hardworking overseas Filipino workers – a virtual nation, if you will – helping move another nation’s business and commerce. Imagine, too, what would happen to Hong Kong’s economy if the locals are unable to leave their homes for work, simply because there are no Filipina domestic helpers to look after their children.

But that is a far-fetched scenario. Alongside better working conditions and faithful adherence to the terms of work contracts, employers increasingly continue to extend greater understanding and compassion towards OFWs.

The city government itself many years ago set an example in developing sensitivity to the needs of domestic helpers. An edict was issued, which to this day enforces the total closure to vehicular traffic of a section of the block surrounding Statue Square every Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., to create bigger space for the frolickers and promenaders.

On Christmas Day, Statue Square, as well as other meeting places of OFWs elsewhere in Hong Kong — Victoria Park, Central Park, Hong Kong Cultural Centre – will host bigger, more festive gatherings of Filipinos. Food, and plenty of it, will be shared, along with singing and dancing talents.

“It’s everybody’s day off every December 25,” says Monti, a 20-year veteran who still works for her original employer. “The following day, the 26th, is a floating holiday and this means the maid can choose not to work and just make up for it some other time.”

Monti (short for her last name, Montenegro) then points to the group of Vicky, Lara, and Irene, gyrating and swinging in unison to dance music blasting from a boom box. Another girl, Guillen, dutifully choreographs their moves. “We are rehearsing our presentation during the Christmas program our group will hold somewhere here in the Square,” Guillen announces.

Hundreds of others will stage their own self-styled Christmas celebration. Susan, a mother of two and wife to a factory foreman in the Philippines, plans on spending the day with her closest friends at the house of a fellow OFW’s employer. “My friend, Cathy, is allowed to bring her friends in while the family takes a vacation in the mainland.”

Monti is luckier: she gets to go home twice a year for 10 to 12 days each time, and thus spends Christmas with her family and, especially, grandchildren. “This is the reward for sticking it out with just one employer, whose children I helped raise and are now leading their separate lives.”

“Christmas here in Hong Kong is what you make of it,” remarks Agnes who, with her buddy Irma and a couple of other friends, attend the ‘misa de gallo’ at a nearby church. “We all cry while singing ‘Silent Night’ or ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ during the Mass. We remember our loved ones back home, but find comfort and togetherness in the company of friends.”

After church, Irma cheerfully snaps, “it’s party time.” The group proceeds to a budget hotel where they would have made prior reservation for a double room. “Then with our ‘baon’ of fried chicken, burgers, and spaghetti, for example, we celebrate Christmas to forget our homesickness and loneliness,” she chuckles.

And Ador’s Christmas? “At my age, it’s just a holiday that needs to be observed,” he quips. “Besides, I have my family with me – my wife, also a hotel worker, and son who is a salesman in an electronic shop on Nathan Road.”

As 9:00 p.m. nears, the crowd begins to thin out at Statue Square while city sanitation workers embark on a clean-up sweep of the block.

Another Sunday has passed, leaving behind yet another set of memories of Filipino togetherness, friendship, fellowship, and camaraderie.

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Nancy Beja  
Jan 30, 2007 09:55:07  

A poignant story and very well written. Thank you so much for keeping us informed of our fellow kababayan in Hong Kong, it brought tears in my eyes as I read your story. It really shows the Filipino strong value... that no matter where we are..."family and togetherness" is what keep us all going. I admire their courage and pride. Mabuhay to all OFW and God Bless and Keep you all safe from harm.

Bernadette L. Solis  
Jan 14, 2007 12:44:34  

I salute Jun for taking sometime to write about the flow of life of our kababayans working in HK. I've been there before coming to Canada. Reading such article brings back memories to the same life I have there in the past. It is inspiring and the experience is something I am grateful for and will always treasure . Those same experiences brought me to where I am now. Ngunit Pinoy pa rin ako sa puso't diwa.

adelia tolentino  
Jan 11, 2007 11:49:31  

as everyone says no matter where you came from and do, never forget that your family and friends will there for you wherever you are. we came to Canada in the 1974, but now leaving in the United States, but we always go back home, the Philippines our native land and hope everyone else will not forget where they came from.

Mario S.Espiritu,M.D.  
Jan 04, 2007 12:37:52  

It's a very nice story written by Jun,showing the sacrifices of our countrymen employed in foreign countries like Hong kong.They're really modern Heroes & may God Bless them.

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