Dim Sum Dialogues: Little Manila

Dark clouds rumble through the steel corridors of Central – the remaining signs of a level nine typhoon that swept through Hong Kong last night. I dash out of the MTR station onto the wet streets, and gaze at hundreds of dark-haired, dark-skinned people around me.

A clamor of chatter echos from outspread blankets, partially covered by a patchwork of makeshift shelters. Groups of girls paint toenails, play card games, and eat food from plastic tupperware. Some sing. Some dance. Some nap. Everyone is having a good time.

For thousands of Filipino & Indonesian “foreign domestic helpers” in Hong Kong, this is their one day of the week off. The rest of the week is spent working for room, board, and a minimum stipend which is often sent home to family. A large percentage hold college degrees, but a lack of job prospects and a better living standard in HK has lured many to immigrate in groups of three or four, to serve a minimum two-year contract. Among many other protections, the Hong Kong government has made it mandatory for every worker to receive one full day of rest per week – and so, every Sunday, Central ceases to be a part of Hong Kong and becomes Little Manila.
A 2005 statistic reports that there were 223,394 foreign domestic helpers in the city; almost 3% of the city’s population. The flow of workers began in the 1970s, when President of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos promoted and encouraged labor export, in an attempt to offset rising unemployment rates. Subsequently, the economy of the Philippines became more dependent on the export of labor, and privatization of labor recruitment groups began to shape the nation’s development strategy.

Around the same time, the People’s Republic of China started making economic reforms that provided for a surge in trade with developed nations. Experiencing it’s own period of financial success, Hong Kong became China’s biggest investor – and a majority of labor intensive industries in Hong Kong moved to the mainland. The gap left by this shift was filled by workers from the Philippines and smaller, but growing percentages coming from Thailand and Indonesia in the early 1990s.

By law, helpers must live in the employer’s home, and are to be provided with suitable living accommodation and privacy. They are not allowed to take up any other employment while under contract, and must receive a minimum wage of HK$3,580 (USD $460) per month. The employers must earn a household income of at least HK$15,000 per month for every helper employed, and must pay a tax of HK$9,600 for a 2-year contract. In addition, it is mandatory for employers to provide the domestic helpers with free medical treatment for the duration of their stay. In an interview of 2,500 workers, 25% reported that their employers had violated their contracts. 25% also reported verbal or physical abuse.

But on Sundays, everyone is in good spirits. The most popular card game played is “Tong Its”, which is similar to Mahjong – either of which I have yet to fully grasp. The game is full of surprises and laughs when a good hand trumps a previous player’s move. An overwhelming majority of the crowd is female, but the few males that are present group together to play a more dramatic version of Tong Its. Dancers practice ballroom moves on small portable stereos, or perform traditional dances – sometimes in full costume. The air is full will a vibrant energy that is heightened by the shrill volume of conversation.

Many girls overtly smile or strike a pose as I walk by with my camera. A few that I stop and chat with tell me that the friends that they spend their day with are a mixture of people from home and new friends that they’ve met in Hong Kong. They don’t want to talk about work, and I don’t blame them – so I thank them for chatting and keep wandering. And as I step out into the wet streets of Central alone, dwarfed by the enormous skyscrapers and rain clouds, it strikes me how comforting it must be to have such a strong community in a place so far away from home.