It’s a phenomenon in the best sense of the word! Both impressive and extraordinary.
In this multicolored, multi-cultural city of contradictions, there is a culture in Hong Kong that sees many middle class people living like the wealthy aristocrats of a bygone era, a time when maids scurried about large colonial-style homes, catering to their master’s every whim.
What’s probably even more extraordinary though, is that whilst this city has the highest number of maids per capita in Asia, if you’ve read some of my posts before, you’ll know this is by no means a city of sprawling mansions and estates, let alone your average three bedroom home with a backyard and a white picket fence.
It’s the skyscraper capital of the world and it’s no secret most Hong Kongers live in relatively small (make that ‘teeny tiny’) apartments.
Lacking in space they may be, but nonetheless they still manage to squeeze in the obligatory “maid’s room” – cubbyholes that are not much bigger than a walk-in-wardrobe, usually off the kitchen.
As a westerner, coming from Australia, my first reaction was admittedly one of sheer disbelief. ‘It can’t be so!’ I exclaimed! Scouring for a place to rent, my eyes narrowly fixed on a tiny cubicle no bigger than a bathroom off the entry way. (Oh wait, yes that’s a shower IN the toilet)!
Don’t worry, this was the big time…in apartments without a designated helper’s room, many helpers sleep in the kitchen or sometimes with the children.
If you haven’t lived in Asia you might be wondering why living in Hong Kong and having a maid are more often than not, mutually exclusive events.
Unlike in most western countries, where it is seen as the consummate symbol of wealth and elitism, here in Hong Kong, you need neither status, a sizable income nor a spacious pad to have a full time, live-in maid.
Actually, the Hong Kong government stipulates that to hire a maid you need a household income of no less than $15,000 a month, that’s currently around US$1,932.
The Minimum Allowable Wage for a full time helper is $4010 a month – $US516.
They work a six day week, doing everything and anything — from household chores like cleaning and ironing to looking after your child/ren and cooking the family breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Step outside my apartment building and the ‘Helper’ is an instantly recognizable part of Hong Kong society. Usually in her unofficial uniform of jeans or tracksuit pants and a t-shirt with flip flops on their feet (often in winter), if they’re not wheeling a trolley, they’re pushing a stroller, carrying someone else’s baby in a baby pouch or wielding some form of household cleaner and a bucket!
On the seventh day, the majority of helpers take the opportunity to go to Church and are often seen congregating in mass in open spaces around the city where they dress up to the nines, socialize, sing and eat, for as long as the day will let them.
The Asia-Pacific region employs more domestic workers than any other part of the world – around 21 million are working in private homes, most of them women.
In the Fragrant Harbour, one in eight households has a helper and in households with children, it’s one in three. Not all live in and I am sure they’re often considered the lucky ones, but it is currently illegal.
To many unfamiliar with the culture, the Helper may seem like an unnecessary extravagance but for families where both parents work, be it part time or full time, there are no other options for childcare.
For starters, government facilities like child-care centres simply don’t exist, so that option is out if mums need to/want to return to work, in some capacity.
Maternity leave is at best short in Hong Kong (10 weeks paid) and of course in the expat world, most of us don’t have family to help out.
Any pre-school a child goes to up until two years of age must be accompanied by a guardian.
That coupled with Hong Kong’s rapidly aging society and a lack of elderly nursing home means domestic helpers are desperately needed to take care of the community’s junior and senior citizens.
Whilst I do have the luxury of a Helper, to be honest, call me crazy, but it’s taken me a really long time to get used to the idea.
Being a foreigner, my first introduction to this rather foreign concept wasn’t without opposition.
When I first arrived I didn’t have any help and often found myself at various birthday parties where I would end up being the only one in the mosh-pit (play area) with all the Filipino helpers and babies in their care.
“Where were the other mums?” You may well ask. Well, they were off quaffing champagne and having a good old time….(or just quietly, maybe they were in the pool taking ‘selfies!’)
I had to check myself and remind myself this was considered perfectly normal around these parts.
Everyone assured me I would get used to it ‘soon enough’ and immerse myself in the Tai Tai lifestyle.
I never have. (Ok well, sometimes I’m partial to a long lunch with a champers in hand – nothing’s changed there!) But if you’re not careful, you can find yourself pretty much devoid of any responsibility, living life like some sort of expat fraternity on permanent vacation. (Party poopers need not apply!)
Fortunately though (and I know this is not the case for many people) I am in a position where I do not need my helper on a daily basis, which is good because as much as I love her, I also don’t want my helper on a daily basis.
I know I’m in the minority and often frowned upon by other expats (some may even call me a martyr) but I like my privacy and mostly I just want to do things that are considered “normal” in my home country, because you know what – there’s a fair chance we’ll be returning some day and it’s going to be a rude shock to the system as it is having rarely changed my sheets or cleaned a toilet in the past couple of years. I still need to know I can do the dishes, cook dinner and take care of my girl, without help!
And errr hello…..as one friend put it, I like to be able to have an argument with my husband without whispering!
Trust me, I’ve seen women returning home after a stint abroad looking to emulate the same thing they had as an expat in Asia. Truth is you won’t find a babysitter who cleans your pantry while you’re out (at least not for much less than a small fortune) and you certainly will not find a nanny who packs your bags before you go away.
Just in case you’re still unclear, let me reiterate, we don’t do it tough ’round here! 😉
My helper has been looking after us in some capacity for three years now and she is for all intents and purposes, part of the family. She messages my mum on Facebook, our children play together and I just met her boyfriend!
As for my daughter, they are the greatest of friends and I know in my heart, when we move on from Hong Kong, we will all stay in touch. My hope is that as the friendship continues, one day Ava will visit my helper’s daughter in their part of the world. Some people will say this is a bit too close for comfort….it’s a business relationship and they are your employee. Whilst I agree, boundaries are important in any relationship, I also think it comes back to the type of employer you are and the type of employee you get.
A lot of it is pure luck – on both sides of the equation.
When you think about it….how many work situations require you to spend so much time with your employee/employer (i.e. living with them) and how many circumstances involve two (often very different) cultures blending together, harmoniously at that!
There’s no manual and there are no instructions when it comes to understanding how to manage two significantly different cultures, not to mention the language barrier, all under the one roof.
It takes plenty of patience and empathy goes a long way too.
It’s a bit like having a baby…. there’s no training for parenthood right….you just have to muddle your way through as best you can. I see forums with people crying out for information on how to communicate with their helpers and vice versa.
Most Helpers in Hong Kong are Filipino, Indonesian or Malaysian and most employers are either Hong Kong/Chinese, western (British, Australian, American) or European.
It’s a setting ripe for personality clashes, let alone cultural misunderstandings.
Naturally, different problems arise between different nationalities. I notice Chinese or Hong Kong employees who’ve grown up with the maid culture have a slightly different attitude to their helpers than say expat employees not so familiar with the state of affairs. For many locals it’s business transaction while for westerners it’s a little more familiar.
Which way is best, I’ll let you be the judge.
There are times I see employers complaining mercilessly on public forums about their helpers lack of dress code or late arrival home (on her day off) or maybe she doesn’t quite cook the meal to your liking or vacuum to your standards….and no doubt on the other side of the fence maids complaining about their unfair or difficult employers.
Trawling the internet, I found this piece from a maid who believed she was subjected to conditions that saw her treated like a second-class citizen.
I have no sanctuary of my own other than the utility room. It’s small, has no air-conditioning and there is no lock on the door. I sleep there on boxing over the pipe-work. When I find the household unbearable I seek a few minutes there alone. I close my eyes and try to calm my breathing, fighting back homesickness. “Don’t you dare touch the pork. Mr Yu and I will have it tonight. The pots of yogurt are for the children only. For lunch you can make yourself rice and take a spoon – no more mind – of last night’s vegetables: quite enough!”
But it can go much, much deeper than that…..Hong Kong’s newspaper headlines of late testament to the trouble that can happen.
Just this month, thousands of domestic helpers took to the streets of Hong Kong to demand justice for the Indonesian maid who was allegedly enslaved and tortured by her employers for eight months.
It’s not all one-sided though, there are – as with every group in society – individual helpers who abuse the system, those responsible for babies who lie about their references or steal money and hop between jobs to collect severance pay and flights home. (If a contract is terminated, the employer must pay their flight home.)
I’ve heard about helpers not looking after children in their care, spending most of their time on the phone and not fulfilling their part of the bargain. Basically taking the mickey!
At the risk of repeating myself, it’s an unconventional situation……with no manual on how it’s supposed to be done.
To the average westerner, paying $500 a month for so much help is almost ludicrous and too good an offer to pass up – but for the helpers themselves, they are earning far more than they could ever hope to back in their home countries.
Many have tertiary qualifications but can do little with it back home and if they do manage to secure a job in their profession of choice, the rewards are meager.
The remittances for the Philippines from the hundreds of thousands of women working overseas are enormous, ploughing billions of dollars into the fledgling economy.
But it also means while the children in Hong Kong are being taken care of, there are equally as many left behind in the workers’ home country.
I’ve written about the “Nation’s Angels” before…here in my post ‘A Motherless Country.’
The first lot of maids arrived from Myanmar in February this year. For the 19 women it was the first time they’d stepped foot outside their country. One woman was quoted as saying she previously made US$150 a month as a hotel receptionist in her own country while here in Hong Kong, she’ll triple that, at least.
To many HongKongers, the helper is a modern day Mary Poppins!
But during my time here in Hong Kong, I’ve heard some people liken the city’s ‘helper’ syndrome to the Academy award winning movie The Help – the american drama after the same name, about the relationship between the maids and their employers in the early 60’s, whilst others believe you reap what you sew and that women from less fortunate countries are lucky for the opportunities afforded here.
Both perhaps extreme views…. but somewhere in the middle lies the truth about this exceptional existence that is, rightly or wrongly – alive and well in the 21st Century.
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