This essay was originally published February, 19 2018.
The two of us were on the tram heading from Wan Chai in the east, to Central. The trams here are modern skinny double-deckers made in a style harking back to the days of British colonialism. We were sitting together on a bench in the back when he asked me if I wanted to move to the front so I could see better. I was comfortable where we were because there was a lot of legroom and I could stretch out. But I’ve learned that when Andy asks if I want to do something, he’s not asking me at all. So, to the front we went.
I hunched my way forward, squeezing and weaving my elbows through the heads poking into the aisle before taking a seat in the first row. The view was indeed better in the sense that it was easier to see out-- but tall buildings, no matter where in the world they are, all look about the same at street level.
I don’t blend in here, so I wasn’t surprised when I heard the group of ladies sitting to my rear talking about me. They were speaking in a different language, so I couldn’t understand them. But when one of the ladies said the phrase “must be tourist, eh?” I could tell by her accent that she was Filipina. I ignored her and Andy scooted over to take my picture. I heard the same lady speaking about me in Tagalog again. She said, “Tagalog, tagalog, tagalog, HIS FIRST TIME, yea, first time.” And that’s when I whipped around and engaged her.
I looked her in the face and gave her the Austin Powers “I see you girl” finger gesture-- smiled broadly and then turned back to Andy for the picture.
“Yes, take picture! It good for memory. Memories important, yea. Take picture.”
“I agree! Why don’t you come take a picture with me?”
Without hesitation she uncrossed her legs, got up, sat next to me, Naomi Campbell’d the shoot, and returned to her seat.
“Where you from?” she asked.
“Ah-- USA. California. I want to go one day. Look nice. You here visiting? You tourist?”
“Yep, it’s my first time. Do you live here?”
“Yes, but I from Philippines. That your man?”
(Smiling) “No, he’s just a friend-- but I’m visiting him. What’s your name?”
“Jenny... and this Linda, that Jessie, and she...(speaking in Tagalog)...oh she name Linda too. We just meet today. What your name?
“Oh nice name.”
“How long have you lived in Hong Kong?”
“I live here 5 years now. My employer very good to me so I stay with him. I want to go to America when he go, but Trump make it very hard now. Linda come here a few months ago from Middle East. They no treat us good there sometime, so it better here in Hong Kong. I know Linda long time and I tell her to come here and I will help her find work.”
Linda chimes in:
“Yes, employers in Middle East sometimes good sometimes bad. I get scared when I hear story of employer in Kuwait locking maid in freezer for one year as punishment. She die.
“You were in Kuwait?”
“No, I was in Qatar-- but I hear stories.”.
“So it’s better here in Hong Kong?” I asked.
“Yes, I think so. Sometimes people rude, but it’s ok. Most time they ok. And we get day off when we want.”
Roughly 320,000 foreign domestic helpers, as they're officially called, live in Hong Kong. Almost all of them are women and come from either the Philippines or Indonesia. They are required by law to live with their employers. (Or, phrased differently, employers are required by law to provide housing for their helpers.) Because they can choose which day to have off, most pick Sunday so they can be together.
From Victoria Park to the outdoor lobby of the HSBC building and the footbridges that connect malls, friends gather early in the morning to stake out a good spot. Once they find a plot, they construct what is effectively a temporary informal settlement made of broken-down cardboard boxes and fleece blankets. They bring their own food and battery packs-- I think I even spotted one person with a small generator powering a TV. They nap on the street, listen to music, play cards, and shop in pop-up style flea markets. They openly engage in communion and unapologetically obstruct foot traffic. It’s as if they’re saying, “It’s one day a week-- you can deal with it.” And of course, people seem to do just that.
I asked Jenny where she was going.
“Central-- to meet friends. I introduce these ladies to them so they get friends too.”
“That’s good of you.
“Jahar-- this for you. Take. They say it for good luck.”
Jenny handed me three little inch-long oranges, which are believed to bring prosperity.
“You take good care of people, and the people take good care of you. Yea? Remember that, ok?
February 19, 2018