If you were to ask anyone what makes Hong Kong tick, they’d likely answer “money”, without hesitation. The constant buzz of money being made, spent, won, lost. The prospects, the deals, the dreams, and the nightmares…everyone knows, it’s all about the cash in this city.
However, there’d be none of any of this without the ‘helpers’, the ‘ah–mahs’, the ‘maids’. By whatever name they’re called, there’s no denying that the city’s heartbeat, it’s life blood, is dependent upon the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, mostly female, predominantly Filipina and Indonesian. You’ll find them in one in every eight HK households. However, those numbers are not exactly representative, because many of these women work for multiple employers, doing part-time shifts for people who don’t require a full time, live-in housekeeper. Safe to say, pretty much everyone in Hong Kong has a maid…and depends on them. Cooking, cleaning, fetching children to and from school and activities, and so on. So that Hong Kongers can put their focus on what they try to do best…make money.
One of the most unique scenes a tourist will experience, should they be lucky to visit on any Sunday or public holiday, is the mandatory day off. Unlike other neighbouring countries that also rely heavily on foreign workers, (that have options including pay in lieu of time off), Hong Kong employers must give one day off per week and also recognize all public holidays.
Where does a city of millions, with very little if any free space, build a common gathering place for all of these people? The answer is, they don’t. Just not feasible. And so, the maids take to the streets, with the blessing of the city.
Sundays, in Central, and all the way along through Wan Chai to Causeway Bay, the streets belong to these women. The city has sanctioned various areas for communal gathering, and provides cardboard to use as mats for sitting. Many use this to construct a privacy structure, to play cards, to trade items, to gossip, to nap. A cardboard condo, if you will.
Closer to the CBD, you’ll find the Fillipinas, many line-dancing in groups. Near Victoria Park, the Indonesian helpers offer an adhoc food hawker centre, selling homemade dishes to each other, made earlier and transported in boxes or suitcases to the sidewalks of Causeway Road.
Some may view this entire affair as unfair or demeaning. That may be. But, it is a system that works, for both employer and employee. The finely-tuned, orderly chaos of life in Hong Kong depends on it.