Kowloon by Night

The Dark Side of Migrant Labour in Hong Kong

Evening falls on Kowloon like a mood, gently at first and then with a sting that drains the day. Nathan Road swallows traffic by the mile and spits back noise and fumes as pedestrians push up against each other on the bulging sidewalk. Neon signs hang from buildings like over-ripened fruit, hawking seafood and spirits, Chinese medicine and the melancholy of girlie bars where light never dares to go.

This part of Hong Kong the British barely even owned; they just left their little marks as time moved them on. Step around the corner onto Jordan Road and the crowd drifts away. Look beyond the high-rise shadows and there – look now, or you might just miss it – is one of those reminders that past days are gone. An old house, a church, perhaps a school, the shape suggests authority once remembered. The Romans offered the miracle of concrete to the Mediterranean world; the British multiplied it rudely in the sweated tropics.

The house has a name now – Bethune – and it stands as a monument to social change in the empire’s dying days, when Hong Kong’s wealth, or the fear of loosing it, swelled the ranks of foreign amahs as the local middle classes sent their wives to work for ten, twelve, maybe fourteen hours a day. In the intimacy of private homes commercial contracts tear and fray, and as amahs became maids and then domestic helpers – as Filipinos were joined by Indonesians and many more besides – the unreasoned contrast between employee expectations and employer arrogance spilled out onto the streets.

Bethune House is a migrant women’s shelter, a refuge for domestic helpers who have been unduly dismissed by their employers. Some have been abused – physically, mentally, sexually – and others exploited, underpaid, overworked, stripped of rights. All remain in Hong Kong because they’re pursuing justice through the semi-formal Labour Tribunal or the daunting courts, if their cases ever go to trial. Their employers have new maids now, new victims, but these women are forbidden to work again until they’ve finished with their recourse to the law. If they leave Hong Kong their chance of restitution evaporates.

Walk with me now into the building, retrace the steps I took last night with my wife, daughter and friends. Trudge up the long flight of stairs to the second floor. Pass the suitcases jammed in where handrails should be, the women standing, waiting, expectant. Impermanence leaks into everything, but one woman has been here two years now with no real end in sight. The scene is much like the overcrowded transit lounge of a rundown bus interchange, but the Greyhound might never come.

The House itself occupies only one floor of the building; its lounge and other two main rooms overflow with luggage, furniture and people. There are twenty-two bed spaces but sixty-two people live here, sleeping three or four to a bunk, on the couches and anywhere else. One woman sleeps on a timber chest, most sleep on the floor. Thank you, Hong Kong, for the privilege.

At the back of the House the kitchen is jammed with women talking, doing, or wanting to do. But there’s a problem. They ate their last rice at lunch time, and there’s no money to buy any more. They’re not short for a while, and they don’t have any credit anywhere. The rice really has run out.

“These are rice eating people” explains Edwina Antonia, Director of the House who lives with the women. “If they don’t have rice, they have nothing to eat”. And what little else they have could hardly be called a meal. It could hardly be called a pittance. So we bring rice, about 70 kilos of it, and some noodles, sauce, whatever else we can buy or collect from others. For sixty two people, that won’t quite last a week.

Who brings rice next week, who pays the rent? Edwina faced the Legislative Council Panel on Home Affairs a few years back, when the government was making one of its many attempts to strip Bethune House of its charitable status. One of the ‘x-files’ she offered back to the government was the otherworldly claim that “Asian women migrant workers are not considered poor”. Perhaps not by starving families in Africa, but here? Visit the Peak, visit Jordan, then give me your answer.

Every year, every week, each decade, Edwina and other tireless people who spend every moment of their lives helping domestic helpers in Hong Kong manage to scrape together just enough to lurch from one emergency to another. In the over-crowed rooms of Bethune House, pushed up against each other day in and day out, are the real survivors of this city, because they manage to make a stand. They can’t leave without justice because they can’t even afford to go home. And when they return it’s poverty that greets them. But don’t think they have it any better here.

Bethune House is both a triumph and a tragedy. It’s what happens when an underclass refuses to flinch, will not move, but it lies always in the shadows, almost out of sight.

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