Certifying the Curmudgeon

23 September 2008

Or, You Can’t Always Frame the Feeling

Certificates are a lot like currency – their value ebbs gently through the years until they’re little more than paper, slightly spotted and out of date. The inflation of our expectations drags us away from the places, moments and feelings that once meant a great deal, leaving a residue of pride or satisfaction half remembered. In 40 years I’ve collected a few certificates, for Australian rules football, running, school, university, even interior decoration. They’re the detritus of life, jammed into mainly forgotten places, carried across continents because they mark stages of my life so I only have to remember those days when I discover that tattered piece of paper in a box behind the bookcase, almost out of sight.

I do keep two in frames – my honours degree and PhD testamurs – because I still value the effort and dedication with which I gained them. In a way they define me more than all the previous certificates because I worked towards them, I spent almost 9 years of my life edging ever closer to holding them in my hand. Through sickness, health, delight and disappointment I made it. But I didn’t bother attending the graduation ceremonies because the achievement was internal, something I couldn’t share. Perhaps that’s why the frames are now receding beyond the clutter behind me as I type.

It’s hard to stay focused on yourself for too long.

I arrived in Hong Kong a few months ahead of my PhD testamur, single and somewhat singular. But things have changed as time has passed. I’m married to a woman at once honourable and mischievous, feisty and calm. I have two small kids and a step daughter now. They came with certificates too – well, all but my step daughter. In any case, I love them all fiercely and through them I’ve learned the value of helping others, the importance of change in an unjust world, the significance of rights defended each day, every hour. The world is a bigger place.

But I only realised the most telling change two days ago. On Saturday we spent time amongst friends; some we’ve known for years, others for months, a few for hours. The gathering had a purpose, to raise funds for Bethune House, a shelter for abused domestic helpers over on Kowloon side, here in Hong Kong. I’ve written about some of these women before – the beaten and repressed, those stolen from and stabbed, abused and raped. They’re the dust of life, or they would be if they just settled, stopped agitating.

The day culminated in a charity auction preceded by a few formalities. A speech or two, some cultural presentations, a break for snacks. So it goes when people gather according to schedule – the prelude to the main event settles them down, prepares them for the action. Suitably prepared I was listening to a string of names called out, waiting for people to receive certificates acknowledging their efforts in making the day possible, and in allowing Bethune House to continue giving shelter when few other people care.

I was also thinking about my wife, crouched down on the floor in the dark two days after our wedding, crying because she had to be back at work in another, richer district by 6:00 am, would have to work until midnight or more, would have to endure three more months of domestic servitude and the aches and pains and demands. The perversity of it all is that she was lucky; her daily struggles against unreason inflicted no physical pain, no mental abuse.

And then I heard her name.

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Back to Bethune

12 September 2008

There’s Always a Helper in Need of Help

Sometimes a little good news can seep out of the most strained circumstances. Two weeks ago I wrote about Bethune House, a temporary refuge for mistreated and otherwise abused domestic helpers here in Hong Kong. Outlining their travails – which are very much those of an underclass, as I’ll have cause to mention again soon – I offered a worrying ratio. The House has 22 bed spaces but was accommodating over 60 residents. Most of the women slept on the floor, and the organisation was in dire financial need. Today I received an email from Edwina Antonio, who works tirelessly in her role as Director of Bethune House. Amid other, far less palatable news, was a morsel of optimism – the House now only has 42 residents, with 20 women having moved on.

There is sometimes a little hope to be had in this mad, mad world.

But tomorrow I’ll be heading back to Bethune House with friends and family, remitting the small amount of money we’ve collected and delivering more much needed rice. To say that the residents are facing times could well be an understatement – Edwina is still struggling to drag in the cash and food that’ll tide them over for this month and next. After that the fates will have to decide.

I mention this now because in the interim I’ve been doing what I hopefully do best – writing about the situation. After Edwina used my previous post as an article for the newsletter produced by the Mission for Migrant Workers (the organisation to which she belongs), I posted a more formal appeal for help on the other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong. One of the users on an expatriate website, GeoExpat, reposted it and we received a mild but favourable response. That led me to writing a similar article for GeoExpat’s monthly online newsletter, highlighting more problems Bethune House residents were facing and announcing another fund-raising effort – an open house on the 20th of this month.

One of the GeoExpat users took almost immediate exception to my piece, writing a lengthy reply even before I had time to click on the email link and go to the site to read it in situ, so to speak. Admittedly, I don’t check my private email all that quickly during the day, but this user was fast. The three main points of objection were that most employers of domestic helpers in Hong Kong were ‘good’, that I had somehow erred in describing these women as “Hong Kong’s underclass” and that they should try to work elsewhere under worse conditions, perhaps the more exploitative of the Middle Eastern destinations.

Now the last of these objections is easy to dispel, because it’s not really an objection at all but a logical fallacy. The somewhat primitive ‘if you don’t like it, leave’ argument is played out time and again in disagreements between happy locals – or their near analogues – and disgruntled ‘outsiders’, however they might be defined. It also does absolutely nothing to address any of the concerns raised; it’s a red herring that at best distracts, at worst shows the desperation of a baseless argument. And that allows me to consider the first objection. How did the user know that ‘most’ employers are good? It’s hardly an effective quantitative claim, and I had already cited 62 cases against it – that being the number of residents then in Bethune House. Even an attempt to name a few people who were good employers might have made the argument credible.

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Blogging for Dissidents

13 May 2008

A Handbook and a Change of Heart

Colour my community, by carf, with Creative Commons licenceBlogging, like life, has a habit of sneaking up on you and offering something different from what you expected. I had intended to use this post to introduce a new set of microreviews in the sidebar, but circumstances led me to a change of heart. I decided to drop the negative No! No! No! review category and use the spare text box for something far more important – a link to the Handbook for Blogging and Cyber-Dissidents published by Reporters Without Borders. A copy of the handbook’s cover is there now on the right, with a brief explanation of what it’s all about.

I came by the handbook through a slightly twisted route that’s worth mentioning because it’ll feature in another post soon. Like the photographs in this post, a good few of the photos I’ve been using lately were posted on Flickr by the Children at Risk Foundation. CARF operates in Brazil and the Netherlands to defend the rights of street kids, and to help them out. Gregory Smith, the organisation’s founder, takes the stunning photos, which shift me through a range of emotions even as they move through other people’s more difficult but no less promising lives.

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Just One, or More?

21 April 2008

Other Unexplained Filipino Deaths in Hong Kong

Ace Investigations, by Jeremy Brooks, with Creative Commons licenceNot every death is a tragedy alone. Sometimes the passing of one person draws attention to those of others, and the unanswered questions pile on top of each other. One of the most troubling aspects about Vicenta Flores’ death in Hong Kong recently is that she was not the only Filipino domestic helper to die in April. She was the third – another two women, reported as suicides, died on the day Vicky went missing.

Three deaths and so little fuss.

How does this happen with relative ease? Allow me to suggest a reason deeply embedded in the structure of Hong Kong life. The relationship between domestic helpers, mainly Filipinos and Indonesians, and their employers in Hong Kong rests on the sharp edge of suspicion. While this by no means covers all employers, there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence from helpers pointing to constant surveillance, allegations of theft and general disregard for the conditions of labour contracts.

My sister-in-law is expected to work past midnight when she starts at five in the morning, to give one example that I can verify. A family friend was recently accused of stealing her employer’s jewellery and dismissed not long after without any investigation from the Immigration Department, to give another. Dismissal without reasonable cause, incidentally, is a breach of the labour contract – but it seems that any excuse will do.

...unanswered prayers. by underbunny, with Creative Commons licenceThis situation, added to the almost incidental ethnic segregation I mentioned a while back and obvious differences in social standing, make for constant malcontent. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some Filipinos are furious about the three deaths. Writing on his blog yesterday, activist Aaron Ceradoy asked “When will these stop? How do we make them stop?” It’s a cry of desperation, a prayer into thin air.

Filipino migrant worker groups are now asking the same questions, and will be holding a rally on Sunday to express their indignation. The presumption is that the greater part of Hong Kong society just doesn’t care.

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Market Malady

27 March 2008

Ethnic Segregation, Maids and Shopping in Hong Kong

Hong Kong at night, by wok, with Creative Commons licenceHong Kong is renowned for two things: its libertarian economy and its cosmopolitan outlook. Here the dollar is king, and people from around the world can meet, exchange and learn in the market. It’s the economics of the human condition. Or it would be, if the city weren’t ethnically segregated.

No, you say, surely not! But consider this first up: in presenting the 2006 by-census data, the Race Relations Unit of the local government describes the 95% majority in ethnic terms as “Han Chinese”. Then it labels all fair-skinned non-Chinese residents as “self-identified” (because that’s the only choice they’re given on the census) “white”, and lists other minority groups under national designations such as “Indonesians”, “Filipinos” and “Nepalese”.

Raceposter1, by tamarabianca11, with Creative Commons licence So, despite a Race Relations Unit committee that is supposed to promote ‘racial harmony’, for minorities we have one term that coheres a range of dissimilar ethnic groups under a skin colour that is no more white, and often less so, than the appearance of many ‘authentic’ locals, and designations that deliberately separate ethically similar people (Indonesians and Filipinos are both ethnic Malays). Framing this wayward categorisation we have the curious use of “Han Chinese”, when almost everyone here identifies with the Cantonese ethnic subgroup.

But, of course, we’re part of China now, and all Chinese should be the patriotic same.

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