Monday, January 26, 2004

January 26, 2004

Close to midnight, the crowd became noticeably thicker after Tin Hau station and the pace of walking slowed considerably until, once inside Victoria Park, the mass of people morphed into a river I had somehow melded with and walking became an involuntary reflex.

Inside Victoria Park that night was a churning multitude guided by huge signs pleading "One Way!" and "No entry!" and propelled by gaiety and shouting, the jostling an annual expedition in search of all things lucky. It was the eve of the Chinese New Year and Victoria Park was Lucky Charms Central, a gathering place of residents and goodwill and wishes for a bountiful new Lunar Year. It was the eve of the Year of Monkey, when Hong Kong fortunetellers work overtime and temples swell with huge crowds and anything red sells like hotcakes, including underwear. No matter how tacky, observed the Agence France-Presse, "if it's red it's hot!"

Hours later, after a short and fitful sleep, I found myself strolling past Victoria Park on my way to Hong Kong Central and saw the empty stalls and other skeletal remains of the previous night's party. First day of the Lunar New Year. The human river had emptied, and in place of the throng were hundreds of Indonesian domestic help seated in small huddles, nibbling on packed meals and chatting away around benches and trees and the stone floor of the park. Half an hour away by foot, communes of Filipina domestic workers occupied the peripheries of pedestrian lanes surrounding the Admiralty Centre.

It was windy, the sky was overcast and the temperature hovered around 10 degrees.

Man has set foot on the moon and Mars, I thought, as I walked towards the Star Ferry terminal. Trillions of dollars pass through the global casino economy daily and a dizzying array of technological devices are created each year that allow people to traverse with the blink of an eye boundaries once upon a time restricted by geography. The bold new world of a new global order for some. And for the rest, an old world segregated by familiar borders.

During holidays such as the Lunar New Year and on Sundays, many walkways leading to Hong Kong Central are lined with cluster upon cluster of Filipina domestic help literally living a slice of life on the margins.

This is their momentary domicile - perimeters demarcated by corrugated cardboards and lain along the sides of footpaths and walkways - the space between destinations constituting neither starting point nor ending and largely emblematic of their condition.

Here, when they take the day off, between Chater Garden and the majestic Jardine House, Filipina domestic help colonize tiny two-meter cardboard squares fenced with bags and plastic and marked frequently by a terrace of shoes. Few dare to step on the cardboard with their footwear on; it is a geometric space that is kept free from dirt where they are free to be languid and carefree with their limited free time.

They share food and newspapers and stories here, plenty of stories, among clusters where resignation exists side by side with resolve and where stories are as much a domain as the margins that for a few hours will be their temporary autonomous dwelling. With their stories they trespass each other's domains freely and make them often into their own.

Here, South Asian and Chinese peddlers flock around a group squatting underneath a large Banyan tree. The vendors are selling blouses, phone cards and fake perfume, their wares in small suitcases and packets that are easy to carry in case a policeman suddenly turns up. Foreign domestic helpers are a huge market here; disposable income is often spent on gifts for the family back home, Sunday wear, lunch in a decent restaurant, or the ubiquitous mobile phone.

Here, in her corrugated abode, a Filipina plays tong-its, a Filipino version of poker, and other card games except solitaire, which is played rarely. Here, she opens a container of steaming soup that she passes around till there is nothing left but smiles all around. Drinks are shared and a few oranges are soon peeled eaten, pieces of the fruit making its way to a cluster sitting beside them.

Here, five women are caught in a heated argument, and they argue all at once so that only the surrounding clusters are aware of the points each one is making. Those within earshot already know the troubles of the five women and some are already chuckling; others, however, have turned their eyes away and ignore the noise, embarrassed for the women.

In another cardboard square, a young Filipina is in tears and three older women surround her and try to comfort her; the young one' sobs are gentle but her face bears a grief that appears inconsolable.

Here a shout goes up and a woman stands up and wild cheer bursts from her group; the woman has won the pot in a poker game and she does a silly jig around a pile of Hong Kong coins. It is a trivial amount but they are having a good time.

Here a young woman leans on the shoulders of another who has dozed off; one arm is wrapped around the sleeping woman's waist and their hands are clasped and their faces are tranquil.

The cardboard squares are of no use against the cold of Hong Kong's winter, but somehow they provide vital warmth. They are precincts of both malady and joy, for in the modern Filipino experience that is migrant work, despondency has fused with the delight of companionship.

1. Plenty of thanks to Mike Davis for "Bush and the Great Wall" and to for publishing the Davis article.
2. "Plenty of Monkey business promised in spending spree" Georgina Lee, The Standard-HK, January 21, 2004.
3. "Superstition makes new year comeback!" Cindy Sul, The Standard-HK, January 20, 2004.

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