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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Renato Redentor Constantino
January 19, 2004

She is the mother of all our children and she represents both the core character of the Filipino -- selflessness and resilience -- and the fate that millions of other Filipinos have had little choice but to accept. There are eight million Filipinos working abroad today; 130,000 of them are in Hong Kong. Erma Geolamin, a foreign domestic help for 14 years, is one of them.

Erma left the country in 1990, the year the great earthquake shook Baguio and Cabanatuan. "I remember very little about what happened in the year I left," Erma said, "except that it was a painful parting. Oh, I think Rino Arcones died that year too."

"Who's Arcones?" I asked. "He was with Bombo Radyo. I've always dreamt of being a reporter," Erma said, suddenly spry. "Arcones was an idol of mine. He's very brave; I think I'm foolishly brave like him also. I always listened to Rino's broadcasts then. He was always exposing some scandal. When he died that year, it made me really sad. But that was a long time ago," Erma said dismissively.

Erma, a college graduate, first worked in Malaysia for four years; later on she moved to Hong Kong where the pay was a little higher, which meant that her children would all have a better chance to finish school.

Many things had happened since she left the country. In 1999, Erma left her husband when she found out that he had squandered the savings she had been sending home and that he had been sleeping with another woman, whose occupation she found severely unnerving. "All the while I toiled, he was sleeping with an embalmer," Erma exclaimed closing her eyes as if to shake off the thought. Erma is like many Filipinos; she can be solemn and feisty in the span of a second, capable of finding something oddlyamusing even in the most dire of situations, and she does not fear death but is deathly afraid of the dead.

There have been three new administrations since Erma left the Philippines in 1990, and possibly a fourth one unless Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gets reelected. So much has changed and so much has remained the same, particularly the nastier ones. Year after year, Filipinos working overseas continue to remit to the Philippines the dollars that keep the country's economy afloat. And year after year, too, the Philippine government automatically re-exports the dollars earned by Filipino migrant workers to pay or debts many of which were ill-gotten. According to the Freedom from Debt Coalition, from 1980 to 2002, the Philippine government automatically allocated a mind-boggling P2.5 trillion for debtpayments.

What does she say to all this, I asked Erma one cold January morning in Hong Kong. Was she aware at all of this policy?

Yes, she said, but only recently. "It is cruelty. They have no right to throw out what we have earned. They should all go to jail, especially the officials who allow this to continue."

Who will you vote for this coming elections, I asked Erma, who has devoted the little spare time she has to helping address, among other things, the electoral needs of Filipinos in Hong Kong, a highly organized work force which had the highest turn-out of registered voters among all the countries that participated in the recent overseas voter registration process. Perhaps because 94 percent of the Filipinos working in Hong Kong are women?

"President Arroyo and Roco are both very arrogant and I don't like them," Erma said "And their intelligence has meant nothing." "And Fernando Poe, Jr.?" I asked. "FPJ?" Erma replied as she laughed. "What about Pimentel?" I asked. "Pimentel is very good but he won't win. Even so I would have voted for him but he's no longer running [for president] he said. Sayang." "Ping Lacson?" I asked. "I think I will only vote for senators," said Erma.

Bitter years have not corroded her spirit. Erma continues to feed herself the vitamins of survival and meaning. Such as regular texting with her youngest child, who is now in high school; challenging, along with nine others, the legality and constitutionality of the Hong Kong government's recent decision drastically reducing the minimum wage of foreign domestic help in Hong Kong; Sunday church and lunches at Hong Kong City Hall with her fellow Ilonggos; and the fulfillment of one of her dreams. Since 2002, Erma has been sending regular articles to a Hong Kong-based Filipino newspaper, which also helps augment her income.

Her stories are all true to life and reflect a keen discriminating eye. The kleptomaniac employer who steals from his Filipina maid's wallet. A Filipina mother of three, whose love for the child of her Chinese employer was as if the child was one of her own, despite the language barrier and notwithstanding the difficulty of handling the child's frequent epileptic seizures. The comical account of a Filipina domestic help who was constantly hungry because her employer often gave her only a biscuit each day "and sometimes no biscuits at all." "One day," Erma said, "the Filipina decided to set aside HK$5 from the money she was given to buy daily groceries. The Filipina told herself that if her employer would not give her anything to eat, then part of the grocery money should be spent to buy her food. The Filipina bought only bread, which she would hide in a secret place and take out only after the owner had left. One day, however, after her employer had gone out of the apartment, she discovered that the bread was gone. Then out of nowhere, Erma recounted, "the child of the owner appeared and surprised the Filipina. 'Where did you get the bread,' the child asked. Fed up with sneaking about, the Filipina firmly told the child 'I pinch money from your father because he doesn't even give me anything to eat!' The child replied 'Well can you take some more from my dad? He doesn't give me anything to eat either.'"

"If you want friendship, gentleness and poetry to cross your path through life," said Georges Duhamel, "take them with you." Erma Geolamin continues to live Duhamel's wisdom and longs only for a few more things. To the permanent proximity of family she adds something new -- long prison terms for the officials who keep on throwing out of the country her life's honest earnings.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2004

January 12, 2004

Frowns rarely reach her oval face, but smiles, too, do not come easily. Yet she is never expressionless; everything about her is implicit. Her eyes, the way her hands unconsciously stir as she ponders over a word, the way she nods or shakes her head as if she was just swaying. Her movements are measured like her words and her bearing emanates grace and the quiet dignity that is the reward of all honest toil.

Her name is Loretta Brunio, a tall slender woman from the Bicol region with an imposing soul. She has been working as a foreign domestic help in Hong Kong for 10 years. Though she is an eloquent speaker Loretta rarely speaks in excess; solitude can be a gifted teacher. The observant, however, will notice that facets of Loretta's spirit betray her frequently. When her brows furrow you, too, are troubled; and when she smiles, you soar with her. The rest of the time you listen.

She has been the chairperson thrice of the Coalition for Migrant Rights (CMR), a distinguished organization that she helped form in 1999 - from idea to fruition - and while she continues to work full time as a domestic help she remains a tribune of migrant workers in Hong Kong. A gentle woman whose humility and simplicity frames her very character, not because of the nature of her employment, though this may have been the case when she first arrived in Hong Kong a decade ago, but because, in her words, "there is always a foreign domestic worker here who is in greater need of succor than you are. Hindi lang Pilipino [Not just Filipinos]." Loretta represents the repudiation of stultifying Filipino regionalism. Along with her equally dedicated colleagues, she saw to it that the first composition of CMR were Filipinos, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Thais, Nepalese and Indians.

You wonder where she finds the time to do all this. Rest should take up the remainder of the day after her work; the body needs pause and the soul needs respite in order to shore up the walls that hem in the cloister of heartaches. But she finds time.

We met on a Sunday at the Hong Kong International Trade and Exhibition Centre in Kowloon Bay, where President Arroyo, who was on her way then to Bahrain, had delivered a two-hour speech to 5,000 overseas Filipino workers, the great majority of whom were Filipina domestic help. Loretta attended the event out of curiosity while I was there to cover Mrs. Arroyo's address -- a mish mash of tired platitudes sprinkled with bizarre spiels. "When I was young, you were just a few hundred then," Mrs. Arroyo had said in a congratulatory tone as she pointed to the Filipino band which had entertained the crowd prior to her arrival. "Now," said the beaming president, "you're in the hundreds of thousands!"

Loretta Brunio. Her sister was the one who had brought her to Hong Kong, she said. "My sister's with a born-again organization in Hong Kong and she thought it was her chance to help me find steady income and get me away from my activist inclinations." Before Hong Kong, Loretta had worked for ten years with a textile industry trade union in Valenzuela. Work did not pay much, she said, but it was important work and it was enough. It seemed to be enough but it wasn't.

"I spent some time attending some of the prayer activities of my sister's group," said Loretta, "but I found neither solace nor motivation there." Within a year, without any planning, Loretta found herself organizing foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong. Loretta left the Philippines in 1993, the year Mayon Volcano erupted and the year the Ramos government insanely dismantled tariffs that protected Philippine industries in rates unheard of in the world. Loretta's departure sought to arrest the onset of an impending fact - the absence of a viable future for her children. She wanted food on the family's table and good health and education for her children. In the Philippines, these are aspirations.

For the Philippine government, over which brilliant economists have long held sway, the departure of Loretta and others like her is a boon. They are expected to bring in the dollars that alone have kept the country precariously afloat and have maintained the illusion that the Philippine economy is not sinking under the weight of corruption and the continuation of spectacularly flawed economic policies. Such as the annual automatic allocation of a third of the national budget to pay off debts incurred mostly by thieving officials, corporations and banks - a monumental barbarity that re-exports the dollars remitted by overseas Filipino workers.

And yet this is merely a portion of the madness. For behind almost every statistic of Filipino workers "deployed" by government to work abroad is a home fighting to keep the fabric of family intact.

Loretta has three kids, the youngest of whom, Ivy, was two years old when she left; Abigail, the middle child, was four and J-R was six. Of the three, Loretta said Abigail takes to her the most. "Abigail is very straightforward like me," said Loretta with a rare giggle. "She has a strong personality. She hasn't yet decided on what she wants to do, which is fine. She's enjoying herself." Loretta glowed as she described her children, her smile radiant and enchanting.

J-R, her eldest, is sixteen and about to graduate from high school. "He's the MVP in his basketball league," she said proudly. Loretta said she intended to sign one last contract, which in Hong Kong runs for two years, but "J-R wants to study nautical engineering. He's a clever young man who deserves four years of training, which is expensive. So maybe two contracts and hopefully that's it."

Loretta's eyes shined widest as she described Ivy, her youngest, who is now 12 years old. "We called her Bilog when she was a baby because she was so chubby. The name stuck; I still call her Bilog today even though she is much slimmer. She's a very sweet girl who loves to sing. She has a beautiful voice; I have tapes of Ivy singing. I often play her tapes at night. She's my antibiotic. Some nights, when sadness is overwhelming, I call up Ivy and ask her to sing for me and then I'm okay."

Then Loretta fell silent and her eyes drifted away.

Loneliness is a furtive adversary. In Hong Kong, it has a certain velocity - it loiters around conversations and at night lingers in the space between the blanket and the bed sheet where the woman -- the mother, the daughter, the sister -- curls up and dreams of home.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2004

January 5, 2004

Daybreak. The opening verse. The first week of the first month of a new year.

What will the rest of it bring? Another epidemic of hostilities on top of the current plague? Who's to know?

"While [we] are trying to put out a fire on one side of the Earth, another fire inevitably begins to rage up from the sparks and tinder of history neglected," said Kenneth Champeon.

Without memory, the motivation behind the deeds of men can be terribly inscrutable.

A hundred years ago on January 5, the Wright brothers stated to the Associated Press that they had achieved their goal with the Kitty Hawk flights: "We packed our goods and returned home, knowing that the age of the flying machine had come at last." Powered flight - an idea, eulogized the US government, "born of dreams [and] inspired by freedom." A year later, when asked what the purpose of their machine was, Wilbur Wright answered simply, "War."

Born of dreams but freedom was not the inspiration. According to George Monbiot, as soon as the Wright Brothers were confident that their craft worked, they "approached the war offices of several nations, hoping to sell their patent to the highest bidder. The US government bought it for $30,000, and started test bombing in 1910."

We hurtle towards the great unknown but we are not alone; the past is present. We are accompanied by the old hopes of wise folks who preferred the path that did not lead to oblivion.

Let the blind lead the blind.

Helen Keller, blind and deaf and childhood emblem. Disneyfied and handicapped by history to be forever extolled solely for overcoming her physical handicaps and not for her soaring spirit. "Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder... Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction!" said Keller to the working women and men assembled in Carnegie Hall in 1916, the year before the US entered the European war.

Keller, who abhorred those she called "socially blind and deaf" who defended "an intolerable system." Keller, the visionary who speaks to us today: "Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought!"

As with J.R.R. Tolkien; he speaks to us too.

Celebrated author, creator of Middle Earth, he disliked the notion propounded by some of his readers that The Lord of the Rings was more than just "a story of what happened in B.C. year X, and it just happened to people who were like that!" He especially detested attempts to use his work as an allegory to cloak as "forces of good" wars waged by whichever side on another.

Yet Tolkien himself had to admit to the poet W.H. Auden that what he created was also a moral narrative, that although "the historical period is imaginary," the "theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we live."

"[M]y story is not an allegory of Atomic power, but of Power (exerted for domination)," wrote Tolkien in 1956. "Nuclear physics can be used for that purpose. But they need not be. They need not be used at all... If there is any contemporary reference in my story at all it is to what seems to me the most widespread assumption of our time: that if a thing can be done, it must be done. This seems to me wholly false. The greatest examples of the action of the spirit and of reason are in abnegation."

The power to deny deadly power. The power of refusal.

Governments holding the mightiest of arsenals quake in the face of such power. A power discovered by 100,000 deserters in the US army during its war on Vietnam. A power wielded last month by over 30 Israeli refuseniks - officers of Israel's air force, the most revered branch of the Israeli military - who denounced the Palestinian occupation as eating at the moral fabric of Israel. The refuseniks who said they would no longer carry out illegal orders to bomb Palestinian cities.

The power held by Mordechai Vanunu, who chose to tell the world in 1986 that Israel was the greatest threat to the Middle East, that it had clandestinely created a stockpile of over 200 nuclear weapons. An act of conscience for which he was punished by craven men with 18 years of incarceration. Vanunu has spent over 11 of those years in complete isolation; this year is his 18th in prison.

Israel is the world's sixth largest nuclear power yet neither the Dimona nuclear weapons factory, which Vanunu exposed, nor Israel's biological and chemical weapons factory in Nes Zion, are open to international inspection. And yet America, supposedly searching for weapons of mass destruction, persists in quarrying spider holes in Tikrit and Baghdad and perhaps soon in Tehran.

"It is a dangerous illusion to believe they [nuclear weapons] can be defensive," wrote Vanunu from his prison cell in Ashkelon. "Only peace between states can promise security."

Vanunu, a fallible man of flesh and blood like the rest of us and yet Israel, its insecurities the precis of its perfidies, quakes at his impending release. Trembles at the power Vanunu holds. The whistleblower who chose abnegation. The man who diagnosed what was wrong with the world in a poem he wrote in prison: "I am the clerk, the technician, the mechanic, the driver. They said, Do this, do that, don't look left or right, don't read the text. Don't look at the whole machine. You are only responsible for this one bolt, this one rubber stamp." A salve and slavery Vanunu would refuse.

Vanunu's vile 18-year prison sentence will end this April - the month the world celebrates Earth Day. What better way to show our planetary affections than to ensure the freedom of Mordechai Vanunu? He will soon be free. Let us all head to the Embassy of Israel and demand Vanunu's release. And the release of the Middle East as well from the nuclear weapons that Israel continues to store. We must make it so.

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1. From "Lessons Unlearned: Gabriel Kolko's Anatomy of a War," Kenneth Champeon's review of Kolko's book.
4. George Monbiot, "A weapon with wings," The Guardian, December 16, 2003.
5. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1981. Tolkien also wrote, interestingly, "I am not a 'democrat' only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power - and then we get and are getting slavery."
6. Passionate Declarations: Essays on war and justice, Howard Zinn, Pantheon Books, 2003.
7. "'We're air force pilots, not mafia. We don't take revenge'," Chris McGreal, The Guardian-UK, December 3, 2003.
8. "Anniversary of a whistle blower," Renato Redentor Constantino, TODAY, October 6, 2003.
9. "Israel Is Concerned About Whistleblower," Gavin Rabinowitz, Associated Press, December 30, 2003.
10. For the best background concerning the famed whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, see