By Nicola Nightingale
Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s award-winning film Roma is a tribute to the maid who looked after him and his siblings with unquestioning loyalty and devotion.
Critics say Roma is largely the tale of the film-maker’s childhood as seen through the eyes of Cleo, but the film, presented in black and white, is more like an attempt to replicate the wide-eyed, uncritical gaze of Cuarón as a small boy.
But whether we are looking through the eyes of a boy or an overworked helper, Roma evokes the past as surely as a family album — and the past can grant absolution for social myopia much as an adult can forgive the misdemeanours of a child.
It makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing in Hong Kong: its depiction of Cleo’s morning-to-nightfall domestic labour, cleaning the home and caring for the children, sometimes directed by an imperious authority, is familiar. Cuarón might have grown up on the other side of the world, but his past is not another country here.
According to 2017 Census and Statistics Department figures, Hong Kong has some 370,000 foreign domestic helpers, the vast majority of whom are women from either the Philippines or Indonesia.
The Hong Kong government dictates that foreign domestic helpers should be paid no less that the minimum allowable monthly wage of HK$4,520 ($575). They should also be provided with free food or a food allowance, which means they are better off — and possibly better treated — than those working in, say, Saudi Arabia, where Filipino helpers earn about $450, or in Singapore, where a monthly salary can be $412, according to the governments of those two countries.
The problem is that the government has also ruled that helpers must live with their employers, who “must provide the helper with suitable accommodation and with reasonable privacy”. In Hong Kong, where a 130 sq ft apartment sells for HK$2.85m, space is at a premium. Many people, both expats and locals, especially working parents, can afford to employ a domestic helper, but few have enough room to offer their employee privacy.
That means that, at best, the helper shares a bedroom with the children or, at worst, sleeps under a kitchen table or in the bathroom. I have known of two expat employers who thought it was a good idea to provide their helpers with a makeshift bed in the tiny, hot space at the top of the stairwell that leads to the roof.
Then there is the isolation. Unlike Cleo, who shares an admittedly cramped room with her close friend the cook, most helpers in Hong Kong work alone and their social life is confined to Sundays. With no space to entertain on their day off, they settle down with compatriots in the city’s streets and parks, and talk, eat, sing, dance and contact their families back home.
Passers-by are bound to feel awkward that their “Cleo”, who has made their life comfortable, has to spend their day off in this way.
Many helpers, unlike Cleo, have to say goodbye to children who have been in their care for years and move on to another employer, and another round of child-raising. Far worse, many have left behind their own children to earn enough to provide a better future for them.
The emotional cost is immeasurable, as Xyza Cruz Bacani, from the Philippines, makes clear in her book We Are Like Air. Bacani, who followed her mother into domestic service in Hong Kong before becoming an award-winning photographer, says: “Growing up without our mother has hit my siblings and me harder than I can admit. Children of migrant workers suffer sorely and their lives are disrupted irreversibly.”
You can read more articles from our Expat Identities series here
Photographs: Getty Images; Netflix; Alamy; AFP/Getty Images