Carving through Rigid Space: Filipina Domestic Workers at Statue Square, Hong Kong, by Zhuofan Chen

September 14, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Figure 1: Filipina domestic workers’ gathering, view from Chater Road towards Statue Square – Visual China Group.

Abstract

Every Sunday,  at the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district, thousands of Filipina domestic workers gather to transform the public ground of Statue Square. Collectively they convert the space into temporary venues for all types of social interactions. (Fig. 1) This essay first contextualizes the phenomenon by analyzing the oppression­—spatial inequality and constraining of sexuality—the helpers face in the domestic sphere of their employers. The essay then argues that the Filipinas establish their autonomy and agency through the reappropriation of the public space, using theories developed by Michel de Certeau in his work The Practice of Everyday Life to evaluate the everyday creative resistance occurring in the square and elsewhere.

 

Arriving in Hong Kong

Following the region’s economic boom in the 1970s, Hong Kong saw a dramatic increase of women in the workforce. With females taking up employment outside of the domestic sphere, there was a simultaneous increase in demand for live-in domestic helpers and a decrease in the number of women available to provide such service.[1] In 1975, 1000 Filipino women arrived in Hong Kong on designated domestic worker contracts to help fill the gap. Many were well educated, fluent in English and conveniently motivated by their home government’s new legislation promoting labour export.[2] Since then, the number of Filipino domestic helpers in Hong Kong has been steadily increasing, reaching 140,500 by 1998 and stood elevated at 189,000 in 2016. Of these almost 200,000 workers, 99% are female and relatively young, with a median age of 35 according to the latest statistics. [3]

 

Oppression in Domestic Space: Surveillance, Suspicion, and Discipline

Domestic workers are required by employment law to “live-in”. In a city notorious for its limited living spaces, the pay gap between foreign and local labour enabled Hong Kong residents without sufficient home space to employ live-in helpers, resulting in general sub-standard accommodation for the employees.[4] The helpers are often physically restricted to the service space in the household. As demonstrated in a report by Mission for Migrant Worker, in many cases the domestic helpers had to curl up in cabinets on top of the shower, sleep beneath hanging laundries, retreat into cupboards above the fridge or lay on the floor in the children’s room. As one woman described: “This ‘cupboard’ is my private bedroom; I belong to the kitchen.” (Fig. 2,3) [5] The spatial arrangements emphasize the hierarchy of the family and the helper’s position as servant 24 hours a day, as even after working hours the helpers would not be able to rest without disturbance and constant surveillance from the employers. Furthermore, many helpers are not allowed to leave the apartments during the workdays and maintain minimal contact with their language or culture. As a result, live-in helpers often experience an overwhelming sense of isolation and distress. On their days off, most helpers would “try to be outside as much possible,” seeking relief from the deplorable living conditions.[6]

Figure 2: Two views of living accommodations for foreign domestic workers, “They hang clothes to dry on top of the sofa which is my ‘bed’” – Mission for Migrant Workers.

Figure 3: Two views of living accommodations for foreign domestic workers, “This ‘cupboard’ is my private bedroom; I belong to the kitchen.” – Mission for Migrant Workers.

The foreign helpers face not only spatial restriction and surveillance but also moral suspicion and discipline. For many Hong Kong residents, the presence of a foreign woman within their home constitutes a fundamental moral challenge to the existing patterns of authority and the rigid integrity of traditional Chinese families.[7] Locals often hold the helpers as “moral suspects” and presume the women are here to “to find a man and obtain financial security”.[8] The media constantly associates domestic helpers to the sex industry, reporting under sensationalist titles such as “Unknown to Employer’s Family of Four, Foreign Helper Prostitutes Online.”[9] For Filipina domestic workers, this devitalizing stereotype of obedient seductress is a result of a multitude of socio-cultural factors tracing back to the nation’s colonial history.[10] Over the four decades of American occupation from 1898-1946, sex industries thrived around the U.S. military bases in the Philippines. This drove many poverty-stricken women into becoming “entertainers” or “hospitality girls.” The government to some extent promoted this image of Filipina women as pleasing and subservient providers of services—sexual and otherwise­—to compete in the international tourism market and gain foreign currency.[11]

The fear of the Hong Kong employers over the moral corruption brought forth by the sexuality of foreign domestic helpers led to their discipline and oppression of the workers’ expression of sexuality in the domestic sphere. Many helpers must not wear dresses or skirts,  nail polish, jewelry, perfume, or make-up. In some cases, they are even demanded to cut short their long hair to appear as gender-neutral and non-sexual as possible.[12] As a result, for the helpers, the private rituals of self-expression are actively suppressed in their own homes, their sexuality constantly constrained.

 

“Strategies” vs. “Tactics”: Poaching within the Rigid City

Casting off the cultural convention and moral disciplines of their Chinese employers once a week, the Filipinas navigate their way through the urban fabric of Hong Kong in search of their own space—they arrive at Statue Square. The next part seeks to employ de Certeau’s theory to investigate how “strategies” were constructed by the establishments at the square and how the Filipina domestic workers deployed their “tactics” to poach the regulated territory and construct their creative resistance to not only the repressive system dictating public spaces but also the repression of identity and sexuality they face in the society at large.

In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau established the distinction between “strategies” and “tactics” in the context of contemporary cities. “Strategies” are determined by the structure of power and institutions to define space and dictate how individuals should act and interact within the space. “Tactics,” on the other hand, are routines and “making do” practiced by those who are subjugated, guided only by one’s belief and instincts, thus creating “an element of creative resistance” to the repressive order constructed by institutional bodies. [13] De Certeau further establishes that contemporary cities have a unified whole generated by “strategies,” however the route individuals take through the city and the specific interactions they carry out can never be fully determined by the strategy of the governing bodies, thus “tactics” are formed and individuals are capable of “poaching” space within the regulated territories. [14]

 

Statue Square: The Making of “Strategies” 

Figure 4: View from the southwestern corner of the Statue Square in the 1920s. The statue of Queen Victoria is in the center with the original canopy. Supreme Court is on the front-right, the Hong Kong Club is in the back behind the Cenotaph. – Keystone Stone View Company.

Statue Square, since the day of its birth, was dictated by rigid “strategies” from structures of power. Located in the district of Central, the square was first constructed at the end of the nineteenth century dedicated to Queen Victoria. (Fig. 4) Chater Road passed through the square dividing it into two parts. It was an exclusive space for the colonial Western elites, with buildings and establishments only accessible to people of European origin and a very limited amount of Chinese elite. (Fig. 5) The initial square inherited the hierarchy and officialness of the public space of the 18th century, serving as a monument to the institution in power. Individuals were only allowed in its precinct to pay tribute to the authority. [15]

Coming to the present day, colonial dominance has now transitioned into the power of both global capital and local capital. The statue of Queen Victoria had long been removed and the original Supreme Court is now submerged in the sea of high-rises. (Fig. 5) On the south side, the fourth iteration of HSBC headquarter designed by Norman Foster and the Bank of China Tower by I.M Pei parade slick yet costly internationalism design while acting as a political allegory for Sino-British relations.[16] To the west of the square, Hong Kong Land, the largest landowner in Central, owns and operates 12 interconnected prime commercial buildings under the name the Landmark, (Fig. 6) forming a system of towers and elevated walkways with “over 450,000 sq. m. of Grade A office and luxury retail space”. [17]

Figure 5: View from the northside of the Statue Square in 2016. Supreme Court remain visible on the lower left, back from left to right:
Bank of China Tower (1990),
Cheung Kong Center (1999),
Bank of China Building (1947), HSBC Headquarter (1985)– HK Magazine.

Here around Statue Square, developers employ extensive “strategies” to dictate individual’s interaction with the urban space. The public spaces in front of each office tower are constantly monitored by security and many access points are taped off during the weekends to prevent “loitering.” Elevated walkways maintained by the Hong Kong Land create routes for pedestrians to circulate and stay at designated parts of the properties, extending the developers’ control beyond merely the land or the buildings, but all the spaces in between. Statue Square, as an open space surrounding this set of exclusive structures, became a reflection of the perspective and needs of institutional power, where individual acting as passive employee or consumer is only allowed to pass over the space and can be evicted whenever his or her behaviours are deemed “improper.” [18]

Figure 6: Elevated walkways over Chater Road on northwestern corner of the square, connecting Mandarin Oriental Hotel to Landmark Prince, both owned and operated by Hong Kong Land – Hwuweiazhongea.

 

Uninvited Guests: Defying “Strategies”

However, it was also the “strategies” of Hong Kong Land that lead to the unexpected arrival of Filipina domestic helpers on Statue Square. In 1982, Hong Kong Land proposed to close Chater Road to traffic on Sundays to encourage pedestrian access. At the time, Central was deemed a “dead public space” during the weekends without the usual crowd of office employees.[19] Hong Kong Land intended to attract patrons to their Landmark mall, an upscale retail space hosting ultra-luxury brands. Instead, Filipina domestic workers flocked to the down-market World-Wide House down the street to visit small shops carrying goods from their homeland.[20] Beyond shopping, the Filipinas soon established Chater Road and Statue Square as an ideal space to meet up with friends and chatter every Sunday. Cardboard, plastic mats and tents divide up the street, with tens of thousands of women congregating bringing noise and colour into the austere cityscape. Taking a closer look at the activities the Filipina domestic workers engage in every Sunday, we might gain more insights into the “tactics” they developed within an urban space that is deeply dictated by “strategies”.

Figure 7: Filipina domestic workers practicing for the beauty pageant on Chater Road – BBC Chinese.

The first activity one might notice is the beauty pageant practicing taking place right in the streets. Prohibited from expressing their sexuality in the domestic space, the Filipinas flaunt their agency and beauty on Statue Square. (Fig. 7) Throughout the year, beauty pageants are organized by the Filipino community, with the participants covering their own expenses. Every Sunday, Filipinas come together to put on make-up, polish each other’s nails and practice catwalk dressed in skirts and high heels that are not allowed during the rest of the week.[21] Here, their sexuality is displayed not for the entertainment of others, but for the enjoyment of oneself. Bringing commonly indoor private rituals into an outdoor public space, the Filipinas breached the limits and norms created by the “strategies,” making themselves visible and craving their self-expression into the fabric of the city.

Figure 8: Filipinas share food sitting on the ground – BBC Chinese.

A second make-do tactic employed by the Filipinas is through their sharing of food. (Fig 8) Instead of being the passive service provider and prepare food based on the demands of the employers, the helpers are now able to produce cuisine to their own liking and share the dishes with fellow members of the community. The sharing and consumption of food in public spaces is also reminiscent of gatherings in the Philippines often taking place sitting on the ground, allowing the Filipina helpers to relax with their community away from the judgement of the Hong Kong employers. [22]

The “tactics” formed by the Filipinas go beyond supporting each other against the exclusion they face in Hong Kong. In November 2020, the Philippines was hit with Typhoon Goni, suffering USD 415 million in damages and a loss of 31 lives. In an organized effort to support family and friends back home, the Filipinas reappropriate the surface of Chater Road into temporary sorting and storage space on Sunday. (Fig. 9) Under the elevated walkways and in front of boutique stores, the women practice their citizen responsibility by collecting and packing necessities purchased with their hard-earned salary to be sent back to the Philippines. Defying regulations and disciplines imposed on the urban fabric, the Filipinas took control and invented their own space of citizenship, affirming their power and autonomy.

Figure 9: Filipinas packing parcels to be sent back to the Philippines – Stand News.

 

Little Manila”: Success through Perseverance?

As one would expect, the developers and authorities consistently pushed against the Filipinas’ breaching of their controlled urban space with repressive policies throughout the decades. By 1989, properties managed by Hong Kong Land were taping up walkways and pedestrian access to prevent “loitering” and boutiques were racking up complaints about noise and littering. Many other properties followed. (Fig 10.) Developers further attempted to “correct” the poaching in their territory by suggesting to re-open Chater Road and guide the Filipinas to gather instead in the underground car parks.[23] More recently in 2018, a member of the Legislative Council, Eunice Yung Hoi-yan criticized the foreign helpers for being an “inconvenience” and “health hazard” for the gathering.[24] The COVID-19 pandemic worsens the discriminative treatments of the helpers, as in early 2020, law-maker Elizabeth Quat proposed that foreign helpers should be grounded during their days off as they were spreading the virus, despite infection data proving such accusation to be false. [25]

Figure 10: Entrance to the HSBC building closed on Sundays – South China Morning Post.

However, as the “tactics” utilized by the Filipinas are opportunistic and flexible by nature, the gathering every Sunday and the community it created persevere through decades of exclusion. The gathering has become a fixture in the landscape of the Central district, even giving the area the nickname “Little Manila.” International tourists would visit Statute Square not only to experience the architectural wonder and materialistic luxury but also to witness the ever-changing wonder created by the Filipinas.[26] By making themselves and their activities constantly visible, the domestic helpers can alter the course of the invisible power of institutional “strategies,” organizing numerous protests throughout the decades on the square and succeeded in their causes several times. With increasing tension between Hong Kong and mainland China, the public spaces of the city are witnessing more and more conflicts between protesters and the police force, entangled in another set of struggles between “strategies” and “tactics.” Maybe the partial success the Filipinas achieved and the unique space they managed to carve out could inform all members of Hong Kong society to introduce less rigid and more diverse space into the metropolis’s urban fabric in the near future.

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Zhuofan Chen is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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[1] Lisa Law, “Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan Public Spaces in Hong Kong.” Urban Studies 39, no. 9 (2002): 1635.

[2] Christine Retschlag, “Filipino workers flood into territory,” South China Morning Post, December 6, 1993, 3.

Last name, First name. Title of Work. Publisher city: Publisher, Year of publication. Accessed Month Date, Year. URL.

[3] Research Office-Legislative Council Secretariat, Foreign domestic helpers and evolving care duties in Hong Kong, Hong Kong: The Legislative Council Commission (The Commission), 2017, accessed at https://www.legco.gov.hk/research-publications/english/1617rb04-foreign-domestic-helpers-and-evolving-care-duties-in-hong-kong-20170720-e.pdf

[4] As of 2021, Hong Kong’s statutory minimum wage of HKD37.5 per hour (6000 per month calculated by 40 hour per week) does not apply to live-in foreign domestic helpers, who do not have a defined work hour and are instead regulated by a minimum allowable income of HKD4630 per month.

[5] Norman Uy Carnay and Jennifer Sushi Au, Pictures from the Inside: Investigating Living Accommodation of Women Migrant Domestic Workers towards Advocacy and Action, Hong Kong: Mission for Migrant Workers, 2017: 7-15, accessed at https://www.migrants.net/researches.

[6] Norman Uy Carnay and Jennifer Sushi Au, “Pictures from the Inside,” 18.

[7] Han Chinese constitutes the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong’s population at 92%.

[8] Nicole Constable, “Jealousy, chastity, and abuse: Chinese maids and foreign helpers in Hong Kong,” Modern China 22, no. 4 (1996): 450.

[9] Junxian Wang, “Unknow to Employer’s Family of Four, Foreign Helper Prostitutes Online外傭疑賣淫實錄 瞞僱主一家四口上交友App約性交易,” trans. by author, Hong Kong Economic Times香港經濟日報, March 17, 2020.

[10] Kimberly A Chang, Julian Groves, “Neither ‘saints’ nor ‘prostitutes’: Sexual discourse in the Filipina domestic worker community in Hong Kong,” Women’s Studies International Forum 23, no. 1 (2000): 74.

[11] Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, beaches, and bases: Making feminist sense of international politics, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989), 38.

[12] Nicole Constable, “Sexuality and Discipline among Filipina Domestic Workers in Hong Kong.” American Ethnologist 24, no. 3 (1997): 539-40.

[13] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 31-36.

[14] de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 91-94.

[15] Chua Beng Huat, “Decoding the political in civic spaces: an interpretive essay,” in Public Space: Design, Use and Management, ed. Chua Beng Huat and Norman Edwards, (Singapore: Centre for Advanced Studies and Singapore University Press, 1992), 56.

[16] Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 68.

[17] “Central Portfolio, Hong Kong”, Our Business, Hong Kong Land, accessed March 18, 2021. https://www.hkland.com/en/our-business/cities/hong-kong.

[18] Law, “Disappearance,” 1628.

[19] Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), 79.

[20] Nicole Constable, Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), 134.

[21] Constable, “Sexuality and Discipline,” 540.

[22] Law, “Defying Disappearance,” 1637.

[23] Law, “Defying Disappearance,” 1635.

[24] Karen Zhang, “Lawmaker Eunice Yung’s brief apology to Hong Kong’s domestic workers ‘just not good enough’ says migrant leader,” South China Morning Post, May 27, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/2148011/lawmakers-brief-apology-hong-kongs-domestic-workers-just-not.

[25] Kelly Ho, “Covid-19: Lock down domestic workers on their day off, says pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker,” Hong Kong Free Press, December 29, 2020, https://hongkongfp.com/2020/12/29/covid-19-lock-down-domestic-workers-on-their-day-off-says-pro-beijing-hong-kong-lawmaker/.

[26] Law, “Defying Disappearance,” 1638.

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