Beyond Borders

The blacks of Hong Kong

2011-02-18 10:08
Simon Williamson is a South African currently in Hong Kong.

Simon Williamson is a South African currently in Hong Kong.

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Simon Williamson

In South Africa we’re able to identify subconscious prejudice because the people we think we are superior to are easily defined. This is not as easy in Hong Kong as only one local race is really distinguishable.

But luckily, there are some poor countries around this oasis of rich people living on Hong Kong Island - like the Philippines. It means that Filipinos (males from the Philippines) and Filipinas (females from the Philippines) move across here to do the menial work that Hong Kongers are too rich to feel like doing - the most visible of which are Filipina domestic workers.

Filipinas do look slightly different from native Hong Kong women, so it does provide a nice and differentiated class of underlings for the rich to out-rank. What this does mean is that, like white people often do to black people in South Africa, the social involvement from Hongkongers toward Filipinas is visibly condescending.

Whether this race-aligned change in manner is conscious or subconscious, I am not sure. But it is out there, and blatantly so. I have a friend of Filipino descent who went to pick up her glasses from the optometrist but when she walked in was immediately asked for her master’s or madam’s name. It’s that kind of situation over and over again.

Interesting phenomenon

One never sees a Hong Kong Islander walking their own dog - at night, after a day scrubbing high-rise apartment floors, Filipinas across this island attach themselves to hounds and walk up the steep roads of suburbia toward Victoria Peak. All for an average wage of about R3 200 per month. Compared to the way we rip our staff off in South Africa, R32 00 may seem like a Cosatu Christmas, but the cost of living in Hong Kong is higher, and as crass as it may sound, a hell of a lot of money is thrown around here. R3200 to your average Hong Kong employer has equitable value to a tray of ice in mid-winter Russia.

And because the social diktat is that household chores are done by Filipinas, so communication between a wealthy Sandowner to her black maid and the way a Hongkonger speaks to her Filipina maid run parallel.

It is a phenomenon with interesting subplots, as Hongkongers in the past have been on the receiving end of prejudice (whether it be racial or class-driven) - something that I would imagine is shared amongst many British colonies.

Filipinas are a sizeable community as any Sunday stroll will show. On the day of the Lord, which many of these pitifully paid employees are mercifully granted off, they gather in the walkways together across the city and play cards while (I speculate) exchanging gossip about their employers.

Disrespect not exclusive to SA

So, much like poor black folks have all the rights and all the freedoms in South Africa yet remain, socially, on the periphery of what many white people take seriously, so are Filipinas - with full immigration and human rights on paper - relegated to the role of the number two set of people on this island.

This principle is also hardly exclusive to Hong Kong. You’ve got to really feel for fatcat Malaysians who now have to pay more to hire locals for their domestic help as the usual flood of Indonesian workers to exploit is being tempered because of working conditions.

It just all shows that disrespect for people solely due to ancestry or class isn’t exclusive to South Africa, or the West.
I’m trying to work out if that’s a relief or not.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. 

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