In the last fortnight I have read ‘The Help’ by Katherine Stockett and viewed the movie adaptation that has an amazing cast including Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis. Both were excellent.
I haven’t been able to put either out of my mind, and I couldn’t help but draw similarities between the African-American maids of 1964 Alabama, with the Filipino maids of Hong Kong in the early 2000’s that I grew up with.
My the time we moved back to Hong Kong when I was 14, the term “Maid” wasn’t very widely used, and instead the more “Politically Correct” term for these women, was “Helper” (are you starting to see the similarities? No? Ok, just go along with it.)
Hong Kong, and other major expatriate cities like Kuala Lumper, Singapore, Dubai, Shanghai and Bang Kok are teeming not only with Foreign expatriates working the high-powered corporate gigs, but also a plethora of people (mainly women) from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. It seems to be a cultural expectation of women, particularly from the Philippines, that they will go to these far away cities, often with no job lined up, to find a family, to work for them, and send pretty much all of the money home.
Filipino maids get paid very little per month. I think that in 2002 when we moved back to Hong Kong, the minimum wage for a full-time, live in “Helper” was somewhere around $3200HKD per month. I’m going to assume that it was 5 to 1 in those days and that the Australian dollar and Canadian dollar were fairly evenly matched (probably all wrong information, don’t listen to me, I’m an English and Film major) and that works out to be roughly a salary of $640AUD a month.
Keep in mind if you will, that these helpers work 6 days a week, cook every meal, clean the house, do the laundry, walk the dogs, pick up the children, entertain the children and basically follow out every instruction given to them. It is not a 9-5 day. It is a day with no real set hours. And in the tiny apartment (of massive mansion depending on your Corporate peg on the ladder) they have a tiny room to themselves with a bed, usually a tv, and not much else. Or sometimes if that is not possible, the “Helper” would live in a room with a child or infant. I have heard horror stories of Maid’s sleeping in the kitchen. Some will have their own Bathroom (is this starting to sound like the Bathroom initiative in ‘The Help’?)
When we moved back to Hong Kong (after being maid-less for a number of years in Australia) we hired a lady called Lolita to be our Helper. Lolita was literraly 4″zilch and the shortest person I had ever seen outside of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory. Not a dwarf, just, a tiny person…which worked out well considering the room we had in our first ground floor apartment was the size of a broom closet and she could have a custom made childs bed.
Lolita was there for the good times and the bad. With my mum suffering from depression, and my dad working in China 5/7 days, Lolita was really the one keeping us alive and not looking grubby. She packed our lunches, cleaned our uniforms, made sure we had money to get to and from school, took my youngest brother to school, and saw myself and Kip, my middle brother off on the ferry or bus. She took us to play at the members only pool (of course she didn’t swim – but hung out with the other maids in a kind of segregation… sound familiar?)
She also celebrated with us when we had triumphs, awards, achievements, birthdays. She was a seen, and yet unseen part of our family unit. She could NOT say the letter P, so when she called me, it would be “Faris” and she was forever cleaning up our golden cocker spaniels “Foo Foo’s” and she called the Philippines the “Pil-ipines” which made no sense to me because it was already a word with the “Fff” sound. She had been an accountant in the “Pil-ipines” and she used to help me with my Maths (because I was awful at it). She made more money being our maid, than she did as an accountant in the Philippines. True story. I also knew that she was married, and that she had been a world vision sponsor kid, that that is how she had been able to go through University. Somebody sponsored her all the way through. I think Lolita said she was an older British lady.
And that is really all I know about Lolita. My last year of high school was kind of blur because of all the traumatic shit that went down. I can’t remember if Lolita left before I did for University or before. I’m sure my mum will be able to shed some light on the subject (sadly it is 12 hours ahead in Hong Kong, and therefore she is in bed). I never sought to keep in touch with her, and I don’t really know what happened to her. I didn’t really know that much about her to begin with… so…
I asked my brothers what they remember about Lolita (we had plenty of maids before that when we were little, but she is the one we all most remember. She was also our most recent one).
This is what my brothers had to say:
R: (Who was pretty much raised by her between the ages of 9-11) I don’t really remember much about her. 😦
K: All I remember is helping her set up her computer so she could use Skype, and that she had a husband and house in the Philipines.
Me: (In response to Kip) Doesn’t it strike you as kinda weird that we didn’t really know that much about her… and yet she knew very intimate details about us?
K: I guess, at the time I never really thought about it.
And there you have it in a nutshell. We didn’t really think about it. Lolita was literally our helper in every way. She helped us with our homework, helped us when we were sad or sick or angry, she cleaned up after us, fed us, she did everything a parent does, but she was not a parent. We didn’t love her… we didn’t know her.