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The Shadow Mothers
The invisible care work propping up Hong Kong’s economy
Hong Kong is a leading international financial centre that thrives on the virtue of efficiency. The city owes much of its ability to uphold this reputation to an overlooked but foundational force: foreign domestic helpers.
I’ve had many mothers in my life. Some stayed longer than others and Jia* was one of them. She came to my family when I was ten and the duty of care was passed along to her in the form of a thick slice of peanut butter toast slathered with condensed milk — my favourite breakfast — that she would prepare daily before dawn. This had been my morning routine with the last domestic helper. Now, it was mine and Jia’s.
Since both of my parents worked full-time jobs, like many families in Hong Kong, they hired someone to watch over me soon after I was born. So when Jia arrived in the late summer of 2007, she fit right into our household. Having previously worked in Brunei and Taiwan, she impressed my parents with her repertoire of succulent steamed dishes, nourishing soups, and carefully cut fruit, prepared to their liking. For my brother and I, it was her signature tomato and egg stir fry that she cooked for us on the weekends that made an impression. In my brother’s words, the dish remains “iconic” to this day.
But Jia didn’t only cook. She took on all the duties of a parent, ferrying me and my brother back and forth from after-school activities. Knowing that Jia was at the helm of our three-bedroom flat gave my parents peace of mind. Life, otherwise, would have been tricky. For a while, my mother, an accountant, rarely made it home on weeknights before 8 pm. And she hated spending time in the kitchen. So at night, it was Jia who would serve my family dinner. After cleaning up, she would retreat to her bed in my room and FaceTime her daughter, Marie*, who lived in the Philippines. For the six years that Jia spent with us, this was her routine.
Six years is not a small amount of time. But when I started researching this piece, I found just 12 photos of Jia on my old hard drive. Some had been taken in front of mall displays on the way to extra-curricular classes and others were from the time she’d accompanied me and my brother on a trip to Hong Kong Disneyland. There is also a grainy 4:3 video from a family junk boat trip one summer, where Jia is seen chaperoning me and my cousins on the roof with my cousin’s helper, who went on to work for her family for a total of 22 years. These were big, exciting events, but they hardly encapsulate the levels to which our lives were intertwined. So why do we have so little record of her?
Hong Kong director Justin Cheung asks a similar question in his documentary “Yaya”: Sacrifice of Domestic Workers, which looks closely at the power dynamics between employers and their domestic helpers by turning the camera on himself and his family. Cheung describes his family’s relationship with his helper of over 30 years as being “full of contradictions”. I see these contradictions in my own family’s relationship with Jia. They are inherent to the nature of live-in domestic work, where the boundaries of work and love are blurry.
Over the last few decades, Hong Kong has emerged as a global financial hub. Mountains that used to surround farmlands now cradle a sea of skyscrapers piercing the clouds, which house the offices and homes of working professionals. Much of life in the city is built around the ebbs and flows of their needs. Mass Transit Railway (MTR) trains go in and out of stations like clockwork, lifelines for the busy Hong Kongers who flood into lively and efficient eateries at all hours of the day.
The rise in domestic workers in the city began in the 1970s to alleviate the countless household duties that prevented women from joining the workforce. Since local domestic workers were in short supply, foreign domestic helpers were increasingly relied upon to facilitate the economic boom that required white-collar citizens to do away with most work inside the home.
Most of the time, the labour that these domestic workers contribute is invisible, tucked away between the walls of small apartments. But walk around Central or Victoria Park on a Sunday, where hundreds of them congregate on their one day off a week to swap stories, food, and companionship, and you’ll see that they have become essential to the fabric of this city. Government data shows that the number of domestic workers in Hong Kong reached over 399,000 in 2019, employed by as many as 327,770 households. Mostly women, they constitute 10% of the city’s workforce, providing affordable care for children and senior citizens. As a result, foreign domestic workers have indirectly contributed up to US$2.6 Billion to Hong Kong’s gross domestic product (GDP). They are, as Cheung calls them, “the secret engine to Hong Kong’s economy”.
Though they may be fuelling Hong Kong’s prosperity, the work of domestic helpers cannot be quantified in merely economic terms. Growing up, I’d noticed the complex joys and hardships of this work, so when I met up with Jia one summer afternoon in 2018 (at which point she was working for a different family in the city), I asked her about what it had been like to take care of me. She told me that the work was not dissimilar to being a mother.
Since much of our time on a day-to-day basis was spent together, Jia got to know me extremely well. She knew that I hated Chinese kale so she would steer clear of it when cooking us dinners. She was there when I got my first period just before a swimming lesson. She cooked me congee and changed my bedsheets over and over again when I fell ill one Christmas Day. She indulged me in my 10-year-old fantasies of becoming a break dancer and helped me choreograph a dance routine for one of my P.E. assessments set to the tune of “Don’t Phunk with My Heart” by the Black Eyed Peas. Despite having to put up with essentially the worst and most embarrassing versions of me, she hardly complained. She continued cooking us the tomato-egg stir fry. This was a token of her care for us. As kids, we saw Jia as a family member, a caregiver, and a friend all in one.
Jia has always been very humble, open and, for the most part, positive in her outlook on her life. When I asked her in 2018 whether she enjoyed being a domestic helper, she answered without hesitation: “I enjoy it very much.” But looking back on our time together, I can’t help but wonder what it was like having to accept the blurring of boundaries of personal and professional as just “part of the job”, and how it may have impacted her.
Angela Garbes writes in her essay The Devaluation of Care Work is By Design that “Quality care means forging intimate, familial relationships and acquiring professional knowledge that is sensual and personal.” For Jia, the intimacy of this relationship was heightened by physical proximity: for three years, she shared a room with me and my brother in our home. In a city that struggles for space, this was a fairly common setup.
Hong Kong law dictates that foreign domestic workers live with their employers, in “suitable accommodation”. In reality, most workers live in built-in rooms that are the size of a closet, or share sleeping quarters with those that they care for, usually children. For the employer, this is a convenient arrangement. For the domestic helper, it implies a lack of autonomy to decide where work ends and rest begins. Surveys show that foreign domestic workers put in an average of 16 hours a day, and — while this was not the case for Jia with my family — nearly half report being deprived of food.
Despite migrant domestic workers being the backbone of the city’s success, they are not offered the same privileges as other foreigners, who can claim permanent residency after seven years of employment in the city. In the case of contract termination, domestic helpers are required to leave the city within 14 days, unless a new employer is found within that time. These laws position foreign domestic workers as second-class citizens, both within the city and inside its homes. They also suggest that while domestic work is important to Hong Kong, the people who perform it are not.
“Care is expected to be cheap the world over, in part because the global economy doesn’t have the ability to properly value care work,” Garbes writes. The minimum wage for domestic workers in Hong Kong currently sits at HK$4,730 (approximately US$603) per month. Yet according to a 2019 report, the real value of paid domestic work should amount to HK$184,971 per year.
The devaluation of care work partially comes from the fact that many consider it to be low-skilled labour. This is further complicated by the way Hong Kong’s domestic workers often occupy the grey area between family and lodger in their employer’s homes. Care work becomes “confused” with acts of favour; labour is mistaken for love. These dynamics enable the exploitation of workers: their efforts are simply taken for granted. But being a domestic worker is anything but easy.
It was usually in the hour before bed that Jia filled me in on the latest updates on her daughter, Marie, who was three years my senior. Jia often showed me photos of her daughter, asking “Isn’t she beautiful?” Jia loved her daughter immensely and all she wanted was to provide her with a good life. Working abroad as a domestic helper allowed her to earn a higher income than even some white-collared jobs back home in the Philippines. The salary she earned from my parents was divided between Marie, her only child at the time, and her nine younger siblings.
Being away from home was difficult. For Jia, taking care of us came at the expense of time with her daughter. Sometimes, after a phone call with Marie, Jia would whisper across the room, “Oh, she is a bit frustrated today. Marie is asking me why I am spending so much time with you and your brother but not her.” In 2017, Jia gave birth to another daughter in Hong Kong, Jen*, who she sent back to her family in the Philippines when she was three months old. Though it was incredibly upsetting, Jia felt that this was her only option in order to provide Jen with a fruitful life.
Distance also crippled Jia’s marriage. I distinctly remember the night when she found out about her husband’s infidelity. Through painful sobs, Jia recounted the phone call she had received about the news, repeating the question, “What do I do?” between stifled breaths. While I did my best to comfort her in the moment, I was only 14 at the time and seeing her experience this loss helplessly from afar was poignant and devastating. Here she was, working to maintain stability within our family home and yet in a twisted paradox, that same balance within her own family was thwarted by aspects of her job. When I shared these thoughts with her in our 2018 conversation, Jia was predictably stoic: “It’s okay for me. Life must go on.”
In my mind, Jia is an acrobat balancing on a tightrope, responsible for the success of both my family and hers. Her identity constantly blends and morphs from domestic worker to family, to caregiver, to breadwinner. Domestic helpers are remarkable in the way they embody such a broad range of skills and responsibilities, yet the status quo doesn’t value their efforts or sacrifices. They are, in many ways, the unsung mothers of the city, keeping hundreds of thousands of families like mine afloat from the shadows. Without them, life in Hong Kong would look very different.
Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong deserve to be fairly compensated. Their rights are human rights and they deserve to have greater support from employers in managing the balance of their work and personal life. Hopefully, changes are afoot: a non-profit organization called Pathfinders (among others) is working towards these goals. The group helps migrant mothers, especially those who fall pregnant during their employment in Hong Kong, and spreads awareness on related issues through op-eds and research.
It’s been a year since I last spoke with Jia. The transience of her presence in my life is characteristic of our complex relationship, but I owe to her many positive aspects of my upbringing. She kept me company on nights I feared the dark and never faltered in her care for me, even when she was unable to physically care for her own family. She kept my life stable. Now 4,000 miles away in London, Jia comes to mind whenever I miss home. I haven’t quite perfected her tomato and egg stir fry, but still, the dish brings me tremendous comfort. It’s Jia’s indelible mark.
Chelsea Lee is a freelance journalist from Hong Kong, currently based in London. Her work has been featured in CNN and she loves learning about the intersections between food, environment, and migration.
*Names used in this piece have been changed.