First let me THANK YOU readers for your notes back to me through comments, emails and facebook. Knowing I am not just dumping my thoughts into cyberspace is very rewarding. Some of you asked if I have found any homeless here in Hong Kong. Well, funny you should ask….
'On the streets' doesn't make for a good start to my next sentence because downtown Central Hong Kong is a city you can traverse without ever actually touching the street level. There is an extensive network of walkways through the highrises that connect to each other by encapsulated bridges over the streets. It is another exercise in finding passages but there are plenty of shops to interest and anchor your way. Once we descending our path to the base we can make passage through the buildings all the way to the waterfront.
There are a few wheel-chaired beggars in the street but mostly they are in the all weather passageways. Every single one is severely deformed. Limbs missing, limbs mis-sized or misplaced, severe burn victim with melted skin. Some have been planted on the floor and have their hands clasped in beg and bob up and down in a beggars bow. It's a tough walk-by.
Only one guy I have passed to date is clearly truly homeless. He had all the accoutrements of a rough sleeper. My youngest was taken with him because he passed the time playing cards. She said, "if I was homeless I would ask people to play me at cards for money and I would get their money that way." I thought that was pretty clever…especially since she is an ace at cards. Although they are not visible on my regular routes, research quickly reveals that there are 1000 registered homeless in Hong Kong. They are just not permitted in highly visible areas. An incident last year reflects how the government "cleans up the streets." It seized the belongings of the homeless and moved them on their way using brute force in some instances- making it clear they were not to plant themselves in main areas of commerce. There was a public response that included both vocally criticizing the government as well as an outpour of food and money to those affected. It wasn't that they were relocated that incited the public; it was more the seizing and destroying of their things. The homeless people even registered complaints and attempted to sue the government. I am impressed that the homeless felt empowered enough to retaliate and the public had a response. Whatever one's thoughts are on homelessness and social responsibility, the skirmish is clearly reflective of an ideology and degree of empowerment here that probably doesn't exist on the mainland. It is clear some sort of unspoken hierarchy exists with neediness. The physically challenged citizens are welcomed to beg in high commerce areas as long as they are out by a certain hour.
The economic equation of supply and demand is textbook here in Hong Kong. The cost of housing is freaking staggering. What we went through to find an apartment you would not believe. Because of the extreme costs, around 40% of the high-rises are subsidized housing here. Some have what they call human cages. This is when a small apartment space is divided up amongst around 18 people. Actual metal cages like the kind you would keep a dog in are stacked 3-4 high and people sleep and keep their things in them.
The issue of space restraint and density in this city interestingly plays out at all levels of society- there is only so much space and how it gets used is an equation. Amongst those impacted are the estimated 140,000 to 270,000 Filipinos in Hong Kong here as foreign domestic workers. The locals know them as fei yung, which translates as Philippines maid. The slang of questionable respect is bun mui or bun bun.
There are all kinds of political viewpoints about the Filipino plight as migrant workers, space and pay. This is true not only in this country but also worldwide where they exist in the workforce. No matter what your point of view on this is, the fact that their government set the economic strategy in place to export labor and upholds it today through various agencies has got to be part of your valuation. Their government negotiates the contracted terms for these workers and adds on top a fee that the Filipinos must send home in the form of a remittance to them. From my quick review, my own point of view is that teasing out the intervention point for any change or improvement for them is complex and does not fall on any one nation or group of people…and must include, upon numerous other intervention points, their own homeland advocating and maybe even revising its economic policy. I won't tackle that social issue here, but will share that I find fascinating in spite of their plight involving inhumane spaces and low pay, as a group they seem to defy in Hong Kong the societal constraint of what is acceptable use of high value space. They congregate in extreme numbers right smack in the most primo spot of town- the HSBC building atrium. It is adjacent to the highest end places of business and hotels like the Landmark and Mandarin Oriental. Such a bold move- I can only say wow.
Apparently the Filipinos came in droves to Hong Kong in the 70s and 80s when their country was experiencing extreme political unrest and instituted the export of labor as their prime economic strategy. The institution of migrant workers and the notion of it being a great sacrifice one makes for family and country became embedded in Filipino society. Hong Kong was a likely place for the migrant strategy to play out because its geographic proximity plus women were returning to the work force at that time and consequently there was high demand for domestic workers. Exporting labor as a prime contributor to GDP continues today in the Philippines and is carried out by numerous agencies. The strategy brings money to the economy by the remittance demand placed on the migrant worker, which is the part of their salary they are required to send home in order to be able to keep their jobs and their visa. Many of them are from the better economic areas of the Philippines and are university degreed. The loss of career status as a nurse or teacher to them is worth it, for a while anyway, to gain the higher salary they can make elsewhere. Their work contract requires them to live in their employers' homes. There are 7.1 million people living within about 423 sq miles here in Hong Kong and the average apartment size is 400 to 600 sq ft. The space allotted for the maid consequently is literally a closet with no electricity and no place to do anything but sleep. Sometimes they have more plush sleeping arrangements in a room share with the children but it comes at the sacrifice of any privacy.
On Sundays and holidays - their days off- they have no space of their own to congregate in so the spaces of the city becomes their home. Here they are not identified by their role as maid but can be girlfriend, a sister, and mother. This makeshift creation of community happens all over the world where Filipino migrant workers exist especially in places like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Dubai. But the numbers do not compare to Hong Kong AND the spaces they are allowed to occupy are much more controlled. It happens here in Hong Kong on a scale not seen anywhere in the world…AND it happens in the most coveted space in town…which makes it fascinating. Apparently researchers think so too as a Berkley urban sociologist and MIT city space planner are among many that have come to study this interesting Hong Kong phenomenon.
For those of you like me who have never seen it before they set up their space early morning between 6-8am with boxes and build little mosaics of personal space. They take off their shoes and bunch in to their Tambayan (Tagalog for regular hang-out spot) and sit for hours with each other eating food, playing Farmville and playing cards. You can also see them doing each other's hair and nails and giving massages. They vacate by 7-9pm on Sunday nights. In the case of the Chinese New Year holiday they were there over a 5-day period. Some vacated every night to go sleep elsewhere but many rough slept.
The Filipinos are just 2% of the total population here in Hong Kong and Indonesians slightly outnumber them as domestic workers yet they are extremely visible in society…and quite political. How do they not get kicked out of that primo Hong Kong space was the first question that jumped into my mind when I saw the unfolding occupation. It is just a glaring inconsistency to allow their presence and all the box debris that comes with it. We are talking hundreds of thousands of people. It is like them planting themselves NOT in Central Park, but in Grand Central Station or along 5th Avenue in New York City. I did some research and found that the downtown Hong Kong community including highly impacted businesses like the Mandarin Oriental have complained numerous times in the past about the litter and their presence in droves in such a public pathway versus designated park space. The complaints didn't begrudge them their right to congregate; it just felt other spaces would be more suitable and less disruptive to the city. These complaints were received by the Hong Kong government and extended all the way to the Philippine government. They responded with a rhetorical "shall we take them home from Hong Kong then?" Reads like a threat fueled by a display of confidence in their economic importance to me. The Hong Kong government let that go and then opened a space up for them near a church with a concentration of services. Apparently it is a nice space but only about 5-10,000 choose to frequent it. Even with the presence of another place to go, the occupation of Central did not cease…so radical. The Hong Kong government now just plays Switzerland and increases security and clean up in the areas to try to keep the peace. The dynamics of this unempowered, empowered community in this city are intriguing. I can't wait to see what happens next.
These guys helped me shape my observations: