It was a Saturday night. I was out at some bar in the Central Hong Kong district trying to feel out the Hong Kong night life. It’s usually easy for me to strike up a conversation anywhere. After all, people have told me I have a very magnetic personality;) This night was an exception. Nobody was really up to meeting new people. And this goes without the lack of trying. I struck up a few conversations here and there but they just wanted to hang out with their friends. It was that kind of a night. I bounced around a few bars and finally settled on one that's less crowded and planted myself in the middle of the bar. Not noticing the guy right next to me, I ordered a drink from the barkeep. “Visiting Hong Kong?” The guy next to me asked. "Am I that obvious?” As I take a sip of my martini trying to keep my cool. Turns out he’s an expat who’s been working in Hong Kong for 8 months. We talked about the culture. We talked about the comparisons between the Japanese and Hongkongers with me having just flown in from Osaka. And I voiced my thoughts on Hong Kong being the New York of Asia. It smells like New York. It’s busy like New York. It’s like home away from home without any rat sightings.......yet.
Jim was his name. He was an expat. I prefer meeting locals but since a good percentage of the Hong Kong population is made of expats, he was good enough. He guessed my nationality pretty quickly. “Filipino” he said. It was commendable! I’m ethnically ambivalent to most. But apparently, many Filipinos live in Hong Kong. It was news to me. I’ve been in Hong Kong 4 days in before I met the guy and I didn’t see anyone looking like me. He told me that a large amount of Filipinos hang out in the vicinity of the Central station of the Hong Kong subway line on Sunday afternoons. “What do you mean?” I asked. “They are everywhere!” He said. He bought me my next round, welcomed me to Hong Kong and went home. I was perplexed. Do these Filipinos have a huge function on Sundays? I know we are generally a happy people but what kind of Filipino holiday celebrates every Sunday?
There’s a big Filipino community in Chicago where I grew up. My mom and dad are usually elected officials from different organizations who would hold such functions and schedule party events. It could be a bowling league, a church bible study or a sixteen year old girl’s coming of age. My parents are very involved. That’s why I was interested in this mass gathering of Filipinos.
I went on with my night trying to to do more of the same but failed miserably. Don’t worry, I raged the night after. But at that point, it was time to throw in the towel.
Then next morning, I slept in. I totally forgot about my conversation with Jim. I was hungry and focused on finding this restaurant my coworker in the U.S. recommended. Coincidentally, it was near the Central station, the same place I wandered around the night before. I took a shower, got dressed and walked to the subway. As I got out on the Central stop, I noticed the large amount of Filipinos standing and leaning by the building next to it. I started to remember what Jim mentioned but this was hardly the exaggeration that I envisioned. Then every corner I turned, more Filipinos kept popping up on my radar. In fact, throngs of them were just loitering on corners sitting and conversing about life. Some were playing cards. Some were eating. Most of them were women. The small amount of men that I saw were busy wrapping cardboard boxes in tape stuffed with presents to send to loved ones in the Philippines. This is a common tradition amongst Filipinos working abroad in more affluent countries. Providing for their family members in their homeland with gifts strengthens the bond across hundreds to thousand of miles.
Again, I thought nothing of it. But the more I walked towards my destination, I found them everywhere, just chillin. I would walk across an overpass and they would line up on one side of the walkway as if all of them were friends. Were they friends? They would sit in nooks of streets with which I deemed unclean and unhealthy. I passed by a plaza in the middle of these three buildings and it was also jam packed with Filipino women just chillin, talking to one another. There would be stints of rain that would displace them for a moment while they take shelter under the awning of the buildings. But inevitably, when the sun came out, they would go back to their spots and continue to hang around. Flattened card board boxes substituted for picnic blankets. Made sense. I wouldn’t want to use my picnic blanket on city sidewalks either.
My initial reaction was that of shock. Who are these women? Isn’t loitering like this illegal in Hong Kong? Then my next reaction was that of embarrassment for them and for myself. I wanted them to all get up and have some pride in themselves; in being Filipinos. I was starting to think that certain stereotypes would be associated with this kind of behavior. Being Filipino American, I’ve always strived to break stereotypes within myself and others. Then I felt ashamed for feeling embarrassed. I was ashamed that my people have been reduced to sitting in unsanitary corners of the city. “Find a park” I thought. “Find someone’s house and invite everyone.” Hell, I could get my mom to find them a banquet hall. She’s the go to Filipino party planner in Chicago. I was confident she could do the same for these women with one phone call. I walked away looking for the restaurant with so many unanswered questions.
After getting lunch, I wanted to walk a little bit more to explore the city. I noticed the amount of polar opposites there were in Hong Kong. I saw hawker restaurants with plastic chairs and fold up tables right next to a designer apparel store like Gucci. Everywhere I looked, high end was juxtaposed against cheap and affordable.
But what stayed in my mind was the huge amount of Filipinos loitering the city streets. I kept seeing them. With a full stomach, I finally got the balls to ask questions.
“Excuse me. Why are there so many Filipinos around Central station?” I asked a lovely young woman.
“It’s our day off.” She said
“Everybody has the same days off?”
“Just one day, Sunday. The other day is random and it might not be the same day as my friends.”
“So why not hang out at home or at a park.” I asked
“We live with our bosses. If we stayed at home, they will just ask us to do more work. We are here because the park is filled up.”
‘Even the park is also jam packed huh?”
“Opo.” She said. It’s a Filipino word meaning yes but used to show respect to elders or any person of stature. I think my American English constituted that.
"Do you get to go home for the holidays?"
"Not really. Besides, that money for a flight home could be used for my little sister's tuition for school."
Suddenly, my heart sank. These Filipinos are domestic workers with nowhere to go. And all they want to do is to be able to engage in their community on their common day off. Restaurants aren't a good idea because they can't hang out there all day. And the money they save from eating out could be sent to their loved ones in the Philippines.
I felt so sad that life had to force families apart just to survive. I felt so bad that I placed judgement on them for not taking enough pride in themselves and loitering around like homeless people. I wanted to hug each and everyone of them for humbling themselves instead of spending their money at restaurants. I was humbled myself.
This certain situation happened to my sister and I. My parents left us when we were 6 and 5 yrs old respectively in the Philippines to look for a brighter future for us in the U.S. Our grandmother Trinidad took care of us until our parents picked us up 6 years later. It was never what we all wanted. It was never ideal. But people have to do what they have to do.
Right before I left, I saw a group of Filipinos crowded around under an overpass sitting on a real blanket with a small plastic stool full of food in the center and a small grill on the side with embers on its way out. The sun was setting. The skyscrapers were starting to cast shadows on the day. They were playing this Filipino card game called Pusoy. They hardly noticed me staring with a smile because they were enjoying the last few moments of their day off eating and laughing. I wanted to join in. I knew the game. But some magic you just don’t disrupt. I’ll use my magnetic personality some other day. So I turned around and walked back to the train station thinking about how proud I am of my Filipino brothers and sisters for being some of the most heart warming, selfless, humble and resilient people I know. I walked back to my hostel feeling proud and thankful for getting an insight into an aspect of Hong Kong culture.
I wrote this piece on my plane ride from Hong Kong to Manila this past summer. I thought it went missing. Thankfully, it was saved within the “clouds!” I know this year has been really hard for so many around the globe including Aleppo, Orlando and the victims of Hurricane Matthew to name a few. This is why it is even more important for us to appreciate the ones close to us this holiday season. And for the sake of those who aren’t able to reunite with theirs including domestic workers all over the world, let’s hug our family and friends a little tighter, laugh together a little louder and take advantage of the blessings that have been presented to us. Happy Holidays everyone! And may 2017 prove to be a year of good in this world. One love!