My computer at home having gone kaput, I adjourned to a café the other evening, asked for a tea and got online on one of the machines on offer.

After a while the person two screens away asks me for help in changing her facebook password. Volunteers that her ex might’ve hacked into her a/c. A little while later she wants to borrow a pen. And then says she’s having trouble adding friends. Her ex to blame. Wants to add me as friend to see if that function works, says she has many “injun” friends. And then outa the blue announces she’s single. Repeats for effect.
I gulp down tea, log out and scoot.

Why this kaadhaleri di?* Do I and my grey hair make for an eligible hunk?

I’d feel flattered if I don’t suspect the intent. But a moment’s reflection leads to the thought that I know the situation she’s in. I’d probably be similarly inclined if I were her.

That Filipino person is a domestic worker, meaning a member of the lowest caste in Hong Kong’s status hierarchy. She’s probably in her late 20s or early 30s, but appears willing to hit on any age group to try and parlay a more respectable visa status.

In Hong Kong there are holders of Chinese passports, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passports, British National (Overseas) and permanent residents with different star ratings based on race. Chinese race on top. And then there are residents with visas linked to their regular employment. The last crowd can apply for perm status after seven years’ stay. (This brief paragraph is an over-simplification of all the various visa and passport statuses that obtain in Hong Kong.)

But the pariahs are those with foreign domestic helper (FDH) visas: Mainly Indonesians and Filipinos with a sprinkling of Indians, Sri Lankans and Thais. However long they stay in Hong Kong — making crucial contributions in the form of freeing up a family member or two to go out and earn, taking care of children and the elderly, making millions of phone calls, buying and shipping home containerloads of clothing and all kinds of gadgets and knickknacks, propping up entire rows and buildings full of shops and eateries, banking and remittance businesses as well as rapacious moneylenders/loansharks — they can never hope to become residents, let alone permanent residents.

At least three floors of this building in the central business district of Hong Kong have businesses wholly dependent on foreign domestic helpers. And hundreds of other arcades feature shops geared to meet their shopping needs.

They’re subject to verbal and physical abuse and overwork, plus machinations on the part of agencies. And they have to get out of Hong Kong within two weeks of losing a job.

They’re a permanent underclass in a place that preens itself as “Asia’s World City”. A small number have gained resident status by marrying up, often much older men. As residents, they can apply for jobs of restaurant waitresses or baristas.

(It’s a bit like India’s caste system, with its Anuloama-Prathiloama (अनुलोम – प्रतिलोम) rules, the former grudgingly acknowledging the acceptability of letting women marry up the caste ladder to improve their status. Phew!)

Recently a few FDHs in Hong Kong filed court cases asking for permanent resident status, testing the constitutionality of the institutional discrimination and thus sparking another bout of racist wrath. Politicians vied with one another in displaying patriotic fervor against what they deemed an unreasonable demand. That old scarecrow, the floodgates bogey, was raised. Someone came up with a figure of 100,000 applications should the FDHs’ cases succeed. That the immigration department has the full discretion to block their paths on other grounds was blithely ignored. It’s a constitutional case and Beijing has let it be known that it favours apartheid.

It’s in this context that the young person the other evening was acting. And so while I went on my way, I was not unmindful of her predicament. I could’ve been in her unenviable shoes!

* For the benefit of non-Indians, the reference here is to a song, “Why This Kolaveri Di” (Why this murderous rage, girl?) that went viral on the Internet. By “kaadhaleri” I mean romantic urge.

About walkerjay

The author, N. Jayaram, a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi, was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions.
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  1. William says:

    Interesting blog, Jay. I’d only make two comments:

    1) Obviously the FDHers make up a big underclass and are disadvantaged in many ways. Although I’m not quite sure “caste” is the right analogy, since most will eventually go home, and be in a better financial situation than they were before, and leave their underprivileged status behind. If I were running HK, I’d probably have some sort work program that similar to this. Of course, I’m by no means condoning a lot of the institutional discrimination that they face, and the gov. could do a better job there.

    On another level, I think the bigger issue is: what does Hong Kong what to become? Regina Ip (of all people) had an interesting op-ed in Sunday’s SCMP about this. Basically, she argued that many HKers are upset about the huge number of mainland women that have birth in HK hospitals because they worry about the long-term demographic consequences. Of course, as you mention, all the conservative HK political parties were foaming at the mouth when there was the possibility that FDH’s had the constitutional right to apply for HK permanent status (it said nothing of being approved, if I am correct). But the key question is, with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, 0.9 births per woman, HK, like much of Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, will need migration on a fairly large scale in order to be viable in the long run. This can either come from the mainland, SE Asia, or elsewhere. However, I have yet to see in the press many good discussions on HK’s long-term demographic strategy. To some extent I empathize with HK’s predicament, since I think most HKers worry that population centers of the major immigrant groups (ie, Mainlanders, Filipinos, or Indonesians) could easily dilute and destroy their unique culture. On the other hand, they need people, and they should probably assume that some people will inevitably choose to settle down here and make it there homes. Thus, they need to think about how to integrate ethnic minorities into the mainstream in order to truly be Asia’s World City.

    2) Don’t discount the fact that overture may have been real! Another consequence of the FDH scheme is that there is a very severe gender imbalance, and many women are out there looking for love!

  2. walkerjay says:

    Thanks William.
    Re caste, there is another objection to the use of the word which was very much on my mind but I didn’t want to go into it coz it’d have been a bit of a digression. In the Indian context, an outcaste, a pariah, would be kept physically far away. What he or she touches gets “polluted”. Whereas in HK, most FDHs live in the same flats/apartments as their employers, sleep in the kitchen or living room etc. But then again, apart from certain rituals of purity or pollution, certain lower caste people in India too enjoy access to upper caste households, provided hte caste difference is not too great.
    In the US, during the slavery era, you had “house slaves”, who lived in the master’s house despite being deemed inferior and denied all civil rights. The word caste is not used in that context but the effects are similar.

  3. William says:

    Very interesting. In any case, using “caste” as just a general idea isn’t bad, but I guess it’s only when you get into the details that analogy breaks down.

  4. B.S.Ahalya says:

    Dear Jay,
    Even in India the caste system is changing. At least in urban areas.As the old order gives place to new & progress knocks at the door the caste system comes down tumbling. But the rural areas remain as they are. Even now they blame the Brahmins for the caste system. But the practisheners are other than Brahmins.
    Most of the countries do not care for the unskilled workers.Getting some skill is the only answer.

  5. Mohan Ram NK says:

    It,s a wonderful, touching and moving presentation of FDH in Hong-kong. In practicing discrimination, apartheid, racism, why only Indians, all Asians stands for it. History is witness to that Chinese – mangoloids, are distant Indian cousins in their human approach.

    Even, millions of Indians working in middle- east countries are in the similar pathetic situation. Their contributions in making the life of Arabs luxurious, cool, comfortable is parallel to FDHs. But, they too are not getting any civil rights in return to their hard work. But, they too are happy remitting Dinars to their near and dears in India. Perhaps, Kerala State in India, is thriving only on these treacherous remittance, more than its domestic production. The dreams of those Indian women in middle-east, are the same as of FDHs of HK.

    There are only two alternatives for them : either don’t go or don’t dream.

    Is there any other remedy?

  6. Harbans Lal Badhan says:

    ” Indian Caste system is more dangerous and harmful than chemical weapons. It (Indian Caste system) is a great threat and challenge to world peace and unity. It (Indian Caste system) kills the democratic institutions and secular character of state and society. It (Indian Caste system) is an enemy of economic and scientific progress and development of state and society. Indian Caste system slaughters the human rights and fundamental rights of an individual. If you want to save the global society from this monster and devil, annihilate the Indian Caste system.”
    (Harbans Lal Badhan)

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