Sunday in the Park
Domestic workers and public space in Hong Kong
Domestic workers find room for recreation and leisure in the city’s public spaces
First-time visitors to Hong Kong are startled when they stumble upon thousands of domestic workers congregated in the public spaces around prime real estate areas of downtown Hong Kong. While on any other typical day, there is the usual mix of local and expat businessmen, executives, and high-end shoppers walking the streets amidst soaring skyscrapers and luxury shops, on Sundays a complete metamorphosis of the city occurs. With mats made out of different materials, from towels to cardboards to shower curtains, domestic workers claim spots on the roads, elevated footpaths, parks, underpasses and sidewalks and transform the heart of Hong Kong into a festive holiday enclave.
Sundays is the usual day-off for the 300,000 plus migrants from South East Asia living and working as domestic workers for Hong Kong families. Because they are required by law to live in the homes of their employers, they frequently lack privacy and personal space, with the result that the phenomenon of the city’s maids, nannies and caregivers congregating every Sunday in different locations throughout the city has become part of urban landscape(most notably in two areas known as Central and Causeway Bay). Primarily women, many from the Philippines, they gather to chat, gossip, eat, sing, and play together. Moreover, a growing number of cultural groups and other types of organizations are reaching out to help the workers understand and protect their rights, maintain their cultural and national identities, as well as nurture the community as a whole through festive activities.
Sundays in the city
In many other cities around the world, the temporary occupation of urban public spaces by migrant workers is a commonplace, usually occurring on the city’s margins or in the more affordable spaces on the urban fringe. However, in Hong Kong’s case the dense, hyper-developed nature of the city’s built form means that migrants are gathering in some of the most exclusive and central areas of the city, rather than on the periphery, away from the general public’s eye. As such, it is a very controversial practice.
You don’t have to participate at many of these gatherings to observe how space is used before it becomes clear that domestic workers have not intentionally chosen to gather in posh downtown areas on their days-off, but do so simply because it’s the most conveniently accessible and suitable space available. The central spaces happen to be close to where they work and close to key products and services such as remittance agencies, the post office, Filipino and Indonesian produce markets and so forth. Furthermore, in good weather the domestic workers can enjoy the open spaces of the parks while the various covered areas are perfect whether rain or shine.
Besides their location, these gatherings in public spaces offer something deeper, namely empowerment for the domestic worker communities. For many migrants, it is a special day in a special place that provides an alternative identity that goes beyond a stereotyped self-image of a “foreign domestic worker.” In these spaces, they can see themselves as members of a community, as friends, spouses, sister, mothers, artists and so forth. Above all, it is a place that allows them to recharge, express themselves and feel humanized.
Many domestic workers feel very fortunate to be able to use public spaces as places of recreation and leisure on their days off every week. They are grateful for the level of accommodation that’s been made by the Hong Kong government which provides greater leeway than other domestic worker importing cities (Dubai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, etc) where migrants’ rights to gather freely in public spaces are severely limited.
The relative acceptance that such practices enjoy today are new and not without public criticism. In the past, the Hong Kong public has viewed domestic workers and their “invasion” on Sundays as a major problem for hygienic and aesthetic reasons. Many felt that the mass gatherings tarnished the image of Hong Kong and brought a lot of inconvenience not only to landlords and tenants, but also to the tourists and the general public. A few organized attempts were unsuccessfully made to relocate the domestic workers away from central areas. However, over the years Hong Kongers have generally grown accustomed to the weekly gatherings and the Hong Kong government has tacitly accepted the Sunday spaces.
Smartly, the Hong Kong government has focused its efforts on increasing security and the number of sanitation workers available to tend these areas as the best way to avoid conflicts between the different stakeholders of the site. There are multilingual signs issued by the government around the key gathering areas with reminders to clean up the litter in different languages, such as Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. An important city decision was made to block off these areas to cars and make them fully pedestrian spaces every Sunday – a benefit to the domestic workers as well as anyone else who wants to enjoy the streets.
The Hong Kong government neither encourages the Sunday gatherings, nor discourages them. However, with small but significant adjustments in their sanitation services, policing detail and through public information they have succeeded in minimizing conflicts and managed to accommodate the needs of domestic worker on their well-deserved Sundays off.
Hong Kong’s example of accommodation provides small but useful lessons for other governments of migrant-heavy cities on how support and accommodate the needs of migrant populations. In Singapore, for example, the city state finally passed a law starting 2013, that foreign domestic workers are entitled to one day off a week. This will result, no doubt, in a significant rise to the number of domestic workers looking for public spaces to meet and socialize on Sundays over the next few years. To avoid conflicts like Hong Kong faced in the past, it would be wise for Singaporean authorities or any other cities of migration for that matter, to learn what they can from Hong Kong. With global mobility and ever-increasing demand for service workers on the rise, cities that value and respect the low-paid service class on which so much of city commerce and living depends, will be the cities that thrive and prosper.
Contributed by JT Singh (edited and condensed for publication by editors).