From nannies to entrepreneurs
There is a small town, away from the bustling centers of Hong Kong and Kowloon, that has gradually grown into a distinctly multicultural community. Mui Wo, located on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island in the New Territories, is accessible by ferry from Central district and by bus from Kowloon side. Once a sleepy fishing village where farmers also bred pigs and poultry, it has developed into a little suburban town quite popular today not just with the local Chinese but also with Western and Asian residents. Native Hongkongers make good profits by renting and selling apartments and houses, as well as by setting up shops and restaurants. Whatever agriculture and fishery there was in the past has now been relegated to the fringes of this Chinese society.
Mui Wo today is a microcosm of the Asian entrepreneurial world, one in which three Asian nationalities have made a mark on a small Chinese community. The three groups are composed of migrant women from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia who have graduated from domestic work to business entrepreneurs. They would make Mohammad Yunus of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank proud to see once disenfranchised females turned into small-scale businesswomen, all on their own, running sari-sari stores, massage parlors and eateries.
At first there was only one Pinoy shop selling Philippine products and cooked food for the homesick workers, but there are four today. A group of Thai women set up the first massage parlor, which split into two. The Indonesians rented a counter in the village market where they sell their native foodstuff, cosmetic and buns.
Isabela-born Girlie, Bangkok lady Pailin and Sumatran Partitri have more or less followed the same pattern. Girlie came to work as a domestic and is now happily married to a Pakistani underwriter. Pailin herself married British arbologist who helped her set up her parlor. Partitri is single and supports her extended family in her home country.
Historically, Pinays were the first to arrive in the territory a few decades ago to toil as domestics, back when it was still a British colony. Yearly census figures from the 1980s onwards always listed the mainly female Filipinos as the largest group of foreign residents, followed by Americans, Britons, Australians, Thais, Indians, Nepalis and Sri Lankans. At one time the number of Filipinos peaked to almost 200,000.
Today that trend has shifted after Indonesian women began flooding into the territory three years ago and now comprise the largest foreign community in this Chinese enclave. Obviously Jakarta took a leaf from
Manila’s book after seeing how remittances help to boost a country’s economy. As of July 2012, the number of Indonesians reached 152,557, compared to 149,009 Pinoys.
The Indonesians’ advantage is that they’re made to take crash courses in Cantonese before being shipped out. This makes them attractive to middle and lower class Chinese, some of whom view the English-speaking Pinays as troublesome because they’re too smart and prone to protest if their basic rights are infringed. With quite a few of the Indonesians hailing from kampongs (barrios), and some being docile Muslims and under educated, the women are vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous employers and employment agencies.
The Hong Kong Government’s Labor Tribunal handles complaints about abuse, underpayment and nonpayment of wages (the minimum salary is HK$3,920), but some of the women are fearful of lodging complaints which may threaten their jobs. The Pinays have led the way in turning to legal action with the help of existing NGOs (non-governmental organizations), a religious migrant workers’ bureau, as well as the Philippine Consulate. The Indonesians, Thais, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis today are protected by an overall Asian migrant worker’s NGO.
Protests in the recent past about the migrant women being treated like commodities may have changed into one against human trafficking in general, but the fact that a few of the women have been able to engage in entrepreneurial activities gives hope that the status of women in the region will keep rising.
In their own small ways, women like Girlie, Pailin and Partitri have succeeded in creating a mini-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in what’s called China’s Special Administrative Region (SAR)
of Hong Kong, which boasts of being an “Asian World City.”