MAID TO ORDER IN HONG KONG by Nicole Constable 🌇 // An Educational Book on HK Maids
It’s a place many associate with
neon store lights, Victoria Harbor, firework displays, dim sum, and a blend of cultures.
It also happens to be a place that I know increasingly better and better
each year that I visit it
during the summer.
At first, maids in Hong Kong were just a small aspect of Hong Kong society for me. They appeared in my peripheral vision, ever-present, but never in the center of my mind. I didn’t ignore it, but as a child, I never asked questions regarding maids. As I’ve matured, though, I’ve also become more inquisitive. I question a lot of things now, and ask myself what I believe and where I stand on difficult topics to comprehend, especially for those that regard my morals and core values.
That’s why, when I went to Hong Kong over the summer, I began to realize something:
I’ve never really looked at the lives of maids in Hong Kong.
Every time I visit Hong Kong, I see maids, mainly Filipino and Indonesian, at places like wet markets, walking behind old grandmothers or by themselves. They pull two-wheel grocery carts behind them as they buy the day’s produce and meat for the family they live with. They follow their employers to late night parties to supervise the family’s children if needed, and usually wear loose-fitting pants and t-shirts while doing their chores.
They are, in essence, a defining aspect of Hong Kong society —
So why do I know so little about maids in Hong Kong?
This was the question I asked myself while I was in Hong Kong this year. I didn’t go a day in Hong Kong without seeing maids out in supermarkets, wet markets, or on the streets walking dogs for their employers, and each time I saw them, I wondered why.
Why are there so many maids in Hong Kong? Why are most of them Filipino or Indonesian? Why are all of them women? Do maids want to work in Hong Kong? What prompted these women to travel from their country to Hong Kong to work full-time as someone’s chore-doer? Is it safe being a maid in Hong Kong? What are some dangers that might come from it? What rights do maids have in Hong Kong? Can they become HK citizens after they work for a certain amount of time in Hong Kong?
Now, months after returning back home from Hong Kong, I’ve finally finished reading an extensive work on HK maids. I finally took the initiative to educate myself on a topic that no one in my life seemed to be able to tell me the amount that I wanted to know, and I have to say… the feeling of knowing a little bit more about Hong Kong society feels very fulfilling.
I checked Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers by Nicole Constable out from the library for more than two months just so I could take my time digesting the information, and I have no regrets in taking my time to read this novel. I learned more about the experiences of Hong Kong maids from this book than I ever had from articles and/or short stories that I read online.
This extensive book covered almost everything that I wanted to learn regarding domestic workers in Hong Kong. Constable provides us with an informative but brief history of domestic workers in Hong Kong, going back to mujai servants and explaining why most foreign domestic workers (maids) in Hong Kong are women. In addition, she also writes about the stories of several maids she interviewed for this book, giving me insight on the stories of these women that I had went into this book wanting to know more about.
In the beginning of this book, Constable writes that
Studies that centrally or exclusively focus on oppression, however, often tend to overemphasize the passivity and powerlessness of the worker, as well as the dominating power of the employer…. [Power] is understood as emanating from the employer’s superior class position, sometimes reinforced by issues of race or ethnicity, gender, or other factors. The worker is simply cast as a victim, perhaps an extremely hardworking victim, perhaps an insightful victim who ‘understands’ the power structure, or even a class-conscious one opposed to the structures of inequality. Such as approach neglects and even conceals other coexisting and competing forms of power and agency. (Constable 10)
This section of the text immediately caught me attention. I realized that not only would I become more educated about this topic after reading this book, but also, I would be able to change my perception of maids in Hong Kong as women who didn’t want to work in Hong Kong but had to because of financial needs back at home. This book introduced me to the fact that there are many factors contributing to women’s decisions to go to Hong Kong and work as a maid (adventure, curiosity, and the desire for independence are a few examples).
It was also interesting to read about the complex power dynamics that exists between the employer and the maid.
Constable seems to focus a lot on maids’ forms of resistance, both in organizations and protests, and in more subtle forms within their employers’ homes. I think the common forms of resistance people think about are things like marches, protests, and other large-scale forms of group resistance. However, Constable reminds us that maids practice subtle forms of resistance everyday within their employers’ homes. It was eye-opening to read about the examples Constable gave in her book of these quieter, less identifiable forms of resistance. I knew these forms existed, but having concrete examples I can now refer back to makes my understanding of resistance much more complex than it was before reading Maid to Order in Hong Kong.
For me, before reading this book, I didn’t understand why the ethnicity of maids would be an important aspect in an employer’s decision to hire a domestic worker.
I knew many maids in Hong Kong were Indonesian and Filipino, but never understood why it had to be these two ethnicities that made up the majority of maids in Hong Kong. Maid to Order in Hong Kong allowed me to realize that there are so many things revolving around this question, but one of the main points I gathered from the novel was this:
Indonesians, many of whom have learned to speak some Cantonese while in training camps in Indonesia, were also considered better suited to provide care for elderly household members who are likely to speak only Cantonese, whereas Filipinas were still preferred by those with small children for their ability to speak and teach the children English. (Constable 40)
There were also so many other points discussed regarding the unequal pay a maid might get because of her ethnicity; how maids are forced to do illegal work and why they do that work; employers’ restrictions on the religious practices of maids; and how living quarters for maids can vary from an unconditioned cleaning-materials storage room, the bathroom, or a shared room with their employers’ children.
The part of the book that really broke my heart were the repeated stories of maids’ failed attempts at receiving justice in the Hong Kong courts. Hearings were pushed back; language barriers were used as advantages of employers to put maids in the wrong when the maids were trying to, for example, receive a three month’s pay they never got before having their contract terminated by the employer.
In contrast, though, it was inspiring to hear about some of the inspirational words that some maids had to share.
For example, Elsa said that “[B]eing a DH is quite challenging for me because I have to deal with different lands of people, and with how to get along with them. I think it’s a very challenging experience. I have learned a lot” (Constable 157). Living with different employers and learning how to cater to their needs when they speak a different language and come from another cultural background comes with the inevitable wisdom of knowing how people work.
Constable also reveals other ways in which maids are taught to deal with difficult times in their employment, such as by being more positive, trying to solve problems from within (the maid) instead of viewing the problems as stemming from the employer, or by learning “to love [the maids’] employers, no matter how bad they may be” (Constable 191).
In an article titled ‘Can You Read Your Boss? Layosa encouraged workers to study the employer’s ‘hidden feelings,’ to try to recognize the employer’s ‘words of precaution,’ to study ‘his movements or body language.’ (Constable 190).
In all honesty, because of my own limited experiences being in Hong Kong, I never realized that these would be the kind of tips given out to maids in Hong Kong. This is just another one example of the many new discoveries I made from reading Maid to Order in Hong Kong, but there are too many for me to list for a review unless I turn this into a research project on domestic workers. 😅
The reason why, I think, I am so adamant about learning more about the lives of maids in Hong Kong is because of two main reasons:
The first reason is more personal — Hong Kong is a place that isn’t quite my home, because I’ve never lived there, but it’s a close second for me because I go there every summer and have family living there. I’m fascinated by everything to do with Hong Kong society, and every year I go to Hong Kong, I discover more amazing things about the place that teach me about the lives of others, the harsh realities of the world, and also how a society as unique as Hong Kong functions.
For me, it goes against everything I believe in to ignore how prevalent maids are in Hong Kong. If I don’t understand something about a group of people in this world, and I’m curious, then it is my responsibility to take the initiative and educate myself on that topic. No one else is going to do that for me. Now, if I somehow end up talking about maids — even maids outside of Hong Kong — I’ll be able to contribute insightful remarks, thoughts, and ideas to the conversation because I took the time to educate myself further on this topic.
It’s a powerful feeling to know that I now am so much more educated about a society in the world than I was before. 😊 I’m definitely going to keep reading more nonfiction books now. 📚
My second reason involves fictional books and the portrayal of maids/workers in those books. In many YA books i have read, especially fantasy ones, the story often includes maids, servants, workers, or a group of people of that similar “class” in the story’s society. I find that the stories of characters who have a role in that class often have very romanticized stories. In fact, a lot of harsh aspects of novels are romanticized and made into devices to enhance readers’ sympathy for characters instead of actually putting the reader in the characters’ shoes to enlighten readers about the real living conditions of real people on Earth.
Constable mentioned (and I already quoted her previously) that some people forget about how difficult it can be to comprehend the power dynamics between two people. For understanding the relationships between maids and employers, Constable says, it is important to not always view the maid as the victim and the employer as the cruel dictator over the maid (Constable 10). I took this to mind when reading this book, and I am happy to realize that my understanding of how power works between people has definitely been enhanced by reading this book.
Thus, I now want to take everything I have learned from this book to criticize and review the books I read person who is now more educated about the world.
I am so glad I took time out of my life to read this lovely book, and if you are as passionate about Hong Kong society as I am, then Maid to Order in Hong Kong would be the perfect book for you.
Thank you for reading this book chat,
and have a wonderful day! 🌄😄