Maria stood looking over the harbour at constant traffic on ocean passage between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon on the mainland. It all looked vibrant and exciting and she never tired of the sight. She loved the freedom of her release from duties with a Chinese household up at the Peak for these few brief hours away from constant toil each week.
It was a time to meet up with expatriate Filipina maids who descended on this part of Hong Kong to gain strength from their compatriots in self-imposed exile from their homeland. It was also a time to swap latest stories of the households they served, the intrigue and scandals which they kept as entertainment for their friends during those hours of freedom. Sometimes these stories were embellished in sharing, sometimes an accurate portrayal.
The bottom line was they identified with and were proud to be associated with the household they served. They felt it gave them vicarious status, particularly if they served the very rich. It was a step up from the sad circumstances of birth and existence in the slums of Manila before they lucked out with their acceptance as maids abroad. Some of their sisters and brothers sent snippets of news from other countries accepting the Philippines human export where horror stories were smuggled out telling of their abuse. By way of comparison any sleights or beatings they may suffer here were nothing and over their loneliness and fear of being returned to the Philippines penniless they were grateful for the better life they had in Hong Kong.
Maria smiled as she saw her cousin Tess approaching quickly from a distance. Well perhaps they were not real cousins she was not sure of that, but they’d grown up together in the slum and been firm friends through the experience of growing, hustling to climb the social ladder, getting a basic education and manipulating their way through the slum bureaucracy to have an opportunity to go abroad. In the process they’d married and had children. It was not a marriage of love, but of convenience. Their husbands were also survivors who’d elbowed their way into the parallel economy and were able to finance the processes that got their wives passports and opportunities to work abroad. It was understood their hard work would result in a cash flow from abroad to supplement family income and educate children. In some cases, it moved the family a notch up the social strata getting them away from fetid canals and into a less threatening environment for children to grow.
Maria frowned as she thought of the stress of those years and compared with her situation now. She was much better off than her husband so had to be thankful for his sacrifice making her present situation possible. Perhaps she even loved him for his contribution to her happiness? She certainly loved her children. No sacrifice was too much to see them better off in life than when she’d found her way into the world. The latest letter from home contained a photo of the shack purchased away from the slum’s worst congestion. She nodded her head in approval. Both had worked hard and sacrificed to get them thus far, and the children were doing well in school. Apart from food given her in her work place and enough money left over to pay for her weekly visit with the maids, and annual payment for permission to reside in Hong Kong all the rest went back to Manila to support their family lifestyle.
Tess had not been as fortunate. Her husband had moved in with another woman during her long absence and sent the children to live with Tess’s grandparents in a rural village. He was demanding Tess send her earnings to him in payment of expenses incurred obtaining her passport and paying the go between who arranged work abroad. Tess sent the money to her grandparents with instructions to keep it in a bank to pay for the children’s education and perhaps buy a place in the village for her eventual retirement. The husband went to the village with friends and tried to compel the old couple to hand over money, but villagers rallied to their aid and beat the intruders sending them bruised and scurrying back to Manila. That was the last Tess had heard of him.
Soon maids could be seen coming from all directions and before long there was a sea of faces bearing the features made in the Philippines, most spoke Tagalog, a language spoken by a quarter of the population and an understood second language of the majority in the islands making up the country. Combined voices sounded like the roar of spectators in an arena even exceeding the normal week din of a city in motion when the girls returned to their work.
A few of the single girls in desperation to try and gain a better life tried their luck with tourists as they passed through looking bemused at the spectacle, so many women gathered in a common location. They were a despised minority of the deeply religious group gathered there and shunned when they returned to the group after an unsuccessful encounter sending them on the hunt for a new possible benefactor. Occasionally some lucked out and found themselves eventually in an affluent Western nation married. But most who tried that route of escape found themselves used, temporarily better off by a few dollars, and discarded adding to their misery.
Maria embraced her cousin and rolling her eyes looking at the melee around her suggested they find a quiet cheap restaurant to spend their precious hours together before returning to work.
Tess had some good news. She worked for an expatriate husband and wife who were approaching the end of their assignment with a multinational firm in Hong Kong and they’d accepted her more as a daughter than maid. Over time they’d pulled out of her details of her country and childhood. At first Tess had tried to present her circumstances as one of a desire to see the world than a necessary venture of survival, but gradually the reality of her childhood and reason for being there had come out in times of loneliness and depression, and the Stewarts had warmed to her as they saw her sincerity and hard work in action. They were childless and decided to help this woman in her extremity.
The Stewarts had gone to their embassy and looked into the possibility of taking Tess with them when they returned from abroad. It was difficult, but even in the West when one has family influence in government circles difficult things become possible. So, on a temporary basis it would be possible for them to take Tess with them, but her continued acceptance in their country would depend on whether Tess played fair with the Stewarts or not.
With that potential almost assured they asked Tess if she’d be interested in continuing to work for them when they returned to London if things could be worked out. Tess had sobbed loudly. The emotion stemming from this kind offer, only to be dreamed about by most of the downtrodden masses of this world was too much for her to reply to immediately. She could only nod her head in acceptance. The Stewarts felt emotional too as they luxuriated in the feeling of doing something positive with their wealth to the benefit of one of the forgotten people of the world.
Maria listened to the exuberant tale from Tess and smiled squeezing her cousin’s hand in encouragement. But while she was happy for the good fortune Tess shared, inside she felt depressed and defeated. She compared the life each of them would experience from here on. Tess living in the lap of luxury in London and Maria slaving each day to earn enough to give her children an opportunity in life. The disparity between haves and have nots came into clear focus and tears formed in her eyes.
Tess picked up the signal instantly and drew back in surprise, how could she have been so unfeeling to show her excitement to her cousin in this way? She sat looking at her uneaten snack and suddenly didn’t feel hungry any more. She wished her cousin had equally good news to share.
Maria noticed the change of mood and brightened up. Why should she spoil this good news by focusing on her unhappy situation? She motioned to Tess’s plate and said, “Eat up, this calls for a celebration.”
Tess brightened when she saw Maria’s change of mood. They finished their meal and headed back to sit by the ocean for the brief time remaining.
That evening Mrs Stewart received Tess back warmly. It was a holiday and she’d missed chatting with her maid while her husband was away in China on business for the firm. Knowing she’d have been enjoying time with her cousin that day as usual she asked how Maria had accepted the good news. Tess reported on the sadness she’d detected in Maria and Mrs Steward nodded her head in understanding.
“Tess, you’ll be getting a good wage from us when we return to London, much more than we contracted to give you here. Perhaps you should consider sending some money to your cousin as well as providing for your children in the Philippines? What do you think?”
Tess brightened up at the suggestion. Her situation in life was on the up and up so just as the Stewarts had been good to her in granting this opportunity to return to London with then, she in turn would see her cousin’s life was made a little easier and a hoped for owned home in her grandparents villaage would become a reality.
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