Yesterday was the 3rd Asian Migrant Workers Summit, organized by the International Migrants’ Alliance, held at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. According to the South China Morning Post, there are about 320,000 foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Hong Kong as of 2013, 50% originating from the Philippines, 47% from Indonesia, and the rest from Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. These workers are almost all female – to give a sense of perspective, in 2011 the HK Census reported that about 90% of Indonesian and Filipina women are domestic workers.
The area outside the lecture hall was packed with women talking excitedly in a range of languages, moving between the packed registration table and the line for a bag of snacks. Many were wearing colorful hijabs and flowing skirts, others were dressed in casual jeans, shorts, and t-shirts. One group of women from the Indonesian group Beringin Tetap Maju (BTM) was especially interesting: they dressed in brown jumpsuits, individually decorated, and many wore their hair in short styles that, in the US, would be taken as expressing LGBTQ identity. There was actually a number of women dressed in “tomboy” fashion, wearing calf-length baggy jeans, open shirts rolled up above the elbow, and sneakers or boots (a “sexual alternative” discussed in Chang and Ling 2000). The women from BTM may, however, have dressed specifically for their performance.
The lecture hall had a large, high, rounded ceiling, and across the walls in the front and sides were strung the banners of 31 different organizations. Two boisterous and jokey women were the summit’s MCs. Between speakers they would joke with each other and the crowd, keeping the audience well entertained and ringing with appreciation and applause. The summit began with opening remarks from Polytechnic Professor Pauline Sung Chan, who applauded the women for their work. She noted that by being in the lecture hall before the start of the school year, the estimated 400 attendees “already occupy the sacred place” that students usually took. Hong Kong, she continued, was going through a period of political transformation, and migrants’ voices “needed to alert local society to be kind and just.”
This kind of rhetoric about the relationship between local society, justice, and morality was really interesting. A short video introducing the IMA pointed to “neoliberal globalization” as the cause of FDWs’ suffering, noting that they are treated as “commodities” and “modern day slaves.” “IMA is progressive and democratic,” the video pronounced, and described their goal of “fighting against imperialistic oppression.” Speakers and dance performances followed in alternation, and the first section ended with an open forum.
Afterward BTM performed its dance and rap. It was very powerful – the woman with short hair spoke forcefully. “I just want to help my parents, get them some money, why get me an employer like the devil?” she said, to great applause and cheers. At the performance’s height, she screamed, “I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW I WAS A VICTIM OF MODERN DAY SLAVERY! I DON’T WANT ANOTHER VICTIM LIKE ME!” before ending, “Government – don’t use us as a money machine. We are migrant workers, not slaves.”
Next was Wardarina, from the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD). APWLD’s program for “Development Justice” was especially interesting because of its call for accountability to peoples: “Accountability to peoples requires democratic and just governance that enables people to make informed decisions over their own lives, communities and futures. It necessitates empowering all people, but particularly the most marginalised, to be part of free, prior and informed decision making in all stages of development processes […].”
The video [Youtube] she played in conclusion was especially interesting for its gendered depiction of global inequality: men were depicted as the wealthy and powerful, while women labored in factories, performed domestic labor, and worked on farms, with all their money draining to the male icon.
I had to leave after that so I could make it to Central station on time to meet my fellow Fulbrighter, Henry, for dinner then the Occupy Central announcement at Tamar Park (添馬公園). I managed to get to Statue Square, which I identified belatedly as the site that so many books and articles I’d been reading prior to arriving had highlighted as a common gathering place for FDWs. It was incredible – almost every foot of free space was occupied by a group of women. Along the roads, too, women gathered in small groups, sitting on top of cloths, cardboard, and tarps, sharing food and information and just chatting with friends. I found Henry relatively quickly because in the sea of FDWs, he was the only man (aside from some policemen).*
Tamar Park is located just north of the Central Government Complex, the Legislative Council Complex, the office of the Chief Executive, and the People’s Liberation Army offices and barracks; it’s actually closer to the Admiralty MTR stop than to the Central station. We passed buses and buses of policemen, many of them eating their dinners, and arrived at the park just at 7pm as the sun was setting and the crowd gathering. Some activists from People Power (人民力量), a radical democratic party, tried to give us flags, and people from Citizen Radio were giving out headbands reading “公民抗命” (“citizen disobedience”), but we declined.
A white poster had been set up at the end of the park with the words “抗命” (disobedience) on it, creating a stage that faced the government complex with its back to the water. Because we arrived right at 7, we were able to find a spot right behind the cameras. A number of people were seated at the edge of the stage, with cameras behind, then more people standing behind and to the side of the cameras. A young man was standing with a massive drum to the right of the stage, creating deep beats in time with the speakers and rousing the crowd. I couldn’t identify everyone who spoke, but I could recognize a few people’s faces from the news. The crowd was made of all ages, except for children, and was practically all ethnic Chinese, with a handful of white expats or foreigners. It was about 30-40% women. Some signs in the crowd read “我家我衛,” “I protect my home.”
It’s unfortunate that Henry and I didn’t have an advanced enough grip of Cantonese to keep up with everything in detail, but we translated for each other and often I realized that my study of Mandarin was really helping me figure out Cantonese parallels so that I could understand the gist of most things. The speakers often adopted conversational tones, creating camaraderie between them and the audience; those who used the most formal language and were most difficult to understand were the student leaders and the academics (figures).
One of the speakers talked about how our parents had come from China to Hong Kong to escape a repressive government. They warned us not to get involved with the government, he said, but he argued that they were different: they weren’t from where their parents were; they were from Hong Kong, and Hong Kong was their home, and the government was at their door.
Some of the students broke down in tears as they talked. One talked about what Hong Kong had been like 30 years before, in the 1980s, when the Sino-British Negotiations had taken place and the Joint Declaration had been issued. He asked what Hong Kong would be like 30 years from now, emphasizing that Hong Kong was their home. “呢個地方係我哋嘅屋企,” he said, using the term for home (屋企) that is especially colloquial and familiar. As they stood on stage it began to pour. They declared that at the end of the gathering, some of them would march to the hotel in Wan Chai where they believed Li Fei, the deputy secretary general of the NPC Standing Committee, was staying. We will ask him why we don’t have true democracy, why our voices weren’t heard, and won’t leave until he comes out, they promised.
One person whom Twitter helpfully identified as Chan Kin-Man called for the need to protest (抵抗) not mainland people, but mainland law. One of the scholars, however, made a connection to a mainland-Hong Kong controversy over milk powder that had made many Hong Kong residents angry with mainlanders: If we can have false universal suffrage, then we can have false democracy, and false milk powder. Perhaps he didn’t intend to reference being angry with mainlanders, but instead being upset with the system that caused the rush on Hong Kong products; nonetheless his pronouncement was met with wide applause.
Martin Lee, the veteran pro-democracy champion, got on stage to speak. He expressed his desire to explain to the media the goal of Occupy Central, and so he was the only person to speak partially in English, while all others spoke Cantonese. Toward the end of his talk, he pointed up to a skyscraper beside the government offices bearing an electronic advertisement with red text on a white background (you can see it on the far left of the photo). He read it in Cantonese, then translated: “A new chapter.” Today, he emphasized, would begin a new chapter in the fight for democracy.
Twice the speakers asked everyone in the crowd to lift their phones and turn on the torch function, so that we could see in the darkness how far the crowd stretched across the park. Finally, the photographers were invited on stage to take a photo of the thousands of phone-lit hands in the night to demonstrate the power and determination of Occupy Central.
Many people, especially toward the end, discussed the name of Occupy Central. Its full name is Occupy Central with Love and Peace (讓愛與和平佔領中環). They emphasized the peaceful and loving nature of Occupy Central, the desire to protect Hong Kong and keep its good aspects while improving its future. During the final time that the crowd raised its phones in the air, the speakers began to play “Under a Vast Sky” (海闊天空) a popular song by the Hong Kong band Beyond, and the crowd sang along, waving their phones like candles in the sky: “Forgive me for being wild and yearning for freedom…”
At 9pm, the organizers ended the gathering with very clear and precise instructions on calmly leaving the assembly. The people in the back and the sides first, the speaker said; people in the front, please wait, so we can show everyone what Occupy Central will be like and so that we won’t dishonor the good reputation of Hong Kong. And everyone left quietly and calmly.
Henry and I left, too tired to think about joining the students in Wan Chai.
*I know that in light of the “tomboy” discussion and alternative gender identities for FDWs, my usage of “women” to describe them is over-generalizing, inaccurate, and possibly offensive (?). My excuse for doing this is that most FDWs present as female; I only noticed tomboys at the summit but didn’t see any while walking around town (though I wasn’t looking too hard). For anyone who’s interested, Nicole Constable (1997/2007, 2014) offers some great discussions about how FDWs interpret and construct gender norms, as well as the impact of gender norms on FDWs’ decisions in Hong Kong; I referenced Chang and Ling (2000) earlier, and I’m sure there are other scholars working on FDW sexuality and gender.