City of 100,000 Sacrifices
They settle on the sidewalk of a pretty park, squatting wherever there’s shade and shelter. Then they unpack their suitcases and like magicians reveal their gifts, talents – and needs.
Indonesian women, mainly 20 and 30 somethings, singing, dancing, preparing food, making handicrafts, reading the Koran, seemingly happy. It’s a scene common across the archipelago, hardly worth a comment except for one tragic omission. No children.
Duncan Graham reports from Hong Kong on the sadness, suffering and resilience of the nation’s remittance heroines.
Dewi Karina (above) is attractive, cheerful and smart. The creative 33-year old makes beautiful flowers out of plastic and whatever materials she can find, and she teaches her skills to others at no cost.
Back in her home town of Surabaya live her two teenage children – and her former husband.
Divorce is one of many hazards faced by the Tenaga Kerja Indonesia [Indonesian work force - TKI] who labor overseas to get their families ahead - while their partners grow restless and sometimes roam. TKIs don’t just suffer homesickness – they also risk family disintegration.
Another danger is exploitation and brutality. Earlier this year Indonesian maid Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, 23, became internationally known for all the wrong reasons.
She alleged she’d been forced to work 21 hours a day and so badly beaten she was hospitalised on returning to East Java. She carried just US $9 (Rp 100,000) in her wallet after working for nine months. Her beautician boss was charged with assault and criminal intimidation; the matter is still before the courts.
The case shocked because Hong Kong is reputed to be the safest overseas posting for Indonesian domestics, with labor laws well enforced, unlike the Middle East.
Every Sunday the Indonesians gather in Victoria Park for their weekly bonding. More than 100,000 are employed in the former British colony, now the Special Administrative Region of China, and most spend all day at the 19 hectare park.
Early arrivals, like Khumaidah, 33, bring rolls of plastic to cover the kerb under a footbridge, ready for her friends to sit. She’s bareheaded and wears a scoop-neck pink T-shirt, but later ducks into the women’s toilet, emerging in an all-encompassing print dress and green jilbab, the right headgear for a Koranic reading.
“There’s no discrimination here,” she said. “More and more women are wearing headscarves.” Badges proclaiming ‘I love Allah’ are common.
Dewi, 30, wanders by in black, collecting for Gaza Strip victims of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Everyone contributes. The activist says it’s her way of expressing solidarity with fellow Muslims overseas.
In between sits Nyami Kaswadi, 47, (below) who has lugged about 50 kilograms of books from her employer’s flat to set up her Pandu Pustaka suitcase library, an eclectic mix of pop fiction, literature and self-help books.
“I want to show the people of Hong Kong that we are not prostitutes,” she said forcefully. “We are proud wives and mothers who have left our homes and families only because there’s no work in our homeland.
“We can spend our spare time sitting around and gossiping, or we can use the opportunity to learn. I’m not upset if borrowers don’t return books. That means they are being read.”
Nearby a tambourine band gets set to sing Islamic songs, while around the corner a small group is vigorously dancing to a raunchy Western tune. The lyrics celebrate women’s role in society, asserting individuality and equality.
Their energetic leader Saniya is a member of Aliansi Migran Progresif, [AMP] a self-help organization that ensures workers’ rights are respected.
“If our members have problems with their bosses we act as go-betweens,” said AMP President Yuni. “This can be a tough country, but the laws do protect foreign workers.
“Difficulties include adjusting to the lifestyle and language. Although English is widely used, caregivers need Cantonese to help the elderly.”
A few local men pass through and there’s cheerful banter. Some women have married Chinese and settled in Hong Kong. There are whispers about lesbianism, and it’s clear there are several same-sex couples in the crowds, doing little to hide their affection. It’s joyless being alone in a foreign land.
Bored Leisure and Cultural Services staff wander around hoping to snare a trader, for ‘hawking’ is prohibited. Fat chance.
The women outnumber the officials by several hundred to one, so who knows whether bungkus (take-away) plastic boxes of bakso (meat ball soup), nasi campur (rice and mixed vegetables and a dozen other delicacies are changing hands for cash or friendship.
A Dutch couple from Jakarta with a new-born stop to chat – politely declining requests to nurse the blond baby from women desperate to relive the joys of motherhood they’ve forsaken. Their expressions are heart-ripping. Being separate from their kids is like a gaol term.
Lia Samatron’s (left) perfect English and easy confidence with bureaucracy makes her the go-to for first-timers registering at the nearby Indonesian Embassy, conveniently close to shops selling the spices that gave the islands their first name.
“I used to run a travel agency from my home,” Lia said. “When I’ve saved enough I’ll go back and re-open.
“There are so many opportunities for improvement. One of the (Indonesian) banks here runs courses on small business management. If you’re motivated you can learn much that will get you a better job.
“This education should be available in Indonesia. We shouldn’t have to leave our homes and families.”
The basic wage is about HK $4,000 (Rp 6 million) plus food and accommodation, usually a tiny space in a cramped high rise.
“Who’d want to be a maid in Indonesia?” Lia asked. “The money is bad and so is the treatment. Here we can earn enough to help our families, and get our children a good education.”
Wanti, 47, agreed. She’s putting her two daughters through Malang’s Brawijaya University and is determined they’ll not have to labor overseas.
Across the spectacular harbor on Kowloon Peninsula Icha, 24, has taken on the local dress style of short shorts while showing her new friend Wati, 27, the sights. These include a cruise liner that pours its contents of well-heeled overseas tourists into an already seething shopping mall.
“I like Hong Kong because I have freedom to do what I want and wear what I like,” said Icha, a four-year veteran. “I can’t be myself in Indonesia.”
Two Indonesian men approach and the couples are swallowed by the crowd. No-one pays any attention: Hong Kong is a city where you mind your own business and get on with life.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 31 August 2014)