HK’s maid-brutalizing mad housewife problem

For 10 days or so we have seen some stomach-churning pictures of Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s injuries, allegedly meted out by her Hong Kong employer, Lo Wan-tung. Getty Images captures something relatively cheering: overseas maids yesterday giving Lo a warm welcome back to her neighbourhood, shackled and hooded and in the company of police searching her apartment…

If it were Erwiana’s word against Lo’s, there might be at least a sliver of possibility that the burns and bruises were the result of self-harm or a visit from loan sharks. But at least one previous employee has come forward with horror stories of a sadistic woman who sees herself as Guanyin, the Chinese-Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. The Standard piece says Lo is a Mainlander married to a guy in the ‘securities industry’ (a broker?) who is ‘seldom at home’; she has graduated from public housing in Wong Tai Sin to the oh-so classy private residential estates of Tseung Kwan O. Amateur psychiatrists – or maybe her defence counsel – might build up a profile of an insecure, neglected and embittered woman becoming delusional and unhinged.

Even the least canine-friendly among us couldn’t do these things to a dog; what sort of mind is it whose owner can inflict physical pain and damage on a fellow, innocent person, and repeat it day after day? We would like to think one that itself is so tortured that it is extremely rare, if not unique. Except then we recall the case of Kartika Puspitasari, whose employers were imprisoned last September for broadly similar sadism towards their Indonesian maid. We can safely assume that this degree of abuse is unusual (I mean, how does beating your amah black and blue improve the quality of cooking and cleaning in your home?). But they can’t be the only ones out there whose need to exert control and superiority is so overwhelming that they can’t relate to other people as human and gain some sort of satisfaction or relief from being plain cruel.

We are probably talking about what I’ll loosely term ‘psychopaths’, and perhaps the conditions that turn people into psychopaths, and possibly the role played in all this by social status, race, marital problems and the pressure-cooker nature of life for some in Hong Kong.

Instead, we are already seeing an almighty conflation of other issues, with migrant workers’ groups producing lengthy wish-lists of changes in the law. Maybe the rules should be changed so maids can live out, or quit jobs without having to leave Hong Kong soon after; there’s probably a good case for enforcing electronic payment of helpers’ salaries in full, and for sorting out abuses by employment agencies that verge on loan-sharking, indentured labour and even human trafficking. But you can’t regulate away the psychoses behind the daily barbarism going on in a few middle-class households.

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35 Responses to HK’s maid-brutalizing mad housewife problem

  1. JM Hatch says:

    Yep, there is an expat stock trader who has two live-in maids plus a wife who does not have a job, out trying to drum up support for Erwiana. He doesn’t seem to get that he’s own lifestyle, luxury built on the misery of others, is part of the problem. Somehow, not beating his maids makes the whole lifestyle built on importing Stockholm Syndrome Slaves Okay.

  2. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Could it possibly be that he’s working in “security”, in China a cover-all word to include the secret service, army, navy, police, chengguang and possibly janitors? As for “industry”, culture (ie writers, musicians, artists) has now been declared to be one, with the civil service surely soon to follow.

    Other less horrifying cases have involved hot irons as punishment: presumably the embittered, neglected housewives feel the need for stronger and stronger retribution to achieve the aims of intimidation, humiliation and destruction?

  3. Gumshoe says:

    My hope is that the proposed government “think tank” I heard about on the radio that is being suggested to tackle “deep seated problems in Hong Kong” will deal with this sort of thing. Not only that, I think it rings true when you extend it further, as you stated:

    “…need to exert control and superiority is so overwhelming that they can’t relate to other people as human…”

    This is what I see every day in the city by just walking around, driving on highways, riding the MTR, ordering food, and everything else. I wouldn’t go so far as to blanket label Hong Kong citizens as remotely psychopathic or sociopathic, but tendencies associated with these problems pop up over and over again. Responding to confrontation of wrongdoing with anger/blaming it on others, general disregard for anybody else, cutting off others for no reason, cataloging perceived sleights as a reason to treat others like trash like an accounting ledger, etc.

    Sometimes I get a little upset and really think something seriously wrong is going on here. Why run in front of me at the ATM? Why not turn around and inform others that the cash machine is out of cash, for that matter. Then I just think “F it” and keep living my life a little more insularly (real word?).

  4. Chris Maden says:

    It isn’t only Hong Kong. Abu Dhabi has a refuge for maids: amongst the many who escape to that shelter, an average of one a month arrives with a broken spine or hips because the only way to escape was, quite literally, to jump out of the window.

    At least in Hong Kong (some of) the animals that do this get imprisoned. In many other jurisdictions, the authorities ship the victim back and that’s that. Not even case closed, because there was never a case to begin with.

  5. Probably says:

    With reference to PropertyDevelopr’s now inspired response to my post yesterday, has anyone seen this?

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2014/jan/21/china-british-virgin-islands-wealth-offshore-havens

  6. Gin Soaked Boy says:

    The whole maid industry including agencies, associated money lenders (loan sharks) and involved government departments needs a shake up. The government is willfully blind regarding the non-compliance with contracts, under payment and all kinds of abuses. You see Maids driving their employers cars, taking the employers kids with them on their day off and working in shops. All of this is illegal. But try getting the immigration department or labour department out of their offices to enforce the law. That’s not going to happen because it may impact their morale!

  7. At the risk of overdoing the amateur psychology, could it be that some of the excessive “need to exert control and superiority” in the home – and in the other ways mentioned by Gumshoe – is related to the fact that many Hong Kong people feel a lack of control over their own lives in other areas: economic, political, etc.?

  8. maugrim says:

    A good piece today that highlights the barbarity of the actions that took place along with the ‘strike while the iron is hot’ responses from some advocacy groups. I don’t know if its esentially a HK problem, or indeed, on a superficial level, confined to race, but I find there is a mentality in HK, linked to the ‘kiasu’ culture, that means that there is something wrong if someone hasn’t ripped off an underling/shown them who is boss/made them earn every penny they get. The thing that really gets my goat is that if say for example, a white person in Canada or Australia did the same thing to a Chinese person, the HK local media would be full of it, hearts would be fluttering about ‘racism’ and ‘discrimination’. I was speaking to someone recently who had sent his son to the UK to be educated. He told me he had asked his son on the first night if he had been discriminated against, saying to me ‘you know these things happen there’. I bit my tongue, wanting to say something like, ‘yes, lucky he’s not a domestic helper’. There’s something wrong about a culture that has no concept of karma or even of thinking about how they would feel if the same were done to them. I get the feeling that this story is tip of the iceberg and goes to a far deeper, unpleasant heart-based truth about HK.

  9. PropertyDeveloper says:

    Since Hemlock so brilliantly responds to suggestions for topics, may I suggest the Kuk or Wen Jia-bao? In both cases, even the PCMP seems to have realised the rose-tinted hagiographies do’t give the whole story…

  10. mumphLT says:

    Too many people with DH’s (not just in HK) think they have bought a person & not employed someone to provide services. They are miserable racists who don’t see these employees as human. It’s sickening.

    But as some people have suggested – this is a symptom of a wider disconnect where as an example we will happily wear clothes made in sweat shops in Bangladesh, sit on tat furniture whimsically named…and never question the brand or seller to prove their Human Right standards.

  11. mjrelje says:

    Gumshoe: it’s all at its most blatant when you see one family standing waiting their turn to sit down at McDs or similar, and a seated family stand up, look through the waiting family, and just walk off without moving one scrap of their mess. Does any other country have such a selfish impolite and childish attitude to basic civil curteousies?

  12. Stephen says:

    I would hope that some good can come out of this appalling case of barbarism inflicted on poor Erwiana Suslistyaningsih – your wish list of rule changes would be a start. Agencies that charges Indonesian helpers fees so high that they don’t earn a cent for their first seven months of a two year contract should be exposed – if registration of agencies does away with it then all well and good.

    Unfortunately almost all of our politicians let us down with helpers’ rights to residency recently, which was a stain on Hong Kong.Shame as it may have started to cause a sea change in some people’s attitudes towards those with darker skin.

    That, once the courts have found the accused guilty, the employer does serious jail time time – 2 years (same length as a typical DH Contract) – should be a given and that I fear will be the sum change that will come of this latest case of appalling cruelty.

  13. reductio says:

    @mjelje

    With you on the McD front (also letting doors slam in your face, what IS with that?) but I had my fair share of uncivil behaviour last time I was in Blighty. And in HK there is a refreshing lack of violent, drunken yobbos and bands of feral youths to avoid. London: great place of culture and entertainment, just don’t be wandering around the Elephan’ ‘n’ Carsul on a Saturday night.

  14. Gumshoe says:

    All of my cynical comments are anecdotal evidence and should be taken at face value. That being said, some days are really tough.

  15. PCC says:

    To add to the list of remarkable behaviour by employers of domestic helpers, let’s tip our caps to those who lend out and pass around their helpers to friends and family without apology or recompense to the helper.

  16. Regislea says:

    @PCC

    Here’s a more extreme example of such behaviour which I know is true- I was there – and that’s the second part of the story.

    When I lived in Lamma, my Indonesian wife and used to go to one of the seafood restaurants and got to know the local proprietress – a real dragon lady to her staff although nice enough to us. One night she asked my wife if she knew of an Indonesian helper -more docile, she said – who wanted a job.

    My wife, knowing the working atmosphere, said that she didn’t but a few weeks later a nice young Indonesian is waiting on tables – seven nights a week. This is of course illegal in so many ways.

    But here’s the dilemma: if I reported this (and my previous experiences with Immigration suggest that it would have been a complete waste of time) the restaurant owner might get fined a substantial sum but – and here’s the thing – the helper would be deported, and would still have to pay off the agency and loan sharks.

    Since the helper was actually reasonably happy with the arrangement – except for the no days off part – I kept quiet.

    One other but more general example: a few years ago I was asked by an SCMP reporter who knew I was married to an ex-helper if I know of any Indonesian maids who were being underpaid – the other reason why they’re more popular than the Filipinas. I didn’t but I asked my wife and without thinking about it she rattled off the names of six of her friends.

    The whole thing stinks!

  17. Tenardier says:

    It’s time for all the maids working in hong hong to go back to their beautiful countries and leave Hong Kong people moping their floors and washing their underpants by themselves,the fact is that if all these people have a maid it’s because they are just lazy and they can have a slave at home for a few dollars,all the excuses about overwork,crazy schedule,blah blah…are bullshit,Japanese people work much harder with crazy schedules and they don’t need a slave at home to clean their houses.And the gweilos who are taking advantage of that shitty system should move their asses and start cleaning their socks like they use to do in their own countries.

  18. Ex Tax Payer says:

    @ Stephen ( sort of )

    I recall that someone recently got 2 years in jail just for cruelty to a cat !

    So I think that 20 years is more appropriate in this case.

    And put the wretched woman on hard labor every day – scrubbing floors, washing dishes and dirty fellow-prisoners undies by hand (without rubber gloves) .

    And BTW: if the President of Indonesia comes to CY and asks him to bow and scrape and apologize Manila- bus -massacre- apology -style I hope CY has the good sense to grovel appropriately .

  19. reductio says:

    @Tenardier

    There’s a lot to what you say but “beautiful countries”? They might be nice for a visit but the Philippines and Indonesia are kleptocracies run by a venal elite, with a trickle down corruption that would make even Greek civil servants blink in unbelief. The average Joe and Jane are screwed.

  20. Dr Doo-me-a-little says:

    I see that all the goody-two-shoe, liberal, leftist, NET-teacher-like, cardigan wearing, Greenpeace-buttoned, my-wife-is-a-Flip crowd has clocked in today.

  21. Regislea says:

    Not sure about “beautiful countries” either. Where I live in Indonesia is gorgeous, but there is some grinding poverty as well – which is why there are 150,000 of them in Hong Kong!

    The kleptocracy criticism is an interesting one for Indonesia. It does make people – particularly the young – very sceptical of their politicians and the viability of democracy in the country.

    Coming back to the domestic helpers for a moment; one factor which is rarely acknowledged is the helpers reluctance to go to the authorities. There are a number of reasons for this:

    Nothing’s going to be done anyway

    I’ll lose my job

    My employer will punish me, etc.

    But another reason is that both the Indonesians and – I think – the Filipinas come from a culture where a person in uniform is anything but a friend. Maybe taking Immigration out of uniform and stop treating helpers as second class citizens might help?

  22. Oneleggoalie says:

    Dr. Do-me-a-little is sooo spot on…

    …bring back the good ol’ days when black people were strung up for looking at white women…

    …and Jews were…er…nevermind…a whiff of the censors is wafting this way…

  23. Regislea says:

    @ Doo me a little

    I am a liberal, but I am not on the left, I have never been a NET, never owned a cardigan – although I have no objection in principle – see Greenpeace as a bunch of self-interested phonies and my wife is Indonesian.

    In what way do you think your rant made any contribution to the misery that’s out there for these poor girls?

  24. Wackford says:

    Again HK reaffirms its First World wealth Third World behaviour status. Same in Singapore, where, when visiting relatives, I see neighbour’s maid squatting in garden at 11.30pm hand washing clothes in 4 or 5 separate tubs. 7 days a week. There is modern washing machine sitting idly by. The same wretched soul is up at 5.30am washing cars-large and German- (why is this a daily task? I wash mine once a month, if that, and it’s mostly clean), cleaning house and preparing food for the house owners who who have oodles of money but not the slightest hint of sophistication. Of course, the usual continual scolding can be heard.
    What can one do? It’s endemic in this part of the world and it isn’t going to change no matter how much legislation is introduced. A cruel mind is highly resistant to change. They just don’t see it. Tenardier is on the right track.

  25. Snufkin says:

    What I never understand is why don’t the people who treat their maids like shit consider how that is going to effect the care and attention given to any kids that are left as the helper’s(I always think doer is a more appropriate description) responsibility.

    Surely those bad vibes trickle down.

  26. Dr Doo-me-a-little says:

    Statistically speaking it is impossible that out of a crowd of 300-400 thousand FDH’s there wouldn’t be a very small minority of psycho-abusive employers like the one who just got bagged by the police.

    But that doesn’t mean that the system is basically wrong. Getting a job as FDH in HK is a God-given to the majority of helpers. There are entire barangays, kampongs, villages and provinces in those countries that rely on the monthly remittances to keep them supplied with a never-ending flow of ice-cold San Migs and fried chicken. And they don’t even have to work for it.

  27. Tenardier says:

    @DrDoo ” statistically speaking it is impossible that out of a crowd of 300 thousand FDH there would not be a very small minority of psycho abusive employers?” its “statistically” obvious that you are a miserable moron.The system is not basically wrong?! you are a funny dude,it seems that you are more concerned about the destiny of Edward Snowden.I don’t wear cardigans,i am a proletarian and I enjoy to throw Molotov cocktails to gentlemen like you. Best Regards.

  28. Ex Tax Payer says:

    The other night I watched the 2011 version of the film “The Help”
    on cable TV.

    Based in Mississippi just prior to Martin Luther King it has more than a few resonances with what is going on today with our general attitude to domestic helpers .

    ( I regard the recent abuse cases as an extreme aberration – but only an aberration that happens as a result of the attitudes we generally hold towards domestic helpers.)

    ______

    Wikipedia :

    The Help is a 2011 Americanr drama film adaptation of the novel of the same name (2009) …..during Civil Rights era America (the early 1960s). Skeeter is a journalist who decides to write a book from the point of view of the maids (referred to as “the help”), exposing the racism they are faced with as they work for white families.

  29. Regislea says:

    @Ex Tax Payer

    Interesting point. Some years ago I spent a lot of time on the Expat forums trying to find a job for a helper whose family had done a runner from HK and left her high and dry. (Yes, it’s not just the locals who abuse maids!)

    What was interesting was that the attitudes taken and the language used in commenting about maids – mainly by the gwailo housewife – was very similar to that used by (mainly males) during the height of the US slave trade.

    Two particular aspects; the maids were viewed as less than human, but also a sexual threat to the husband. One favourite – and this happened to my wife when she was helper, “Can I make her cut her hair?”

    And the other, “I make her go out modestly dressed on her day off.” Why do most helpers out on a Sunday have a large handbag with them? No, it’s not the first line of a joke – the bag is to carry their change of clothes – their glad rags – and their high heels.

    So housewife not just paranoid but stupid as well!

  30. Regislea says:

    @Dr Doo

    You seem to be wilfully missing the point. Get your helper to explain it to you.

    Just because you want/need the job doesn’t mean that you should accept ill-treatment.That thinking went out in Victorian times.

    Get with the program please!

  31. Chopped Onions says:

    @Dr Poo
    You poor sad onanist

  32. @Dr Doo-me-a-little: I suppose the child chimney sweeps in Victorian times were grateful to be employed if the alternative was starvation.

    @Tenardier: the domestic helper system is intimately tied in with the exploitation of Hong Kong workers by local employers – people really don’t have time to do their own housework, fetch the kids from school, etc., because Hong Kong businesses expect them to work 10 hours a day or more. When we went to live in Europe for a while, it was a real culture shock for my wife to find that office workers actually go home at 5pm when their official working hours end. Japan is not a valid comparison, because most women there don’t work full-time after marriage, or at least after their first child comes along.

  33. @Regislea: there is an academic study by Nicole Constable of the “sexual threat” issue – quote: “I was repeatedly told of women whose contracts were terminated on the first day, or immediately after arrival in Hong Kong, because the domestic worker was ‘too beautiful’ and therefore posed a threat to her woman employer”. Just Google “sexuality and discipline among Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong” to find it.

  34. Mrd says:

    In allowing such pubic and heinous crimes, the Hong Kong populace, at large, is shown to be absolutely barbaric and uncivilised. Shame on you all, including the the ineffective Administration and media.

  35. Kconan says:

    There are bad maids and bad employers, hopefully both kinds of stories get equal time in the press.

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