The White Queen famously claimed to believe up to six impossible things before breakfast. It’s not as hard as it sounds – simply flick through the Hong Kong news…
A bunch of Hong Kong street racers are arrested over the border for speeding. The background to this is rather sad. To compensate for their limited penile dimensions and other self-perceived physical and mental shortcomings, some men own expensive and usually ugly sports cars. (There was a time when designers of such machines had a sense of aesthetics, even artistry, but no more.) In exceptionally tragic cases, the vehicle is yellow or a sort of cheesy-vomit orange. Let off with a slap on the wrist, one of the inadequates claims that they couldn’t help breaking the speed limit…
‘…because the highway was so flat, wide and straight’.
Consider the laws of physics rewritten.
We move on to the Hong Kong government, and the latest in a recent flurry of official assurances that the authorities are taking firm action against the cross-border smugglers making life in New Territories towns unbearable. The Immigration Department is doing all sorts of things to fight the menace, like drawing up a big, tough list of suspects who might be barred from entering Hong Kong, and jailing a whole 200 perpetrators per, well, year. With so much action being taken, surely residents must be happy again now.
Officials have also noticed that exploitation and abuse of foreign workers in Hong Kong seems, if anything, to be getting worse. Consider high-profile horror stories like that of Indonesian domestic helper Erwiana and an earlier one about a maid whose employers saw fit to tie her to a chair when they went away. The solution: a press release saying migrant workers’ rights are fine and dandy. And that’s another problem solved.
Wen Wei Po, a newspaper that is essentially an arm of Beijing, has recently mounted a campaign of character assassination and smears against Hong Kong University law professor Johannes Chan. Pro-democrats have reacted with their usual outrage and visible signs of trepidation (just as the Communist Party wants – mockery and a shrug would be better). Academics allege that local officials have joined behind-the-scenes pressuring to make sure Chan is not appointed Pro Vice-Chancellor. The Chief Executive’s office issues a bland statement insisting that it has done no such thing. What a relief – I would hate to think our leaders could really get involved in such heavy handed and surely counterproductive idiocy.
Now here’s a headline that catches the eye…
‘Third-mortgage trend not a concern’. A real-estate investor claims that some 12,000 fourth mortgages have flowed into Hong Kong’s ever-rising property market. Yes fourth, as in the number 4. Others dispute this (and being a participant himself, and this report being in the Standard, there could be an agenda here). So let’s say for the sake of argument that we need only talk about third mortgages. Sounds pretty scary: people doubling or trebling up their debt with non-bank lenders, backed by whatever collateral at whatever interest rate, so their kids can get into the ever-skyrocketing can’t-lose HK$3.5-million 270-sq-ft rabbit hutch game. But it’s ‘not a concern’. Phew.
I declare the weekend open with the sixth impossible thing to believe before breakfast: that there is no sixth impossible thing.
A note on the domestic helpers press release.
First, let me declare an interest – I am married to a former helper, so I have some knowledge of the situation and feel strongly about it. Many of our friends are helpers or ex-helpers, so we know their stories and have no reason to doubt their veracity.
. . . foreign domestic helpers’ personal safety is protected by law”:
In theory, yes – in practice, absolutely not.
“the Police received an average of 40 reports a year of employers assaulting their foreign domestic helpers”
That’s 0.01%. He has to be barking if he believes that this bears any resemblance to the true picture. I could find 40 by doing a sweep of Victoria Park and Statue Square on any reasonably sunny Sunday.
“if a helper has been criminally intimidated, abused or involved in a labour dispute . . . the Immigration Department may exercise its discretion to allow an extended stay as a visitor.”
Last time I tried this with Immigration for a helper she got a one-day extension. And if she is allowed to stay, how does she support herself? How does she continue to support the family back home? – almost certainly the only reason she is here.
“The department has also boosted employment agency inspections . . .
Try a tax audit – it’s largely a cash business, with a lot of dodgy dealings.
“(The department) is preparing a Code of Practice for the industry to strengthen regulation. The Government aims to finish drafting the industry’s licensing mechanism within this year for consultation.”
The UN accused Hong Kong of aiding and abetting slavery years ago – are we really expected to believe that, because of Erwiana, there is any increased sense of urgency?
The truth is that everyone who has ever had any contact with this issue knows what the problems are:
1. The agencies are crooked – almost every helper I have ever talked to has been overcharged.
2. The live-in rule means that the helper cannot really complain unless she wants her life to be made even more of a misery. Can you imagine what would have happened to Erwiana if she had gone to the Labour Department and then returned to that hell-hole?
3. The two-week rule means that it is virtually impossible for a helper to find another job before she is obliged to leave. I know that in the distant past when the rule was (I think) six months, it was abused. Surely there is some middle ground?
The solutions are straightforward, and Immigration is well aware of them:
1. Police the agencies now – not at some unspecified time in the future.
2. Relax the live-in rule – and ensure that the helper has a genuine living space as required in her contract before approving her employment.
3. Relax the two-week rule.
I know one shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on appearances, but if I were a mainland smuggler and I looked at that Immigration Dept picture as an example of the hard-man enforcer Hit Teams I’m up against – well, game on, I’ll take my chances. Where are those boy wonder cops with the aviator shades, Schutzstaffel boots, and Game of Thrones body armour when you want them?
You heard it here first:
All the fools who bought the last tow years who go into negative equity will be out in the streets whining for relief when the inevitable crash comes.
And: I’d bet my last bottle of whisky that those enjoying our idiotic 1% american interest rates the last ten years will be the first ones screaming to mother govermnent for a de-peg if the rates go to 4-5 % as they might in the next 3 years.
Free enterprise paradise my dick.
Given that the adopted English names of two of the male candidates for the Student Union elections at HKU whose posters currently adorn the campus are (wait for it) Floppy and Orange, one seriously wonders where things are headed. All part of the surreal world of Hong Kong.
You might have gathered that I’m a little exercised by the domestic helper protection – not – press release.
I checked the government website for information about Matthew Cheung, whose remarks are documented in the release, and found this little gem:
I quote from Mr. Cheung’s biography on the Government website – http://www.lwb.gov.hk/blog/eng/docs/SLW.pdf:
“Matthew’s empathy for grassroots workers and compassion for the disadvantaged has deepened throughout the years. He is pleased to be re-appointed Secretary for Labour and Welfare so that he can continue to serve the public and contribute to enhancing the well-being of the man-in-the-street.”
Man in the street – yes: frightened young woman abused and sleeping on the floor of her employer’s toilet – no worries! Only 40 of them!
He also seems to have a motto/mantra:
Always reflect, and strive for excellence
Sorry hit the wrong button – can you add:
Time for a bit of reflection and striving, Matthew!
My hope is the live-in rule was introduced to ensure the Domestic Helper has somewhere to stay? If you’re a senior Government Official living in your 2,000 sq.ft government quarters with a spacious Domestic Helper bedroom and bathroom on the Peak I can see why you would shrug your shoulders and say “What’s the problem” and carry on watching French art movies and quaffing Chateau Laffite.
However as we all we know, and have debated incessantly, an average family needs two wages just to buy the smallest of concrete boxes. To those who recklessly choose to have a child (perhaps influenced by Donald Cheung to have 3) then having affordable Domestic Help is a godsend. Problem is where does the Foreign Domestic Helper sleep, rest and have her down time in a 450 sq.ft concrete box?
Like with the blatantly racist foreign domestic helper (FDH) permanent residency decision that shamed Hong Kong a few year back this Government will do fuck all to improve the lot of FDH’s unless, as with the Erwiana case, they are shamed to act by the media (increasing foreign). Remember non foreign domestic helpers may live out.
I believe for every yard of bridge or rail
A flower grows.
I believe in every tycoon’s beating heart
A candle glows.
I believe for every dollar thrown away, new pride will come
I believe, I believe.
I believe that every mortgage, third or more
Will be repaid.
I believe that real estate will shine for evermore
And never fade.
Every time I hear a beaten helper cry,
Or see the news, or hear C.Y.,
Then I know why, I believe.
Absolutely right, Stephen.
The irony is that I believe the government could easily check from records whether a given flat is large enough for the family and a helper.
Of course, one is then torn between denying a helper a job that she probably desperately needs and protecting her right to live in a civilised fashion.
I wonder if Mr. Cheung was also in support of the (wo)man in the street in the weeks during October and November…
The live-in rule was instituted because Immigration was concerned that helpers who were allowed to live out would do Wicked Things like engage in negotiable affection. Even though prostitution is not illegal per se in Hong Kong, and brothels are openly advertised all over the streets (complete with racist price lists, guess which ethnicity is cheapest?), it’s a problem when foreign domestic helpers do it.
I don’t want to be a killjoy, chaps, but don’t you think it’s high time that this entire domestic helper boondoggle were shut down?
I mean, what’s it all about? If we are to believe what we read about the inadequacy of housing in Hong Kong (and, believe me, I believe it), then there are precious few people here in a position to accommodate a domestic helper adequately, let alone well.
It seems to me that the motives for engaging a domestic helper in the first place are generally dodgy. One the one hand, there’s the status thing, which drives mega-bitches like Erwiana’s employer to lord it over (and worse) young women with browner skins than the Fancl House brigade deem seemly, and on the other, there’s the woeful situation (engendered by our warped economy) which forces both Mum and Dad to work round the clock to pay off the mortgage on their tycoon-built hutch to the extent that they are unable to attend to little Floppy. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the sinister impetus that drives the aspirant petit-bourgeois family to engage a maid as if she were a must-have accessory akin to a Prada handbag.
At the risk of being controversial, it’s also worth bearing in mind that while the remittances sent home to the countries from which our helpers hail undoubtedly preserve their families from penury, they also, paradoxically, sustain the domestic elites whose avaricious policies have driven those helpers overseas in the first place.
Were “wealthy” societies like Hong Kong to forbid the engagement of servants from “poorer” places like the Philippines and Indonesia, people who would otherwise become domestic helpers would be obliged to remain at home. In consequence, their ability to keep their families’ heads above water (and thus encourage them to accept the status quo in their homelands) would be removed thereby helping to create a groundswell of rage that would, as Cranmer put it, “Put down the mighty from their seats and exalt the humble and meek”.
There is no group of people whom I would be happier to see swinging from lamp-posts than the Philippine ruling class. Alas, however, I do not see that happening while we in Hong Kong and elsewhere continue to sustain their tyranny by providing their serfs with an excuse not to overthrow them.
On that happy note, I wish you all a very Kung Hei Fat Choi.
@regislea – not to mention denying her prospective employer the opportunity to have someone to look after the kids while she goes out and tries to earn enough to pay the mortgage on the 150 sq ft concrete box so they don’t have to live in an 80 sq ft subdivided slum. Most of Hong Kong’s social problems come back to the property market when you look at them – and that comes back to the serial incompetence of Hong Kong’s politicians.
One probable reason the government won’t allow DHs to live out is because it would increase pressure on the lower end of the rental market – those very same subdivided units that keep poor people from having to sleep on the street.
Great post and commentary.
As the old adage goes, all peoples believe they are superior or supreme; the English and the Cantonese are unique in knowing they are supreme.
Way that domestic helpers are treated by typical Hong Kong mothers is disgraceful… I’m glad the Erwiana episode has gotten so much publicity, and hope it leads to a little hesitation the next time a HKG mother reaches for a stick.
As for our incompetent politicians, incompetent is certainly a benign conclusion. The scarier conclusion is that our rent driven and insanely concentrated political economy is the result of a long term, strategic approach to the business of government, and the incompetent politicos are just straw men of varying degrees of friendly (Tsang) or sinister (Leung) outlooks.
Finally, @ RD, the Phillipine oligarchy survives until the American empire falls. In fact, I would say it will probably be the last bastion of Pax Americana in Asia, so deep do the corrupt ties go.
Great post from Hemmers, as ever, and inspiring commentary above.
Salute to regislea for today’s eloquence.
Not mentioned thus far is the historical reasons why so many (most?) Hong Kong Chinese in the twenty-first century treat their servants / peons / sex workers like it’s the eighteenth century
One, the ancient Chinese psyche that they are the “middle” of all humanity and everyone and everything else is secondary and inferior so can be abused with impunity – hence, for example, human rights are basically stillborn within China or Africa can be mined and abused like the Belgians did in the Congo, etc etc.
Second, the colonial world which reversed this Chinese supremacy and saw westerner’s keep Chinese as servants.
Revenge, for some it’s a lifetime’s work…
I think it has less to do with revenge, and more to do with power distance and power dynamics @ Scotty Dotty.
Per my understanding and very personal experience, a lot of middle-aged and older people experienced various forms of physical, emotional or mental abuse growing up in Hong Kong, from family members, teachers, etc. Rather than releasing or healing the emotional residues of this abuse, there is a mentality of “now I am on top, I get to be the beater / abuser as I am head of the family”. This isn’t just a problem with domestic helpers, it also applies to children, especially mother-in-law to daughter-in-laws. And to question the “rights” of a mother/mother-in-law, or an employer, etc to act in this manner is to bring into question the entire world-view of the person, and their own beliefs about personal power in society.
To put it another way, your typical Hong Konger (and most Chinese or Chinese influenced Asians), when faced with what is clearly an inequitable or illegitimate chain of abuse going “down the food chain”, rather than questioning the power structure or the rationale behind it (i.e. the heavily distorted form of Confucianism that is taken to indicate “Chinese-ness” these days**), generally will bottle up or repress their emotions, and work hard to get into a position in society that allows them the status to prevent such abuse, and often (ironically) they become abusers themselves. The idea that the hierarchical pyramid shape of power – in the family, in a business, in society-at-large – may be the problem, is derided as being “unrealistic – this is just the way the world is”, or “you as an individual cannot do anything, so why try? why not join the game and if you get on top you can have the right to choose whether to abuse others, and avoid being the subject of abuse that comes with being on a lower rung in the food chain.”
Of course, viewed objectively and rationally, it is a whole lot of nonsense. There is no reason why mothers should feel entitled to abuse helpers, or abuse their children, because of their “status”. However after much thought and contemplation I do believe this sense of entitlement is a strong pattern of unconscious behavior that operates in the collective Chinese psyche.
Ironically enough, in my opinion in China there is much less of this going on these days. Human abuse in China appears to be primarily economically driven and a practical decision, as opposed to a feeling of unconscious entitlement (i.e. I have the money and the power, so I will do whatever the fuck I want, for my own material benefit). I guess 30 years of intermittent starvation, neighbors killing neighbors, and manifest mass insanity will shake up ones attachments to long-held social beliefs.
** IMHO Confucianism was primarily a spiritual philosophy of life at the time of the Analects, and emphasises mutual respect and fairness to the same degree as social cohesion, if not more. However as with all philosophies, it has certainly be subverted for the purposes of maintaining the political status quo – bow down to the next person up the food chain, and so on and so on, until you get to the Emperor (or the CCP in this case). And in an extreme case of debauchery and institutional failure – do not change the nature of the institutions, but instead just change the extended family at the top.
A recipe for implementing and deepening hierarchy in the unconscious minds of the people. I am sure, as with Yeshua and today’s “God is on our side, lets go kill some sand niggers” Christians, Kong Fu Zi would be appalled at the way his words and thoughts have been distorted and abused in Chinese political ideology.
The only reason the FDH situation exists as it does in HK (where any “middle class” puke can get in on it) is because it’s CHEAP.
It’s a form of government subsidised slavery so that HK families can have TWO working parents to pay off the insultingly high priced cracker boxes that were designed to KEEP the property cartel rolling in the money.
At least let the FDH slaves UNIONIZE.
Stephen – You seriously underestimate the government’s generosity when it comes to housing civil servants. A while ago someone I know quite well was housed as a new hire in approximately 2800 square feet with a nice sunset view over the East Lamma Channel for approximately 7.5% of his monthly salary. The enclave also had a number of much larger duplex apartments for senior staff, and of course parking for at least 2 cars was included for all.
one word, two words, whatever: FCY
I’m no longer surprised by the hypocritical commentators on here who are, quite rightly, outraged by the evil perpetrated on Erwiana and some of her peers but who then think it’s perfectly OK to racistly generalise about 7 million HK Chinese.
You wouldn’t dream of making snide remarks about people of a darker complexion than yourselves.
Red Dragon, Monkey Reborn, Scotty Dotty – pompous folk like you are what give the rest of us whiteys a bad name here.
Apologies if I have got the wrong end of the stick but your posts above just reek of double standards in the way that I read them.
Why did today’s (16/2) story on the Sha Tin smugglers get pulled?
“You wouldn’t dream of making snide remarks about people of a darker complexion than yourselves.”
But HK Chinese typically have a different skin tone than most Caucasians, though it isn’t necessarily darker.
Yes, I also read the Shatin story, tried to post a comment, and then it was gone.
I was beginning to think I’d hallucinated it….
Is the long arm of censorship now reaching as far as the Big Lychee
Has someone kidnapped Hemlock?
Comments working! Otherwise this is the problem… https://wordpress.org/support/topic/no-publish-but-submit-for-review-button-displayed-to-site-admin
Will see what happens
Hemlock, If nothing else at all works, why not post your blog as a comment (or comments)? Then we could at least read our daily dose of sanity, even without the pics.
Grumpy Old Sod,
Yup! You got the wrong end of the stick.
But then you knew that really, didn’t you?