Alicia* makes her fish sinigang soup like it's a perfect science. First comes the fish, and then all of the ingredients perfectly layered on top of one another: tamarind, ginger, tomato, spring onion, coriander, and finally, long green chili peppers. She won't cut them open because her little boys don't like the sour soup too spicy.
She learned the recipe back in Isabela, a province in the Philippines—and now, she cooks for her family in a tiny apartment on the beachside of jam-packed, frenetic Hong Kong.
I'm sitting at the kitchen table with Maria*, Alicia's cousin. Their aunt Angelica* tends to her toenails on the couch. While Alicia's parents brought her to Hong Kong before she was 18, when they opened a karaoke bar—allowing her an identity card to live in the city permanently—it's a different story for her cousin and aunt.
Both Maria and Angelica are here in Hong Kong as "foreign domestic helpers"—a clinical term the city uses for live-in maids. Referred to by the government as "FDH," they have their own visas—dependent on their employers—that require these women to live where they work. Many are found through agencies that coordinated between Hong Kong and the Philippines; there are well over 300,000 helpers in the city today. While about half of these women come from the Philippines, the other half, roughly, hails from Indonesia.
The city is no stranger to dodgy agencies and tales of horrific abuse. There is little regulation over their employment contracts, most helpers only have Sunday off—albeit still with a curfew—and there's a harsh "two-week rule" in which, if a contract is broken, a helper must leave the city if she can't find a new employer within two weeks.
But still, this harsh reality has never deterred Angelica or Maria from pursuing a life as a foreign domestic helper in Hong Kong. For Angelica, though, who's managed to maneuver around the system, life is far easier than for Maria, who's pregnant with her third child.
In Isabela, Angelica was a registered nurse, and to make more money, she took her skills to Saudi Arabia for 23 years. She now splits her time between Isabela and Hong Kong, where she's a foreign domestic helper on paper. Her brother-in-law drafted up an employment contract to secure her a visa—but she lives between family members, and takes part-time jobs cleaning and babysitting in the beachside neighborhood.
"Even if you have a bachelor's degree in the Philippines and a good job like a teacher, you can only make just a little more than 10,000 pesos [about $200 US] a month," she says. "Here, domestic helpers can make more than twice that," explaining that most of these women come to Hong Kong for the money.
By law, foreign domestic helpers do not need to be paid the city's minimum wage, or even by the hour. Instead, their employers have to pay a required minimum salary, once a month—which is now set at about $543.
Also, for Angelica, she has no desire to return home to a country run by "Duterte, a paranoid psychotic," and says it's the same for many of her family member living in Hong Kong.
Alicia, still in the kitchen that fits only one—slaving over a gas stovetop—moves on to a spicy, dry pork adobo. It's drenched in both soy and fish sauces, and the fatty belly of the meat, mixed in the fry pan with potatoes, lets off a fragrant steam of ginger and garlic. Angelica leaves for another cousin's house, and Maria, who's returned from a vacation in the Philippines two months pregnant, sips a teacup full of red wine.
It's just such a terrible life.
Back in Isabela, Maria's children are from a man she never married—they now live with their new stepfather, who she married in May. Alicia, who works as a supervisor at an upscale restaurant, isn't married anymore and raising her kids on her own: "I left him because he's useless," she told me as we pored over vegetables from an open-air market before dinner.
But being a mother away from her children is tough for Maria. When one of her boys calls with news saying that he didn't go to school—it's a Monday—shrieks come out from behind the door of Alicia's bedroom. Maria comes out panting, and takes a shower to calm down. For the next hour, she's aloof and stays mostly silent.
When she's not at Alicia's, Maria stays at a boarding house for Filipina helpers. (Some others, like white foreigners passing through on low budgets, also rent rooms at boarding houses.) Alicia's business-savvy mother owns the boarding house, where Maria pays $90 per month for a "bed space." She sleeps on a hammock mounted under a wall, instead of a room, which would run her about $320.
For many foreign domestic helpers, boarding houses are a popular option for a place to live. But because it contradicts the rules of their dependent visas, which mandate that they live with their employers, residing there is illegal.
Many employers will allow their helpers to live there, however, because Hong Kong apartments are so cramped. In one of the world's most overcrowded cities, there's no room at home for their helpers to stay.
"We're scared, because the police could stop us at any time and ask us why we're alone and not with our employers," Maria says, explaining that Filipina helpers stay connected through social media, chat apps, and even just cold calling if they hear of any police raids. "Even if we're not close to each other, we still protect each other."
Some employers without adequate space at home won't consider bending this law and letting their helpers stay in boarding houses. It's not uncommon to hear of helpers being forced to sleep on toilets, on top of refrigerators, or shoved in closets like old coats until it's time for the next workday. In Hong Kong, the abuse of Filipina helpers is rampant.
"The apartments are so small here," says Alicia, "and most Chinese women hate us because they think their husbands want to sleep with us." In April last year, one of Hong Kong's most top-ranking politicians, Regina Ip, wrote in a local Chinese newspaper that the government was "allowing Filipino domestic helpers to seduce their husbands."
Sometimes the abuse that helpers face in Hong Kong is so terrifying that they have no choice to escape—or die. Maria's friend Cherry—who we reach via FaceTime while Maria unwinds from the fight with her son over another teacup of red wine—endured six years of grueling emotional and physical abuse. At one point, her female Chinese employer tried to smash her face with a burning-hot clothes iron.
"She started physically hitting me every morning," Cherry tells us. "She wanted me to iron the bed sheet and said I had to do it at one in the morning, but I refused because I was exhausted. I started ironing and she was just staring at me—I asked if I could finish tomorrow and she got so angry, she grabbed the iron."
She got so mad that she punched my breasts. I started crying and she told me that crying wasn't allowed in the house
Cherry also tells us that she suspected her employer set up a hidden camera in the bathroom. One night, Cherry was exhausted from her work and went straight to bed, skipping her usual shower—and her employer woke her up and demanded that she bathe. To save time, Cherry splashed water on her face and wrapped her hair in a towel. But when she walked out of the bathroom, her employer grabbed the towel off of her head, and began screaming that her hair was dry; she forced her to get back in the shower.
"I actually burned that bed sheet the next day, by mistake," Cherry later recalls. "I showed her and she got so mad that she punched my breasts. I started crying and she told me that crying wasn't allowed in the house."
Cherry eventually escaped her employer and went back to the agency through which she was hired. When her employer refused to pay her a month's salary, but would pay for a ticket back to the Philippines, Cherry was so desperate and frightened that she gave up the salary just to get back home.
Maria's employers, on the other hand, have never mistreated her. Since she's become pregnant, they make her a nutritious vegetable juice in the morning. And her situation in this quiet beachside neighborhood—working for a liberal British family—is quite unique. She's wary, like many others, of Chinese employers back in the densely packed city.
"We see all the time on social media from our friends that their Chinese employers bring them out for dinner, and don't give them any food," Maria says. "How would you feel?"
Another of Maria's friends, also from Isabela—who Maria says was in a situation much like Cherry—died in Hong Kong just months ago. On August 10, she reportedly fell from the window of a high-rise while cleaning. However, Maria and other friends alleged that she would get in verbal and physical fights with her female employer. The Philippines Consulate subsequently issued a statement that authorities were not ruling out foul play.
"It's just such a terrible life," laments Alicia, tired from wrangling her boys between dinner, homework, and sleep. The boys didn't want to eat at the table with Maria—in line with traditional Filipino culture, they think that sharing food with a pregnant lady will make them sick. Alicia says that if this happens, the family member who gets sick needs to tap Maria on the top of the head.
And now, for Maria, she hasn't yet decided where she'll raise her new baby. But despite her situation with her employers—which both her and Alicia call "lucky"—everyday racism in Hong Kong can still be as pervasive as it is inescapable.
"They treat us like dogs at Immigration," says Maria, where foreign domestic helpers have their own separate lines for visas. "They say, 'come here, go there,' and I can't stand it."
*Names have been changed to protect sources' identities.