Young Indonesian foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong are overlooked for their talent and potential in mainstream society, writes Samantha Yap.
They work as maids every day of the week, except for Sunday. By law, Sunday is a day off for 300,000 foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Half of them come from Indonesia.
Most Indonesian migrant workers will be found socialising and relaxing at the iconic Victoria Park.
Groups of them gathered on floor mats scattered everywhere transform the park into a mini Indonesia.
But there are other young ambitious Indonesian women who choose to spend their day in classrooms learning a skill.
Value of English
In a cramp Hong Kong apartment room, small groups from five to eight Indonesian domestic helpers gather together to learn English every Sunday morning.
They’re at the TCK Learning Centre, a non-profit organisation that offers practical classes to migrant workers.
29-year-old Indah Apianti from East Java is among those women.
She values the opportunities that come with learning English.
“English is important. It is very important in my daily life. I can teach my kids and also my sister and brother,” she said.
Her fellow classmate, Kristin, 30, has lived in Hong Kong for 7 years.
She’s multi-lingual. Additional to her native language, she can speak Cantonese, the common language used in Hong Kong.
She is one of the many migrant workers who were required to learn Cantonese before getting a permit to work in Hong Kong.
In 2011 the Australian Census data revealed that 76.8 per cent of Australia’s population speak only English at home.
Hence, Kristin and other domestic helpers have a skill that three quarters of the Australian population don’t.
She is determined to strengthen her English language skills on her day off.
“After I learn English [at the TCK learning centre], sometimes I will go to the library to read books,” she said.
This year, by improving on English she hopes to go to the US to be united with her boyfriend and work as a waitress.
Chris Drake is a volunteer at the TCK learning centre and dedicates his time to teach them English.
He believes that foreign domestic helpers are capable of doing more than just serving households.
“There are many skills and a very rich culture that the Indonesian domestic workers bring with them, to Hong Kong and the skills which they have which are not limited just to cooking and cleaning. Although for financial reasons of course, that’s what they tend to do, but they have many other abilities too,” he said.
‘Not just a Maid’
There are those young Indonesian women who make the move to Hong Kong as part of their plan to pursue a better career for themselves.
Lensational is another not-for-profit organisation that seeks to empower foreign domestic helpers through teaching them photography.
The sounds of camera snaps are all you can hear and bright flashes are all you can see at a Lensational photography workshop.
In weekly workshops held at Victoria Park or at a rented photography studio foreign domestic helpers gather together with their cameras to learn the tips and tricks of taking photographs.
There are some who take it seriously and invest their salaries into purchasing a quality digital SLR camera.
Sulikah Ismatin, also an East Javanese maid living in Hong kong, wants to make photography her career.
“Last month I recieved around $260 US dollars from taking photos and creating DVDs, photobooks and posters,” she said.
Lensational workshops allow her to enhance her skills.
“I hope to be a professional photographer so I must continue to study,” she said.
Fellow Indonesian maid, Sri Lestari, also attends the weekly photography workshops held by Lensational.
She said she has had a camera for a long time, but never knew how to express herself through photography, so she started going to classes out of curiosity.
“Personally, I don’t want to just be a maid here but I want to learn skills beyond being a household helper like how to take photographs, learn computer skills and learn how to blog on the internet,” she said.
Fanny Chan, is professional photographer who volunteers her time to run the workshops. She’s impressed by the enthusiasm of the participants.
“They are very dynamic, I am very surprised, mostly domestic workers in Hong Kong, their role is different to what they do now,”she shared.
Combining Hobby and Work
Programs like Lensational help foreign domestic helpers generate income from their hobbies.
Supriyati, who has been living in Hong Kong for 4 years as a domestic helper, is passionate about photography.
She comes to photography classes equipped with her precious Nikon Digital SLR camera ready to learn.
“I hope that I can be a photographer. Then in Indonesia I can document important events of my family and neighbours or people who hire me to document their celebrations,” she said.
On her day off she enjoys taking photographs. Then during weekdays after she finishes her household duties, she says she often stays up until 2 o’clock in the morning editing her photographs.
“So far, I don’t get tired [of editing photos]. It’s because I enjoy looking at the action shots of people. Then with these photographs I can earn some extra money for holidays and food,” she said.
Asti Maria is a hard worker like Supriyati.
She looks forward to opening her laptop at the end of her working days to sort through photos she has taken on the weekends.
She has been living in Hong Kong for 5 years to save up some money for her future. Photography makes her happy.
“I think that photographs retain the fondest memories. Regardless of time, these memories will not be lost. Photography is the best documentation,” she says.
These young Indonesian women prove that being foreign domestic helper does not limit their potential to be something more.
Sacrificing their one day off in the week to learn a new skill highlights their strong will and determination to create better futures for themselves and their families.
Working as a maid in Hong Kong is not their ultimate destiny, it is just a stepping-stone in their ambitious pathways.