University of Pittsburgh

extra credit

Domestic Affairs

An anthropologist enters the world of Hong Kong maids

Written by Elaine Vitone

domesticaffairsOn a warm day in Hong Kong, two friends chat pleasantly while riding on the top tier of a crowded double-decker bus as it rumbles along the city’s winding, hilly roads. Then, for one of the women, the conversation takes a jarring turn. Her companion begins commenting on a banmui, a Philippine girl, whom relatives had hired to keep their flat clean. Doctoral student Nicole Constable sits, stunned and speechless, as her friend rattles off a string of degrading adjectives about the maid—stupid, dirty, lazy. The woman sees the shock on Constable’s face, yet continues her disparaging remarks as if to insist, Yes, these things are true!

“I was completely taken aback when I heard the comments,” Constable says now about the bus rant that occurred more than 20 years ago, when she was pursuing a graduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley. “But that moment planted the seeds for my future research.”

In her field of cultural anthropology—the study of cultures worldwide and their influences—it’s typical for scholars to immerse in the dynamics of a culture for extended periods. Constable resolved to do just that, hoping to shed light on the world of Hong Kong domestic workers, a group that was mostly Filipino in the late 1980s and 1990s. Domestic workers were—and still are—overwhelmingly female in Hong Kong, as in other countries around the globe.

Beginning in the summer of 1993, Constable spent the better part of a year interviewing hundreds of the workers and their employers. Her interviews ranged from brief chats with people she met on park benches to hours-long conversations at an advocacy organization called The Mission for Migrant Workers, where Constable volunteered and observed.

The women told Constable of the government regulations that kept them underpaid, overworked, and isolated at the lowest rung of Hong Kong’s socioeconomic ladder. For example, domestic workers are required to sign two-year, exclusive contracts and to live with their employers.

Many domestic workers also told of rules that limited their daily movements, their bathing, and even their appearance. Often, they were required to wear blue jeans and a T-shirt—no makeup, no pretensions—so they would not be mistaken for middle-class residents. In the most extreme cases, domestic workers told of physical abuse.

In 1997, Constable’s research culminated in Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Filipina Workers, one of the seminal works on the subject of migrant domestic workers in Asia. Last year, she released a second edition, Maid to Order in Hong Kong: Stories of Migrant Workers (both editions published by Cornell University Press), which explores how the changing political and economic climate has affected domestic workers in Hong Kong over the past 10 years. The second edition offers new material based on Constable’s more recent interviews, participant observation, and analysis of archival and published sources.

The research-generated book has become a standard text in college curricula around the world, serving as a powerful portrait of the growing inequalities in the global economy and the cost of privilege. In its latest edition, it confirms a growing pattern—the migration of women from underdeveloped nations to wealthier countries to do what’s considered the subordinate, “feminine” work of the household.

Throughout Constable’s fieldwork, communication wasn’t a hindrance; the Filipina domestic workers typically spoke some English, one of two official languages of the Philippines (the other is Tagalog). Shyness didn’t pose much of a challenge either; most of the domestic workers were eager to share their stories. Her cumulative research not only exposes the everyday oppression faced by Hong Kong’s domestic workers, it also illuminates the varied forms of resistance they’ve created to empower themselves—from jokes, to protest art, to marches through the streets.

Constable, who is today a Pitt professor of anthropology and associate dean of graduate studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, has been asked many times what has changed since her initial research was conducted—particularly in light of the Asian financial crisis and Hong Kong’s 1997 return to mainland China (it had been a colony of the United Kingdom for more than 150 years). A few years ago, she decided to find out.

Throughout 2005 and 2006, Constable visited Hong Kong several times, spending about one month each trip. She found many of the same problems, though Filipino domestic workers had made strides. Fewer of them are overworked, she says. As a community, they are growing in numbers, organizing, and gaining collective strength.

However, at the same time, an influx of Indonesian immigrants seems to be setting up a repeat of the experiences of the Filipinos. The stories the Indonesian domestics told Constable in her second round of interviews bore a striking resemblance to those she heard from Filipinos in the 1990s.

Now, more than two decades after that day on the double-decker bus, Constable’s research continues to plant the seeds of inspiration for a new generation. “Several times when I went back and visited the mission where I volunteered in Hong Kong,” says Constable, “there was an undergraduate student there who had read my book and said that’s why she ended up there.”