Enterpreneurial Filipinas in Hong Kong: from nannies to businesswomen

Photo: Aira Conan

Photo: Aira Conan

If Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mohammad Yunus met Nympha, Girly, Delia and Gigi, he would surely be impressed. That Bangladeshi economist who founded the Grameen Bank some years ago to provide small loans to impoverished women in his country should meet these four enterprising Filipinas who have shops in Mui Wo on Lantau.

The four ladies first came to Hong Kong to work as domestics. Today they’re running their own shops, catering not just to their compatriots but also to local Hongkongers and foreign residents. Their stores carry native Philippine foodstuffs and a variety of tinned goods, breakfast cereals, snacks, ice cream, soft drinks and gift items.

Nympha, who hails from the province of Nueva Ecija in central Luzon, opened her shop in 2007 and called it “RY Pilipino Store” (the initials stand for her daughter’s name, Roxanne Yaneza). Filipinos around Lantau know Nympha’s place as the premier “sari-sari” (Tagalog for miscellany) where one finds not just native foodstuffs but also beauty products, woven mats, hats and brooms. Besides offering cooked food in her shop, Nympha has a monitor that shows Filipino films and a PC available for rental by the hour. With goods stacked higgledy-piggledy almost up to the ceiling, she runs a thriving business not far from the Mui Wo ferry pier.

Girly is from Isabela province in northern Luzon and first arrived in Hong Kong 14 years ago to work for a Chinese family. Some years later she met a Pakistani underwriter who became her husband and they now have two boys. Her “Island Store” is located on the ground floor of the Chan Shi Sau Memorial Social Centre by the Mui Wo children’s park. Besides selling Philippine items, she offers Pakistani foodstuffs, fabrics and trinkets. Cardboard “balikbayan” (return to the country) boxes are available in her shop, as in Nympha’s, for use by domestic helpers to send Hong Kong goods to the folks at home. Freight companies based in World Wide House, which offer “door-to-door” service, forward the boxes.

The “Eurasia Trading” store, right behind the China Bear restaurant that overlooks the bay, is run by Delia who hails from the resort city of Baguio. She started out selling the usual native products but has lately diversified – she now offers wood carvings, bags and trinkets from her province to attract both local folks and foreign tourists. She came to Hong Kong in 1990 to do domestic work and met her Scottish husband a few years later.

The newest entrepreneur is Gigi, whose “Mega Asian Products” is right behind the Mui Wo market. She arrived in Hong Kong in 1995 from Pangasinan province to do domestic work and later married a Briton, now retired. With her children all grown and working at various professions, she decided to set up her shop which sells the same things as those of her three competitors. Her compatriots flock to her place to savour special native dishes like braised banana hearts and stewed fresh hearts of palm.

All four women set up their small businesses by investing their savings. But in today’s economic climate, they share the common problem of spiraling rents. Breaking even is a constant struggle, with the threat of arbitrary rent increases hanging over their heads. With no MBAs to their names, the women have learned what it’s like to maintain a small business.

Historically, Filipino women were the first to arrive in Hong Kong in the late 1970s to work as domestic helpers, back when the territory was still a British colony. The fact that they know English (the Philippines having once been a US colony) resulted in their becoming the largest expatriate community in the territory. In the late 1990s, Indonesian women began catching up with the Filipinas – their main advantage being a knowledge of Cantonese since their government puts them through intensive language classes before shipping them out. The Jakarta government apparently took a leaf from the Manila authorities’ experience of propping up the Philippine economy through their migrant workers’ remittances.

In 2012, Filipino migrant workers remitted close to US$24 billion to the home country. Though economists contend that countries which export their citizens do not provide the ideal solution to the problem of unemployment at home, the migrating waves continue.

The matter of Hong Kong’s exploitation of its domestic helper population was recently spelled out by South China Morning Post columnist Alex Lo, who wrote that the territory’s practice of labour importation is a “regressive one, with a corrosive effect on local parenting, family and society.” He pointed out that keeping over 300,000 migrant women as a “permanent underclass” benefits no-one, labelling such exploitation a “zero-sum game” and adding: “We may think we get a good deal exploiting other people’s cheap labour. But in the end, everyone pays for such a regressive and slavish system.” And he rightly castigates the Philippine and Indonesian governments for “not getting their acts together so their economies would provide more rewarding jobs for their women.”

Indeed, until better conditions prevail in their home country, the Filipinas who venture abroad will continue to bear the burden of helping their families survive. But a few of them may be as lucky as Nympha, Girly, Delia and Gigi who have graduated from domestic work to become their own bosses.

– This article originally appeared in Life on Lantau on September 21st, 2013. –


Mistrust: Hongkongers battle China as Filipino workers vote overseas

Filipino community leaders in Hong Kong leading the drive for Overseas Absentee Voting (OAV) have been finding more apathy than enthusiasm for the political exercise these days. Unlike in 2004 when the OAV was initiated, where registration and voting were enthusiastic, there is a general disillusionment today among overseas Filipino workers.  The “walang nagbago (nothing has changed)” attitude prevails, with migrant workers feeling that their concerns have not been met by the Aquino administration, which most of them had backed.

The 2013 midterm elections seem irrelevant for many, more so after learning that some members of the Ampatuan clan are running under President Aquino’s Liberal Party. With the 2009 massacre case dragging in court and three witnesses for the prosecution assassinated, the outrage that the culture of impunity still remains has deepened. Hope for justice for the deaths of 58 people including media workers and private citizens continues to fade. And even though the much admired bachelor President has kept his promise to combat corruption by having former President Gloria Arroyo indicted, his reported refusal to heed doctors’ calls to shed his tobacco habit makes him less admirable to his kababayan seeking a role model. In fact, it seems that Psy of Gangnam Style fame is more of an inspiration to ever-cheerful Pinoys abroad.

What’s been equally interesting for the OFWs is watching the citizens of Hong Kong embroiled in a political struggle entirely different from that in Manila. Hongkongers today have been vocally resentful of their motherland’s tightening its grip over this enclave. The peculiar arrangement made for the territory after the 1997 colonial handover by Britain—whereby Hong Kong continues with the status quo for 50 years in a policy called “One country, two systems”—has produced a number of controversies about the limits of its freedoms. The main one involved the new administration’s attempt to impose a “National Education” subject into the school curriculum, which was seen as a kind of communist brainwashing of students. The political scene today is so dysfunctional, Hong Kong may go the way of Taiwan where the majority want autonomy for their island-state.

The protests denouncing Beijing’s perceived interference in Hong Kong affairs has resulted in some factions brandishing the old colonial flag during their rallies. The organizers claim they’re not calling for independence or a return of the British, just true autonomy. This prompted a Beijing official to label the protesters “sheer morons,” with another warning that the movement may be “spreading like a virus.”

By comparison, Pinoys may feel justifiable pride at being the first nation to gain its independence in Asia, but it’s a tattered type of hubris, with the profound dissatisfaction over the country’s political and economic elite. But even when the future doesn’t look particularly rosy for the OFWs, they, unlike those Hongkongers feeling nostalgic for British rule, do not hanker for the days of American colonialism. There may be many with emigrant relatives in the United States who hope to join the diaspora, but that aspiration remains low. Today’s OFWs view Canada as a more hospitable host-nation (as well as Australia and Europe where many Pinays link up with Western men seeking pliant Asian mates). The American Dream no longer seems to loom as large for Pinoys—unlike, say, that time when a movement called “Philippine Statehood USA” claimed to have seven million members pushing to join the Union. At the time many thought of those as a lunatic fringe.

In Hong Kong the feeling against China was articulated by Dickson Cheung, who said, “We’re Hongkongians, not Chinese.” He even set up a Facebook page for his movement and was quoted in the South China Morning Post as calling for Chinese tourists to be banned from the city for “disturbing much of our order and culture.”  He wants all exchanges with the mainland cut off, reflecting his members’ mistrust of Beijing for having reneged on its promise to grant the territory universal suffrage. Other gripes include China’s refusal to acknowledge the Tiananmen massacre.  Cheung capped his manifesto by saying Hong Kong’s economy “won’t suffer because it is a city that faces the whole world, not the so-called motherland.”

There may be no outside power subverting Philippine sovereignty, but China’s territorial aims are more of a danger than the traces of a colonial hangup vis-à-vis the United States.  The disenchantment over Manila’s leaders and political system continues to erode patriotic feelings. While Pinoys at home continue displaying resilience over the continuing manmade and natural disasters, the long-suffering OFWs’ hopes for a better future may need to be deferred for some time to come.

– This article originally appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on December 18th, 2012 –