• Gene Alcantara

Meeting Kababayans on Statue Square: Filipinos in Hong Kong

INTENT ON discovering what Filipinos did in this country on their day off, I set off early on the Sunday I arrived for Metro Transit Rail's Central Station. I then came out through the Landmark exit, and turned right towards Chater Road. The first thing I noticed as I started turning was the high volume of chittering, as if thousands of birds were trying to compete with the sounds of traffic to be heard. I walked further along Chater Road and headed towards Statue Square, where the Legislative Council Building was located. There I stumbled upon the source of the noise--thousands upon thousands of kababayans sitting, leaning or standing everywhere in various poses and technicolour. For this bit of the commercial, banking and government district turned out to be the gathering venue of Hong Kong's Filipinos, mostly domestic helpers, during their one day weekend break, and the spot for a day got converted into some concrete Luneta Park. I reeled at the unexpectedly vast, staggering sight of gathered Filipinos, more numerous than any of the annual Barrio Fiestas held in London, and bringing to mind Thursdays and Fridays in Eastern Saudi Arabia when thousands upon thousands of kababayans flocked to Dammam to shop. Having adjusted my senses to this overseas Filipino congregatory phenomenon in this part of the world, I began to pick my way slowly through the groups and bodies scattered on the sidewalks, the gutters, on railings, and in the middle of the street, centred in the covered two halves of Statue Square. As I walked I took pictures and kababayans eyed me suspiciously. I tried to make eye contact with some, tried a smile. Some stared back, perhaps trying to determine if they knew me. Others simply ignored me. On the corner of Ice House Road I chanced upon a group of women playing scrabble right on the paved road. I took a picture and somebody said, "O baka Diwaliwan na naman 'yan, ha?" I said quickly, "Hinde, souvenir lang." A nearby group of Ilokanos from Baguio City noticed me standing there and invited me to join them as they drank San Miguel beer in cans and soft drinks. I slumped down and gratefully accepted a can of Pepsi as I tried to decide whether to plunge right into the midst of my kababayans or simply watch them on the side. One of the guys called Rey asked if I was from the Philippine Embassy. When I said no, he asked if I was a journalist, and whether I could help their friends. Apparently two friends of theirs trying to protect the buses they were driving from vandalism had a fight with some Lebanese who ended up in hospital (the two Pinoys were caught with iron tubes in their hands). The two currently had a court case and did not know what was going to happen to them. I said why not approach the embassy first. They must have someone from the Department of Labor there whose role it is precisely to help Overseas Filipino Workers. Otherwise what about the various migrant centres staffed by Filipinos. No, they had not had any contact with the embassy nor the migrant centres, and they did not realize that there were sources of advice or support. I offered to call the embassy if their friends would contact me at my hotel to give me the details of their case (they never did). I said thank you after a while and started threading my way the length of the road. There, across the road, under the Misoni signs, a group of Filipinas played cards. Here under another fashionable boutique's awnings, some Filipinas were having snacks of 'pansit' and what looked like 'puto'. Farther down a woman was manicuring the toenails of another, there were men and women reading komiks, star and gossip magazines and various tabloids. A lot of people were simply nattering or watching each other and passers-by who were watching them like me. Indeed, they seemed to have become some kind of curiosity for the tourists who passed by. Then as I stopped by the square, I noticed a group of Filipino men sitting on railings by the pedestrian crossing. I caught the eye of one, nodded to him and he smiled back. We shook hands, started exchanging pleasantries and he then introduced me to his seniors (numbers two and three). It turned out the group was a sort of fraternity, and they called themselves 'Utol' as in 'brod'. Utol according to Bobby, the guy who smiled back, was the oldest established group in Hong Kong. It protected the community and was well-respected by them, indeed feared by rival groups. This was their perch, everybody knew them, and nobody crossed their path. However just the other night, Rod, a curly-haired, be-muscled member of the group from Nueva Ecija, apparently taught somebody a 'leksiyon' for making the mistake of punching the brother of an Utol while the latter was peeing in one of the mall toilets around the area. Now some sort of compromise was being worked out (in a stand-up meeting right on the sidewalk) by the senior Utols with the other group which had approached them with profuse apologies (lots of serious faces). The utols plied me with 'tagays' using the lower half of a torn plastic Yakult bottle. First it was KWV brandy which I took straight, and when the bottle was finished this was followed by black rum. After a while I got a bit embarrassed, bought two bottles of mineral water from a kiosk as chaser, and contributed HK$20 for the next bottle. Utol members alternated telling me their stories in between tagays. I concentrated on Bobby to get the lowdown on our kababayans. He had been in Hong Kong for the last 3 years, and came as a Domestic Helper (DH). He was now however a delivery man in a small mountain village in the New Territories near the Chinese border. This change in job according to him was of course illegal and he was under constant fear of detection. However he said a lot of Chinese from the mainland come and go as illegal workers so he felt fairly safe in numbers. The money he earnt was just sufficient to keep a family of three children in the care of his mother in Ilocos. His wife, who was also a DH in Hong Kong, had flown the coop and was believed to be in Manila somewhere with her lover. He still thought of her and dreamt of getting the story of their marriage breakdown straight from her own mouth. So that his own philandering in HK could be justified, he said, and that if he ever decided to go serious with another woman, then nobody could accuse him of foul play. The problem of course was the wife no longer made contact at all even with his kids. Every week Bobby would travel for around three hours each way just to get to Chater Road. He never failed to appear at the weekends because he said that was the only time he could get together with his kababayans, his fraternity, and his 5 sisters who all worked as DH on Hong Kong island. It was worth it and he looked forward to it every week because it was a time to catch up on the latest stories, perhaps to have a little fight with rival fraternities, to eat Filipino food, to flirt with lots and lots of single or married women who greatly outnumbered the men, and of course to get news from home through balikbayans. I learnt a lot from Bobby. Hong Kong's Filipino community was a microcosm of the Philippines, he said. You would find every type of kababayan here. There were the DHs, the entertainers, the political campaigners, the prostitutes, the drug pushers even. You could get what you like, including 'ice' or 'shabu'. Apparently a lot of entertainers used 'ice', and this view was echoed by a friendly Hong Kong policeman although he said the community offered relatively few police problems. Suddenly there was a commotion on the other side of the road, on the other half of the square. It looked like two Filipino guys punching each other drunkenly, and others making 'awat' as the crowd parted to give the brawlers space. But just as suddenly it stopped as a policeman and a policewoman in light green uniform rushed to the scene, and all you could see again were Filipinos sitting on railings, on benches, or on the sidewalk chatting and minding their own businesses. When I was feeling a bit tipsy already (and worried that a rumble might be in the offing between Utols and the other group), Bobby invited me to take a walk around, and I quickly agreed. We went then in search of his sisters. All over the square he would stop and say hello to some kababayang Ilokanos. After a little while, I heard two women shouting, "Pagkain! Pagkain!" "Ayan, pare, walking restaurant," Bobby quipped. I called one of the women, who were carrying two large plastic carrier bags, over and asked what she had. Well, she had sinigang, litson kawali, dinuguan, pansit and other things. I asked for litson kawali which she gave me in a styrofoam pack. She then handed me a plastic spoon and fork and a banana, and I paid her HK$15. Bobby's sinigang, complete with patani and sabaw, also cost HK$15. We asked to slump onto somebody's white plastic sheet and tabloid in the middle of the street and had our relatively cheap dinner. A softdrink seller nearby provided refreshments. The selling of foodstuff, or indeed other things like travel tickets, was supposed to be illegal, but nobody bothered the part-time businessminded Filipinos, Bobby informed me. They were after all providing a needed service, or just trying to earn extra dollars. They even provided livelihood for destitute local Hong Kong residents who picked up the empty cans to sell apparently for 20 cents each, and they served as a market for Sikhs in turbans selling handbags, silk scarves or fake flowers. As we gobbled up our Filipino food, surrounded by other kababayans just milling around, or catching up on the latest gossip, a woman with a large travelling bag sat down to offer children's clothes to everyone. Unfortunately she did not have my daughter's size. Soon a sister of Bobby arrived, accompanied by several other women. Zeny, the sister, also had a travelling bag which apparently she had just collected from some returning balikbayan. She then proceeded to call out people's names and gave them letters and tapes from a bundle. There were also packets of sweets and corn chips and even a couple of green mangoes for someone. Everybody was so intent on reading their letters, they practically forgot their surroundings. This 'network method' of getting letters and packages to and from the Philippines was apparently quicker and more reliable than the Philippine postal service, and was a good way of keeping in contact with kababayans from one's hometown. Statue Square was an area that the Hong Kong government and locals apparently more or less already allocated to Filipinos during the weekends, mostly on Sundays. The area would be closed off to traffic early and became one large promenade. Toilets in the surrounding shopping centres got used to the full, and the amount of rubbish that accumulated was mountainous but at least the Filipinos tidied up after themselves when they left at night. The OFWs were tolerated because the contribution of these kababayans to the functioning of Hong Kong was enormous--they enabled the locals to run the country, while the Filipinos ran their homes, boasted Bobby. Then as the dusk turned into night, I said goodbye to Bobby and to his friends. As I got up, a thin woman holding a sheaf of thin strips of paper approached the group announcing, 'Beinte dos, beinte dos, pompyang.' I looked at Bobby and asked, 'Is that what I think it is?' 'Oo, pare,' he replied, 'taya ka muna sa jueteng!' [End] [First published in Evening Paper, 1996; Updated March 2018]

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