Hong Kong, the former British colony and now autonomous territory of China, is a place foreigners think of as a mecca for shopping and an international finance hub whose pace of living puts New York to shame. Many Filipinos think of Hong Kong as a place to find work, a path to an ostensibly better life for themselves and the families they leave behind. In a place with 7.5 million people, more than 5% of those are migrant workers from Indonesia, Thailand, India and, mostly, the Philippines. That’s comparable to the population of Oakland, California, or Cardiff, in the United Kingdom.
Years ago, they would have been considered part of an invisible work force, the bottom rung of an economy that would grind to a halt if there weren’t any migrant women to cook and clean and care for children who are not their own. Bit by bit, however, things are starting to change, thanks to a new generation of filmmakers, artists and journalists who shine a light on the lives of these workers, and to the workers themselves who are changing the narrative of how they are perceived in society.
Sunday Beauty Queen, a documentary by Baby Ruth Villarama, follows the lives of five Filipina domestic workers as they spend their Sundays — mandatory days off from work — prepping for beauty pageants. Chater Road in Central, which is closed down once a week so workers may rest, is the center of activity for OFWs (short for “overseas foreign workers”). They line the road with cardboard boxes and have picnics, and they practice their song and dance numbers, but they also hand out information on workers’ rights and services that are crucial to their well-being.
Incongruously set against the façades of the world’s best-known luxury brands, these women (and a few men), are reclaiming public space for themselves, with loud voices, aromatic food and an increasing level of self-advocacy.
Baby Ruth first heard about the Hong Kong pageant circuit from the Philippine Consulate, which was concerned that the OFWs seemed to be spending a lot of their money on gowns and makeup. From there, she met Leo Selomenio, the main pageant organizer. Leo — known widely as “Daddy Leo” within the community — is a migrant worker from Iloilo who has been living in Hong Kong for 30 years. In his earlier days, he would hang out at a Filipino karaoke bar in the famous “alley-alley” in Hong Kong’s Central district, where Filipinos go to buy inexpensive souvenirs, luggage and clothing, or sing in one of the raucous Filipino-run bars tucked inside narrow buildings. After seeing the need for an outlet for the Filipino LGBT community to perform, Leo started staging pageant shows, which became so popular they were opened up to all women. The pageants earned enough money from ticket sales and sponsorships to help OFWs who were fired from their jobs, or who had debts to their recruitment agencies. Bethune House, a refuge for migrant women, was their primary recipient.
The trope of the suffering, self-sacrificing OFW mother whose left-behind children grow up with abandonment issues has been played out in films before, but Sunday Beauty Queen takes an honest, unfiltered approach. Through years of filming intimately with the subjects, Baby Ruth shows just how multifaceted their lives really are. Yes, there are abusive employers, there are unjust working conditions and there is always the heartbreak of missing your kids’ milestones, but there is also camaraderie, empathy, joy. And there are tiaras — glorious, glittering tiaras.
We got together with four of the five characters in the documentary who still live and work in Hong Kong: Rudelyn Acosta, Cherrie Mae Bretaña, Hazel Perdido and Leo. They have gone through a lot since the movie won Best Picture at the Metro Manila Film Festival in 2016, and we are happy to report that all of them have found new employers with satisfactory working arrangements. After their SBQ victories, however, joining pageants has become less of a priority. “I’m happy with what I’ve achieved; that’s enough for me. I proved something to myself, and I don’t need to join more pageants,” says Cherrie Mae, who was crowned 2016 Hiyas ng Visayas. At the end of the film, she was torn between wanting to move to Japan or staying in Hong Kong and caring for a precocious boy who was obviously attached to her. She chose to stay.
As a migrant worker, Cherrie Mae started out in a better position than most — single and child-free. As the eldest of a brood of seven from North Cotabato, however, she does share the responsibility of helping send her siblings to school. She took her most recent leave last Christmas, and she sighs at all the pasalubong she had to bring back. “You have to learn how to put away some money for yourself,” she says, “because you never know how long you’ll be working.”
Her present employers are a British couple with no young children. Her responsibilities include cooking, cleaning, gardening, washing the car and taking care of two dogs, which might seem like a lot of work for one person when the house is all of 2,000sq.m, but Cherrie Mae says her employers are supportive and generous, and they have even offered to let her take driving lessons. Still, she has thoughts of moving on to Canada, as many of the Hong Kong OFWs do. Previously, she spent three years working in Amman, Jordan, before her seven years and counting in Hong Kong. People like Cherrie Mae are compelled to chase a dream all across the world, either out of sheer necessity or out of a desire to expand their horizons.
Sometimes, one reason leads to the other. Hazel Perdido came to Hong Kong when her youngest of three boys was only one-and-a-half years old — all of them left to the care of her mother. The Paoay, Ilocos Norte, native decided to enter the 2015 Ms Philippine Tourism pageant after seeing the other candidates and thinking, “I can do this too.” She loved to dance, and was a shoo-in for the talent portion. Hazel ended up with the first runner-up prize, along with the titles Ms Photogenic and Best in Festival Attire.
Her relationship with her kids, particularly her youngest, has been fraught — mediated through social media and video chats, with visits only every two years or so. One particularly gut-wrenching scene from the film showed how she had to watch her 13-year-old son graduate from school through a spotty mobile connection, all because she had to look after her employer’s dog.
When the film was shown in the Philippines and her youngest son watched it, their relationship began to shift. He finally saw her as a mother and as a human being, and not just some family relation who sends home money and chocolate. Her boys started to check up on her all the time and send sweet messages. Although now, she frets, “They’re starting to forget [about the sacrifices we make]. They’re not focusing on their studies, they’re just addicted to their phones!” (I assure her it’s a problem many moms, absent or near, have with their kids.)
Currently working for an easygoing American couple, Hazel makes the most of her free time, spending it pursuing her passions and enhancing her skills. She completed swimming lessons, joined a cheer dancing competition at the Independence Day festivities, does weekly Zumba and is about to graduate from a four-month course in caregiving, which puts her on the path to migrating to Canada. Aside from the higher salary a caregiver in Canada earns, she notes that she can apply for permanent residency after five years, and can start sponsoring her family.
Sunday Beauty Queen shows Rudelyn Acosta being abruptly terminated for coming home a few minutes late after pageant practice on a Sunday. There is a two-week rule concerning domestic workers: If you are fired before your contract ends, you can remain in Hong Kong for only two weeks before your visa expires and you need to leave. Since it is nearly impossible to find new employment during that time, OFWs are put in a very precarious situation. In the film, Rudelyn had only HK$2,000, half of which she sent home to her four children in Davao, the other half she lived on as she sought refuge in a shelter in Macau for two months before finding another job. She didn’t stop joining pageants, however, and proceeded to take home many titles, the last of which was Ms Global Alliance 2017.
Today, she is only required to work in the mornings and evenings (she comes in to cook for her employer). From 9am to 5pm, she volunteers at the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), where she helps process Overseas Employment Certificates, passport appointments and other services for her kababayan. In the 10 years she’s been in Hong Kong, this December will mark the first time she comes home for Christmas.
It looks like she’ll be spending more Christmases at home soon enough, however. Her work at the Consulate and with other OFW groups has led her to a government-related job offer and other opportunities in the Philippines. “I thought about it for a long time. But as a mom, I didn’t want a time to come when my kids get married and they say, you’re still not here,” Rudelyn says. “I think I can still make it up to my kids. There is still time.”
These women might never have been crowned, nor realized that they could be queens, had it not been for the organizational willpower of Leo. As the founder (and then-president) of Global Alliance Hong Kong — the largest OFW organization in the territory, which he founded in 2006 “to help our fellow OFWs, to uplift their dignity as domestic helpers” — he mounted many community events of which pageants were the highlight. “The real reason why we organized the pageants is for camaraderie — during practice, the girls can bond longer, and this is where camaraderie and friendship begin.”
Leo managed all of this while working as a domestic helper. His organizational skills served him well professionally. As of mid-2019, Leo held the role of operations and marketing manager at a recruitment agency called Train Tech. At the newly launched agency, Leo provides training to new migrant workers in the ways of Hong Kong employment before sending them off to their bosses. “Many workers end up getting terminated within one month. There’s no chance to adjust,” he says. Hong Kong-specific training, which includes Cantonese lessons, market shopping and learning how to get around on public transport, could greatly reduce the rates of early termination and the hardships that follow from it. In addition, they are taught financial literacy, how to handle problems with their employers and their rights as workers. “I want to help my fellow OFWs as much as I can,” Leo says.
For these domestic workers, joining beauty pageants became more than just an escape from the drudgery of their round-the-clock six-day work week. Through setting goals and achieving them, these women internalized their self-worth and gained the confidence to pursue bigger dreams. Mylyn Jacobo, or MJ, is the only one of the subjects who did not return to Hong Kong after the cast’s grand parade at the MMFF. We remember her from the film as having a kind, elderly filmmaker as an employer, who took grandfatherly pride in all the crowns and sashes she would bring home.
After the deaths of both her employer and her French boyfriend, MJ went home to General Santos to reassess life. Baby Ruth tells us that MJ became the spokesperson of the film to campaign against modern-day slavery and rally for the improvement of public services for the millions of migrant workers leaving and returning home. While touring the film in the United States, she found an opportunity to stay there, and now lives in San Diego, California, where she manages a Starbucks as a green card holder.
“Before, I thought so little of myself because I was a domestic helper,” MJ writes in an email. “So thankful and blessed that direk Baby Ruth and direk Chuck [Gutierrez, who produced and edited the film,] gave attention to our story.” She is taking online courses and hopes to finish college in the US. She also scored a cameo in Brillante Mendoza’s latest film, Mindanao. “I was only 17 when I first became a household helper,” she adds. “I want to be an inspiration to others like myself who have dreams. Nothing is impossible!”
After Sunday Beauty Queen, the world started to discover all the other ways Filipina migrant workers in Hong Kong have empowered themselves. There is the all-domestic-worker dragon boat team who took third place against more established crews; the ultramarathoners, who train in the early mornings before getting their algaga ready for school; the hiking groups who conquer 100km charity hikes. (Of course, the first news-breaking story of a domestic helper becoming an internationally recognized name belongs to Xyza Cruz Bacani, who shot the cover image for this issue).
A couple of other films about migrant workers followed — The Helper, a 2017 documentary by Joanna Bowers, chronicled a choir group called Unsung Heroes as they practiced for a major performance at Clockenflap, Hong Kong’s largest music festival. Still Human, by Oliver Chan Siu Kuen, is a 2018 feature film about the relationship between a wheelchair-bound man and his Filipina caregiver. The tides, in awareness at least, are starting to turn. Migrant workers are no longer seen as just a faceless mass, but as individuals with hopes and dreams, talent and imagination. Now it’s the turn of the Philippine government, and the governments of the countries we export labor to, to make sure migrant workers are protected and that their rights are upheld, that discriminatory laws are repealed and that exploitative practices are stopped. We look forward to the day when there isn’t an economic need to tear families apart: For most of them, too, the ultimate dream is to come home (“For good na siya,” the others would say about those finally reuniting with their loved ones back in the Philippines). But until everyone comes home — for good — let’s advocate for migrant workers and the organizations that support them.
So if you’re walking around Hong Kong and you see a woman carrying a baby that isn’t her own, or a woman helping an old lady dine at a restaurant, or a woman struggling to speak Cantonese at the grocery store, please bow to her. She is a queen after all.