The Filipina sisterhood

An anthropology of happiness

The Economist. Dec 20th 2001 | HONG KONG


Out of misery, some extraordinary lessons

ONCE a week, on Sundays, Hong Kong becomes a different city. Thousands of Filipina women throng into the central business district, around Statue Square, to picnic, dance, sing, gossip and laugh. They snuggle in the shade under the
HSBC building, a Hong Kong landmark, and spill out into the parks and streets. They hug. They chatter. They smile. Humanity could stage no greater display of happiness.


This stands in stark contrast to the other six days of the week. Then it is the Chinese, famously cranky and often rude, and expatriate businessmen, permanently stressed, who control the city centre. On these days, the Filipinas are mostly holed up in the 154,000 households across the territory where they work as “domestic helpers”, or amahs in Cantonese. There they suffer not only the loneliness of separation from their own families, but often virtual slavery under their Chinese or expatriate masters. Hence a mystery: those who should be Hong Kong's most miserable are, by all appearances, its happiest. How?

The Philippine government estimates that about 10% of the country's 75m people work overseas in order to support their families. Last year, this diaspora remitted $6 billion, making overseas Filipino workers, or OFWs, one of the biggest sources of foreign exchange. Hong Kong is the epicentre of this diaspora. Although America, Japan and Saudi Arabia are bigger destinations of OFWs by numbers, Hong Kong is the city where they are most concentrated and visible. Filipina amahs make up over 2% of its total and 40% of its non-Chinese population. They play an integral part in almost every middle-class household. And, once a week, they take over the heart of their host society.

It was not always thus. Two generations ago, the Philippines was the second-richest country in East Asia, after Japan, while Hong Kong was teeming with destitute refugees from mainland China. Among upper-class families in the Philippines, it was common in those days to employ maids from Hong Kong. But over the past two decades Hong Kong has grown rich as one of Asia's “tigers”, while the Philippines has stayed poor. Hong Kong is the closest rich economy to the Philippines, and the easiest place to get “domestic” visas. It has the most elaborate network of employment agencies for amahs in the world.

A bed in a cupboard

Although the Filipinas in Hong Kong come from poor families, over half have college degrees. Most speak fluent English and reasonable Cantonese, besides Tagalog and their local Philippine dialect. About half are in Hong Kong because they are mothers earning money to send their children to school back home. The other half tend to be eldest sisters working to feed younger siblings. All are their families' primary breadwinners.

Their treatment varies. By law, employers must give their amahs a “private space” to live in, but Hong Kong's flats tend to be tiny, and the Asian Migrant Centre, an NGO, estimates that nearly half of amahs do not have their own room. Some amahs sleep in closets, on the bathroom floor, and under the dining table. One petite amah sleeps in a kitchen cupboard. At night she takes out the plates, places them on the washer, and climbs in; in the morning, she replaces the plates. When amahs are mistreated, as many are, they almost never seek redress. Among those who did so last year, one had her hands burned with a hot iron by her Chinese employer, and one was beaten for not cleaning the oven properly.

The amahs' keenest pain, however, is separation from loved ones. Most amahs leave their children and husbands behind for years, or for good, in order to provide for them. Meanwhile, those families often break apart. It is hard, for instance, to find married amahs whose husbands at home have not taken a mistress, or even fathered other children. Some amahs show their dislocation by lying or stealing from their employers, but most seem incapable of bitterness. Instead, they pour out love on the children they look after. Often it is they who dote, who listen, who check homework. And they rarely stop to compare or envy.

Under such circumstances, the obstinate cheerfulness of the Filipinas can be baffling. But does it equate to “happiness”, as most people would understand it? “That's not a mistake. They really are,” argues Felipe de Leon, a professor of Filipinology at Manila's University of the Philippines. In every survey ever conducted, whether the comparison is with western or other Asian cultures, Filipinos consider themselves by far the happiest. In Asia, they are usually followed by their Malay cousins in Malaysia, while the Japanese and Hong Kong Chinese are the most miserable. Anecdotal evidence confirms these findings.

Happiness is kapwa

Explaining the phenomenon is more difficult. The usual hypothesis puts it down to the unique ethnic and historical cocktail that is Philippine culture—Malay roots (warm, sensual, mystical) mixed with the Catholicism and fiesta spirit of the former Spanish colonisers, to which is added a dash of western flavour from the islands' days as an American colony. Mr de Leon, after a decade of researching, has concluded that Filipino culture is the most inclusive and open of all those he has studied. It is the opposite of the individualistic culture of the West, with its emphasis on privacy and personal fulfilment. It is also the opposite of certain collectivistic cultures, as one finds them in Confucian societies, that value hierarchy and “face”.

By contrast, Filipino culture is based on the notion of kapwa, a Tagalog word that roughly translates into “shared being”. In essence, it means that most Filipinos, deep down, do not believe that their own existence is separable from that of the people around them. Everything, from pain to a snack or a joke, is there to be shared. Guests in Filipino homes, for instance, are usually expected to stay in the hosts' own nuptial bed, while the displaced couple sleeps on the floor. Small-talk tends to get so intimate so quickly that many westerners recoil. “The strongest social urge of the Filipino is to connect, to become one with people,” says Mr de Leon. As a result, he believes, there is much less loneliness among them.

It is a tall thesis, so The Economist set out to corroborate it in and around Statue Square on Sundays. At that time the square turns, in effect, into a map of the Philippine archipelago. The picnickers nearest to the statue itself, for instance, speak mostly Ilocano, a dialect from northern Luzon. In the shade under the Number 13 bus stop (the road is off-limits to vehicles on Sundays) one hears more Ilonggo, spoken on Panay island. Closer to City Hall, the most common dialect is Cebuano, from Cebu. Hong Kong's Filipinas, in other words, replicate their village communities, and these surrogate families form a first circle of shared being. Indeed, some of the new arrivals in Hong Kong already have aunts, nieces, former students, teachers, or neighbours who are there, and gossip from home spreads like wildfire.

What is most striking about Statue Square, however, is that the sharing is in no way confined to any dialect group. Filipinas who are total strangers move from one group to another—always welcomed, never rejected, never awkward. Indeed, even Indonesian maids (after Filipinas, the largest group of amahs), and Chinese or foreign passers-by who linger for even a moment are likely to be invited to share the snacks.

The same sense of light-hearted intimacy extends to religion. Father Lim, for instance, is a Filipino priest in Hong Kong. Judging by the way his mobile phone rings almost constantly with amahs who want to talk about their straying husbands at home, he is also every amah's best friend. He is just as informal during his Sunday service in Tagalog at St Joseph's Church on Garden Road. This event is, by turns, stand-up comedy, rock concert and group therapy. And it is packed. For most of the hour, Father Lim squeezes through his flock with a microphone. “Are you happy?” he asks the congregation. A hand snatches the mike from him. “Yes, because I love God.” Amid wild applause, the mike finds its way to another amah. “I'm so happy because I got my HK$3,670 this month [$470, the amahs' statutory wage]. But my employer was expecting a million and didn't get it. Now he's miserable.” The others hoot with laughter.

The Filipinas, says Father Lim, have only one day a week of freedom (less, actually, as most employers impose curfews around dusk), so they “maximise it by liberating the Filipino spirit”. That spirit includes communing with God. Some 97% of Filipinos believe in God, and 65%, according to a survey, feel “extremely close” to him. This is more than double the percentage of the two runners-up in the survey, America and Israel. This intimate approach to faith, thinks Father Lim, is one reason why there is virtually no drug abuse, suicide or depression among the amahs—problems that are growing among the Chinese.

The lifeline to home

There is, however, an even more concrete expression of kapwa. Quite simply, it is the reason why the Filipinas are where they are in the first place: to provide for loved ones at home. Most spend very little of their monthly HK$3,670 on themselves. Instead, they take it to WorldWide House, a shopping mall and office complex near Statue Square. On Sundays the mall becomes a Philippine market, packed with amahs buying T-shirts, toys and other articles for their siblings and children, and remitting their wages. More than their wages, in fact: many amahs borrow to send home more, often with ruinous financial consequences.

Father Lim tells a story. An eminent Filipino died while abroad, and it was decided that local compatriots should bid the coffin adieu before its journey home. So amahs showed up to file past it. When the coffin arrived in the Philippines and was re-opened, the corpse was covered from head to toe with padded bras, platform shoes, Nike trainers, and the like, all neatly tagged with the correct addresses.

It is their role as a lifeline for the folks at home that has earned the OFWs their Tagalog nickname, bayani. By itself, bayani means heroine, and this is how many amahs see themselves. Another form of the word, bayanihan, used to describe the traditional way of moving house in the Philippines. All the villagers would get together, pick up the hut and carry it to its new site. Bayanihan was a heroic, communal—in other words, shared—effort.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that Bayanihan House is the name the amahs have given to a building in Hong Kong that a trust has made available to them for birthday parties, hairstyling classes, beauty pageants and the like. One recent Sunday, during a pageant, one of the contestants for beauty queen was asked how she overcame homesickness, and why she thought the people back home considered her a hero. She looked down into her audience of amahs. “We're heroes because we sacrifice for the ones we love. And homesickness is just a part of it. But we deal with it because we're together.” The room erupted with applause and agreement.

“Nowadays, bayanihan really means togetherness,” says Mr de Leon, and “togetherness is happiness”. It might sound too obvious, almost banal, to point out—had not so many people across the world forgotten it.