I have just been visiting Hong Kong with my daughter, Dale...
I lived in Hong Kong in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was at its height and droves of American servicemen on R&R - Rest and Recreation - visited Hong Kong on furloughs of a few days. Snatched from the battlefield, hours later they were high on hormones, booze and pills in hedonistic Hong Kong. As one patron explained to me, it wasn't that there was not sex-for-sale in Saigon, but the choice was much broader in Hong Kong; White Russians, Americans and Brits joined girls-on-the-game from all over South East Asia. There was no curfew either and no war to wake up to.
That clientele has long disappeared. The demand will always be there, but now the sex industry is heavily regulated and operates so discreetly I thought it really had disappeared. But of course it hasn't.
Nevertheless, another wave of exploitation followed after Vietnam. And again, the exploited were young women.
Uncomfortable meeting places...
In a pedestrian underpass in Central, Hong Kong’s CBD, Dale and I came across hundreds of women, sitting on sheets of cardboard, lining both sides of the long tunnel. We thought that there must be some kind of protest underway, but the groups were obviously social, centred around thermos flasks of tea and snacks. Nearby young women were handing out evangelical pamphlets.
Further on, under a flyover, we found groups of young Muslim girls intent on studying religious scripts. I was very surprised at the number of hijabs and headscarves I had seen around. I just didn’t remember Hong Kong having a noticeable Muslim population.
A friend gave us the simple explanation...
The girls were imported domestic workers with no-where to go on their day off.
In the late 1960s, a good Chinese amah was highly sought after. Competition from factories that paid higher wages was depleting the pool of domestic workers while the demand was rising as more well-paid women entered the workforce. My friend said that in the 1970s, the situation became critical and Hong Kong started recruiting young girls from far away as household maids. The first wave was from the Philippines - many were evangelical Christians. The second wave was from Indonesia. The ripples continue on with new generations of girls arriving. All are on short-term contracts and are not subject to Hong Kong’s labour laws. Stories of exploitation and abuse are rife.
The girls come to Hong Kong, full of hope and optimism - with expectations that are seldom met. They need to work for a couple of years just to pay off the debts they incur getting the job. And often they are kicked out before they have a chance to reap any benefit at all. In any case, any savings are remitted to their families.
No home to go to...
I felt saddened. The Chinese amahs I knew were part of the fabric of the family. Tough old birds who to a certain extent ruled the roost and certainly joined in the gossip. They had homes to go to – family members strung out over the Colony and the mainland.
For these new girls, it is very different. They have no family, no homes to go to, nowhere to spend time off and they don't have enough disposable income to meet friends in comfort in a cafe.
So they gather in the gloomy concrete underworld of an inhospitable city.
They have a dream...
My friend told us it is said the girls dream of falling in love and being spirited out of their predicament. It virtually never happens yet folklore fuels the hope that a wealthy foreigner – unlike Hongkongers who give the girls a wide-berth - will fall for them.
“It can happen, a young amah from the house of my great-grandmother married the son of a French diplomat,” my friend said. Anecdotes like that keep the flame alive.
Connections to The World of Suzie Wong...
A book published in the 1950s - The World of Suzie Wong, told of an improbable fifties romance between a penniless English artist and a Wanchai bar girl. It became an iconic, though twisted, representation of Hong Kong's girlie bar culture.
In the 21 Century, religious house-maids imported into in a grown-up and rather prim Hong Kong share the same dreams.
I started writing this blog once I reached Chiang Mai, Thailand where I am staying for a couple of weeks. Without any idea of the collection on view, I visited the Wattana Art Gallery, built especially to house the collection of Wattana Wattanapun, a Thai artist with an international reputation. I went, on a hot day, simply because it was around the corner from where I was staying, it would be air-conditioned and it was en route to a cafe. I was entranced from the moment I entered the door; no more than that: I was blown away - cool marble floors, natural light and a building that the artist himself designed to house his work certainly showcased it perfectly.
Much of Wattana's art explores the beauty of women and the inherent vulnerability that goes with the appeal. I found it almost impossible to look at the images without also a fear that they were too exquisite to survive.
Wattana wraps the female form in traditional textiles. Somehow this heightens the tension. The textiles so perfectly compliment the beauty of these young girls yet we know that they are not enough to protect them from the ravages of modern greed and gratification. It is as if once stripped of these gorgeous textiles, they will be stripped of traditional values, skills and artisan-ship, youth and community and laid bare and wasted.
I felt deeply moved by Wattana's work. I felt a sense of loss and a sense of joy. He contrasts painstakingly painted textile patterns with free bold brush-strokes for gorgeous sensual bodies. Both under threat and yet both offering some kind of redemption. The fragile culture of dress and textile diversity is hanging on by threads and the exploitation of women engulfs us all. Both need our help. His work is a call to arms.
I have used Neon Light by Wattana Wattanapun at the start of my blog. It is acrylic on paper. The image was unlike his other work and it seemed to encapsulate the waves of exploitation that are the sad side of all the other positive aspects of the legacy of Hong Kong.