The servants pecking order in Hong Kong was geographical: Shunde, local HK Chinese, China mainlanders and Filipinos.
Shunde is a district in the city of Foshan 佛山 in the Pearl River Delta, in Guangdong province (now a prospered area). I don’t know the history of it, but many women from there were single with excellent domestic skills. They were a dying breed hot commodity whose service were very much in demand among the affluent homes in HK. They were easy to identify because they always worn white top, black pants and pull their hair neatly into a bun above the neck. In the grocery alleys, they were like the peacocks, often with Roll or Benz waiting, that chauffeured them to the market, the result of living in the Middle Level or the Peak – the most expensive addresses in Hong Kong. They roughly commended 3x salary as the Filipino’s; the local HK Chinese got 2x and the mainland Chinese 1.5x, something like that. Many middle class young HK families would use Filipinos, since they were cheap. But I did see some older families with Filipinos to ease out some dirty hard work that their Chinese maids didn’t want to do. The monthly rate for a Filipino maid in HK is (HK$3,670 plus HK$400 government levy) about US$400, 6 days week, off on Sunday only. (To dignify the maids, Philippines government set $400 mim monthly salary. Singapore is still paying around $200. Geeee, no wonder many expats prefer Singapore, cleaner air and much cheaper maids ..)
Uncle Phillip, (Lily‘s youngest child) was sent to Hong Kong by Bank of America in 1979 after getting his MBA fm Harvard. He’s single and out about the town most evenings, but managed to snap up a Shunde maid thro his expats connections. She kept his midlevel apartment that over looking the Victoria Harbor spotless, and her culinary skill was really something to brag about. When Auntie Ling and I were invited over for dinner for the first time, upon arrival, she dotted on me. She was professional and courteous. Displayed a composure and demeanor that indicated she had seen the world. Addressed me not as Irene nor Ning but Miss Cheung.
“Miss Cheung 张小姐, you are so pretty…”
“Miss Cheung, you’re so fashionable…”
“Miss Cheung, would you like a cup of tea?”
She tired best to communicate with me in Mandarin. Dotted her Ts and Is to the fullest.
Because Uncle Philipp did not have a girlfriend, so she was taking charge of the night. After taking the 50 cent tour of the apartment, I wondered into the kitchen.
“Miss Cheung, where are you from?” She put the poached chicken 白切鸡 on the cutting board.
“I’m from Beijing.” I replied.
Her clever stopped in the mid air for a few second too long.
“Oh… Not Taiwan?” Her clever came down hard, cut the chicken into half, exposed the bloodied bones – the trademark of the tender poached Chicken.
“No, not Taiwan.” I reaffirmed her.
Her warmth was instantly gone, in place was an icy cold snobbery.
It had been the pattern ever since I arrived in Hong Kong. All the locals mistaken me with Taiwanese because I dressed well and spoke Mandarin. But once I corrected them which I always did, people who worked in the service sector, their attitude would swing considerably because China back then was a drab and undesirable. (Reportedly, the award winning Hong Kong based actress Carina Lau Kar-ling 刘嘉玲 who was from Suzhou China said that she was bothered by this.) It bothered me not, those who showed contempt or disdain were mostly not-haves. In all honesty, Taiwanese were pretty easy to spot because they were a notch below the Hong Kongers.
Later that night my cousin who’s also from Beijing came for dinner after work. The maid again was at her finest, Mr. Cheung this and 张少爷 that. Then the curiosity got better of her, she finally asked the quintessential question,
“Where are you from?”
My cus who habitually gobbled 狼吞虎咽 down his meals, put a piece of the silken chicken in to his mouth with a studied ease [leisure], then replied with full composure, 面不改色心不跳,
“I’m from Taiwan.” He went to Hong Kong in 1980 with his mom Auntie Jennie, and told me that many his main land friends were pretending to be from Taiwan.
I watched the royal treatment throughout the night from the cold corner, -:).
Might be I just had a little more fighting spirit than the rest. Why couldn’t I just shut up and go with the flow? That way, my life would be easier and simpler.
I don’t think that I had more martyr in me than next Jane or John. My fighting spirit came from years of being abused, bullied, repressed, to hide, to be someone else. When I was in China, my relatives called me a liar just because I did not do enough house chords; my mom’s friends warned me not to reveal myself to avoid unwarranted/unwanted consequences/attention (I understood their position, after gone through the Culture Revolution .. ) It seemed my whole life China was a lie, hinged on avoidances and in hiding. The daughter of a suicide was a stigma .. .. After reaching Hong Kong, I felt free, out of shadowed. The realization that finally I could be who I really am. This realization made me feeling empowered and proud. I did not like to hide because I have nothing to hide. I want to tell the truth, nothing but the truth. (Sometimes is could come out too brutal .. artless, inarticulate, ineloquent .. )
Compare to what I’ve endured in China, this cold corner was really a cake walk. To hell with anyone who doesn’t like me. To hell with anyone who doesn’t like who I am or where I was from. I wanted to shout truth with a loud speaker!! In this free society, I won’t allow anyone to make me feeling small again. Never.