HONG KONG - Working long hours away from home for low pay and little time off, life is tough for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, but for some the city has brought sexual liberation unheard of in their home countries.
To Jenny Patoc, a 41-year-old Filipina helper, Hong Kong is the place where she met her girlfriend 15 years ago and where they unofficially tied the knot at their own "holy union" ceremony last year -- despite the semi-autonomous territory's failure to recognize same sex marriages.
"In Hong Kong, we are free. We can show who we are," Patoc told AFP in the southern Chinese city's packed Central financial district on a recent Sunday, where thousands of helpers congregate every week on their one day off.
While conservative attitudes still prevail in aspects of Hong Kong society, for many migrant workers the former British colony is an easier place than home to be gay, particularly those from Muslim Indonesia and the deeply Catholic Philippines.
Roughly 300,000 domestic workers make about HK$4,000 ($515) a month as helpers for Hong Kong families, doing household chores and looking after children while the parents are out at work.
They are mainly from the Philippines, Indonesia or Thailand, many supporting their families by sending earnings home.
Conditions can be tough. In a report last year Amnesty International condemned the "slavery-like" conditions faced by thousands of Indonesian women who work in Hong Kong as domestic staff, accusing authorities of inaction.
The findings came just weeks after a Hong Kong couple were jailed for a shocking string of attacks on their Indonesian housekeeper, including burning her with an iron and beating her with a bike chain.
Last month thousands of domestic workers took to the streets demanding justice for another Indonesian helper who claimed that she was left unable to walk after eight months of abuse at the hands of her employer who has subsequently been arrested.
And this week another Hong Kong housewife was arrested for allegedly assaulting her Bangladeshi maid.
"I wanted to be free"
For Marrz Balaoro, a member of local lesbian support group Filguys Association, coming out was much easier in Hong Kong compared to her home in the Philippines in the 1980s.
"I came to Hong Kong because I wanted to be on my own. I wanted to be free," Balaoro said.
"My first employer was considerate and she understood my situation."
After witnessing a lesbian being bullied by fellow Filipinas in Hong Kong, she formed the Filguys Association to help homosexual migrant workers from her country facing discrimination.
Filguys has 400 members and holds regular seminars across the city.
Balaoro said that her struggle to be understood in her home country began in childhood and continued through difficult teenage years.
She recalled how a doctor back home prescribed hormone injections at her parents' request, in the hope that they would make her look more feminine -- at the age of 12.
"The doctor asked me how I felt when I saw a handsome man," said the youthful-looking 56-year-old, who was born to a Catholic family in Abra Province of North Luzon.
"Without much thinking, I said I envied him and wanted to look like him. The doctor thought I was a hopeless case."
She added although the situation has generally improved in her home country, violence towards homosexuals in the Philippines is common, especially in rural areas.
"They think you don't have a direction in life, and you are treated as an outcast. It's very difficult," she said.
Struggle for privacy
Another hurdle for helpers is finding the space and privacy to express themselves when taking time off from jobs in which they are required by law to live with the families they work for -- sometimes in cramped, barely livable conditions.
"When you want to develop your own sexuality, you need private space. But the biggest problem for Hong Kong's overseas migrant workers is that their private space is very limited," said Lingnan University social scientist Yau Ching.
Patoc is fortunate enough to be able to rent a small apartment which she uses on Sundays to spend time with her partner. She also sublets part of it to other people looking for privacy.
"Every holiday we stay together and we will do the same. We love each other," the baseball cap-sporting Patoc said.
Amy Sim, an anthropologist with Hong Kong University, cited reports estimating that 40 percent of migrant workers in Hong Kong had engaged in homosexual relationships, driven by a mixture of loneliness, curiosity and increased freedom to experiment.
"Isolation, loneliness all come together in migration. What they need is emotional comfort followed by physical comfort. You want to look for somebody who is similar and safe," she said.